Urban Wilds Initiative
Vast salt marshes once covered most of East Boston and the Dorchester shoreline, meadows dotted the hilltops of Roxbury, and pristine streams coursed through the forests of Hyde Park and West Roxbury. Although almost all significant portions of these habitats have been lost due to extensive human-induced manipulation of land and water, remnants of these original ecosystems — urban wilds — still dot the landscape and provide brief glimpses of the natural world.
These urban wilds harbor native plants and animals and perform a wealth of ecological services, such as storing floodwater, producing oxygen, and filtering stormwater run-off. They offer refuge from hectic City streets and serve as outdoor classrooms for children and adults learning about nature. They also expand the range of landscape experiences beyond that of the dense built environment and manicured Boston parkland.
The goals of the Urban Wilds Initiative are to:
- protect City-owned urban wilds and other natural areas from development, encroachment, and uses that degrade their natural character
- manage and maintain city-owned urban wilds and other natural areas to promote their ecological integrity
- promote the use of city-owned urban wilds and other natural areas for passive recreation, environmental education, and other uses in keeping with their natural character
- develop administrative, fiscal, and programmatic resources to ensure on-going, long-term maintenance and management of city-owned urban wilds and other natural areas, and
- advocate for the long-term protection and stewardship of other (non-City) publicly- and privately-owned urban wilds and other natural areas.
The Boston Urban Wilds Initiative (UWI) has its roots in the environmental movement of the 1970's. In 1976, the Boston Redevelopment Authority published a landmark document that inventoried and offered recommendations for Boston's remaining natural areas. Boston's Urban Wilds: A Natural Area Conservation Program identified 143 areas throughout the city, whether privately- or publicly-owned.
In response to this report, the Boston Natural Areas Fund was incorporated in 1977 as a non-profit organization to work with the city and state agencies to secure the inventoried urban wilds. With BNAF assistance, the city acquired more than 48 acres of land. BNAF, in cooperation with the Massachusetts Audubon Society, developed environmental educational programs at several urban wilds to foster understanding and proper use of these sites. Despite heightened concern, bulldozers continued to encroach upon the numerous pristine, unprotected wilds.
In 1990, BNAF issued a second call to arms with an updated urban wilds report documenting the loss of several important sites and stressing the need for increased protection of privately-owned natural areas. To confront the problems outlined in the report, the Boston Youth Clean-up Corps (BYCC) was enlisted to provide regular clean-up and vegetation control in the summer months while the Parks Department's Maintenance Division supplied some spring and fall support. More recently, neighborhood, corporate, and non-profit groups have been recruited for clean-ups and special projects.
Despite supervision by the Parks and Recreation Department since 1989, many protected natural areas remain neglected due to limited resources and/or a lack of grass-roots support. Furthermore, with the exception of properties under Boston Conservation Commission and Parks Department jurisdiction, urban wilds under city and private ownership are continuously threatened by potential development.
Besides the Parks Department and Conservation Commission, the MA Department of Conservation and Recreation (DCR) has also aggressively sought to protect significant parcels of land. Large sites identified in the 1976 BRA report, such as Sawmill Brook (Brook Farm) in West Roxbury and the Belle Isle Marsh Reservation in East Boston, are now owned by the DCR, as are a series of open spaces along the Dorchester shoreline and Neponset River. These acquisitions provide permanent protection to the city's largest and most important remaining habitats.