It’s proof, once again, that if we want great public parks in Boston, we’re going to have to help make them ourselves. And help pay for them. We can’t leave the job up to government because government can’t do it. Paradoxically, this is probably a good thing.
I’m thinking of the Charles River Esplanade. A private group, which calls itself the Esplanade Association, recently announced an ambitious vision for the future of this park.
The Esplanade is the narrow strip of green that clothes the Boston side of the Charles River, running roughly from the Museum of Science to Boston University. It includes the Hatch Shell and a string of idyllic lawns and waterways. Less happily, it also includes the speedy, chaotic traffic of Storrow Drive.
Americans don’t like to pay taxes and we tend not to trust government. As a result, park departments are chronically underfunded. The Esplanade is no exception. Heavily used, by 3 million visitors each year, it has become increasingly run-down. There’s no public money to fix it, much less add new amenities. That’s the problem the Esplanade Association wants to solve.
The association lays out a physical plan for improvements to the park in a 99-page document called “Esplanade 2020: A Vision for the Future.’’ A clear, persuasive text and a series of succulent watercolors sketch a lot of good ideas for what the park could, someday, become. The association’s hope, of course, is that the vision will help it raise money, gain public support, and eventually be allowed to join hands with government in the task of reinvention.
The vision document deals with just about every design issue, from simple maintenance of lawns and trees all the way up to a proposal (dubious, surely, in a Boston climate) for a 400-foot-high Ferris wheel at Science Park. My favorite suggestion is that Storrow Drive be downgraded to become a tree-lined parkway. Driving a car along the Charles would become a pleasure, not the risky road race it is today. The document can be accessed, and downloaded, at www.esplanadeassociation.org.
This being Boston, the politics are complicated. The Esplanade isn’t owned, as you might logically suppose, by the City of Boston. It’s owned by the Commonwealth of Massachusetts. States don’t like to spend money on what is really a city amenity. That’s only fair. Why should taxpayers in Springfield or Holyoke have to pony up for a park that serves mostly tourists, students, and Boston residents?
That’s where private money can make a huge difference. It makes sense to ask the people who benefit most from a park to take a larger share in supporting it. In New York, the Central Park Conservancy now raises 85 percent of the cost of that park’s maintenance and management. Like Central Park, the Esplanade enjoys the good luck of being situated near some pretty well-heeled neighborhoods.
The real issue, though, is larger than money. It’s the simple fact that government, by its nature, can seldom be a source of love, pride, or invention. Those are qualities that only devoted citizens can bring to the Esplanade. The current era of budget cuts in government, paradoxically, opens a door for this kind of public participation. The state needs help.
The Esplanade is managed by the Massachusetts Department of Conservation and Recreation, which participated in the creation of the new vision. If all goes well, the Esplanade Association and DCR will, eventually, form some kind of public-private partnership.
Public-private partnerships come in many shapes and sizes. I’ll just use the helpfully vague term “conservancy’’ for all of them. Boston, it’s worth remembering, has long been a leader in the park conservancy movement. Just to tick off a few well-known examples, there are the Emerald Necklace Conservancy, the Charles River Conservancy, the Rose Fitzgerald Kennedy Greenway Conservancy, and, going back further in time, the Friends of the Public Garden and the creators of Post Office Square (now Norman B. Leventhal Park) and Southwest Corridor Park.
When you think about it, just about every great recent park in the United States has been the result of some form of partnership between a government agency and a private organization. Take Millennium Park in Chicago, where a private group raised a quarter of a billion dollars and joined the city to build and maintain what is now a world-famous park. Or the High Line in Manhattan, where a citizens’ group, which began with exactly two lonely members, eventually grew to the point where it sponsored a stunning civic amenity - one that has fueled, not incidentally, a huge rise in the value of nearby real estate.
While researching this, I discovered the existence of a Washington-based group called the Center for City Park Excellence, part of the national nonprofit Trust for Public Land. The center has identified 67 urban park conservancies in the United States and says the number is growing rapidly. As I write, the center is sending a team to Minneapolis to explore the possibility of what it calls “a green not-for-profit entity’’ that could take over management of that city’s famous Nicollet Mall and other public spaces.
All conservancies, as noted, are different. There’s no standard model. Take the Rose Kennedy Greenway. Like the Esplanade, it’s owned by the state. Facing this challenge, the Greenway Conservancy is trying to get the city to establish what’s called a Business Improvement District. Owners of real estate abutting the Greenway would pay a few cents per square foot each year in return for the value the Greenway adds to their property.
You couldn’t do a BID for the Esplanade because it isn’t lined with commerce. But there are lots of other possibilities. Maybe the state could lease certain rights of management to the Esplanade Association. Or there could be a less formal arrangement. Working within the framework of the vision, for instance, the state and the association could simply target one or two improvements each year and collaborate on funding them, like adding pieces to a jigsaw puzzle that would someday be complete.
This may get me in trouble with Boston’s greenies, but I’d like to see a much more active Esplanade. Green is great, of course. But today’s urbanites want to do more than loll and stroll. There’s nothing wrong with a glass of wine or a quiche in a lovely natural setting. I’d like to see an Esplanade where things are always changing, a place of constant public experiment, perhaps with art, theater, music, bocce, chess, victory gardens, whatever. There should be surprises here.
Is there enough money in town to fund an Esplanade Conservancy? Are you kidding? More than $1 billion has recently been raised, or is anticipated soon to be raised, by just four Boston-area art museums: the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, the Institute of Contemporary Art, the Peabody Essex Museum in Salem, and the Museum of Fine Arts. Most of that money is for new construction.
If we can spend a billion dollars on the architecture of art museums, why shouldn’t we spend that much - well, OK, some tiny fraction of that much - on great parks and public spaces?
Or don’t they matter as much?