There is satisfaction in knowing that Christopher Cook, Boston’s newly appointed parks commissioner, is now responsible for fixing the ruts and gouges in the turf of the Boston Common. After all, he created much of the mess in the course of promoting hundreds of public events and performances on the historic, 48-acre park when he served as the city’s arts commissioner under the prior Menino administration.
Back in February, newly elected Mayor Martin Walsh tapped Cook as the interim commissioner of the Parks and Recreation Department, which includes more than 200 parks and playgrounds. It looked to be a caretaker position for Cook, who had no previous experience managing municipal park systems. The city’s open space advocates had called on the mayor to conduct a national search for a high-powered parks professional. This week, the search yielded none other than Cook, a 37-year-old West Roxbury resident, former actor, and father of two.
One might expect the appointment of a parks parvenu to cause an outcry. But Cook is receiving a favorable reception from the Friends of the Public Garden, Boston Natural Areas Network, Franklin Park Coalition, and other outspoken parks groups. Parks supporters say Cook is amiable and attentive. But he is also a quick study who has been popping up like morning glory at community garden openings and nature hikes across the city. And Cook already has set priorities aimed at improving a park system that has been sliding back since 2000 when it was lauded for its “unending creativity” by the National Trust for Public Land.
Cook intends to start at the edge of the Common, specifically in front of the Visitor Information Center along Tremont Street. The area borders on the pathetic. Tourists and guides in colonial garb maneuver across and around the cracked and degraded pavement. A bench obliterated by a snow plow on nearby Parkman Plaza communicates a lack of civic pride, as do the rutted pathway and bland plantings that lead toward the Boylston Street MBTA station.
“This is the welcome mat to the city,” said Cook. “We’ve come to accept certain conditions on the Common that we wouldn’t accept in the [well-tended] Public Garden.” So true.
Cook estimates that a long-term fix of the area around the Visitor Center could cost as much as $3 million. And that’s a tall order for a department that muddles along on less than 1 percent of the city’s $2.7 billion operating budget. Regardless, Cook said his first priority will be to smooth over the environs of the visitor center area, even if he must use cheaper, temporary materials. Next, he intends to ensure that signature events in the city, such as First Night and Shakespeare on the Common, don’t take such a physical toll on the Common’s turf and plantings. And as the city official who formerly oversaw those events, he should know the difference between a legitimate logistical challenge and careless staging.
Cook is well prepared to handle duties involving programming, fund-raising, and partnership building. He recently joined forces with the city’s public health commission to survey park users for the purpose of creating programs that complement the city’s health initiatives. But he faces a steep learning curve on other issues including park maintenance, design, horticulture, and urban wilds protection. For now, he may need to spend less time on programming and more time getting a handle on the Japanese knotweed and other invasive plants that threaten the health of actual parks.
Addressing the poor condition of paved paths in Franklin Park, the largest component of the linear park system designed by famed landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted, would also have important practical and symbolic significance.
“The paved path system is what makes people feel like their park is safe and well cared for,” said Christine Poff, who heads the nonprofit Franklin Park Coalition.
Cook’s creative side, however, could be a godsend for users of Franklin Park, which is plagued by the presence of nonmigratory Canada geese, each capable of producing up to a pound of droppings per day. He is plotting the use of remote-controlled robots — or goosinators — that roust the geese from parks by emitting loud, mechanized sounds. This summer, Cook cleverly unleashed a flock of goats to munch poison ivy in an overgrown open space section of Hyde Park.
Cook knows how to link park operations to larger urban policy objectives. His challenge will be to turn an old adage on its head and not miss the trees for the forest.