The Charles River is beautiful, but it’s boring. Extremely boring. I now know this after visiting Prague’s Vltava River.
In the dead of winter you might see a handful of brave runners streaking down the Charles’s running paths. Maybe some winter geese, too. In Prague, you’ll see far more life.
Along the Vltava’s banks are vibrant Christmas markets where customers line up to purchase hot mulled wine and delicious sugar covered pastries called trdelnik that bake over an open fire and steam when you bite into it. There are restaurants that are open late into the evening and where blankets and open fires keep diners warm.
There are vendors perched above the cascading bridges, selling souvenirs and mementos. In short, the river is an active ribbon where the city comes alive.
Somewhere an environmentalist, wary of inviting for-profit businesses into Boston’s riverfront park, is groaning about the commercialization of nature. But it isn’t an issue. In Prague, swans, dozens of them, flock to the edges during the days and at night dance in the city’s reflections.
Runners and walkers still enjoy the raw beauty of the place, and families with their strollers wander and explore.
Boston has a history of activating its environmental spaces, but sometimes it takes a firm nudge from private citizens and the nonprofit sector. The Boston Harbor Association, which has since become part of Boston Harbor Now, helped bring foot traffic to a waterfront that was once a wasteland of parking lots. Sure, the planning and architecture in the Seaport District may be atrocious, but the area’s place as an exciting destination is now assured because people want to go there.
From this, we could learn a bit about how to treat the Charles. This is not a Boston problem. Boston has demonstrated a real interest in enlivening public spaces like Boston Common and City Hall Plaza. This is a statewide problem. Along the Charles, from Boston to Hopkinton, the river is dead. If businesses happen to line the banks, they do so with their backs to the water.
One night by the river in Prague, I enjoyed one of the better dinners I’ve had in a long time — truffles no less.
The best you can do for food along the Charles would be a hot dog.
It wouldn’t take much for the Charles to be reimagined. There’s some work underway already. The Esplanade Association’s vision document, Esplanade 2020, articulates the need to bring life to the river and revitalize discarded facilities like the Lee Pool, between Mass. General and the river, or the underutilized concession building nearby should be brought back to life. Further west, the banks should be developed with businesses that face riverward. We need open-air cafes and restaurants that celebrate — not wall off — the vistas.
As local enthusiasts acknowledged when releasing a remarkable study of the Charles’s varying depths, ours is already one of the busiest rivers in the country for boaters. It’s time it became one of the most engaging for people along its banks.
Mike Ross is an attorney and former Boston city councilor. He writes regularly for the Globe. Follow him on Twitter @mikeforboston.