On Thursday, February 6, Newton convened a rather remarkable gathering of community activists to discuss the upcoming creation of a new seven-year open space and recreation plan. The advocates or “Friends” of various parks and playgrounds, from Nahanton Park to Cold Spring, were there. The Newton Conservators, the spiritual leader of these local groups, was represented as well, as was the Newton Tree Conservancy. Members of Bike Newton, Preserve Newton Parks, Friends of Newton Tennis, and a newly formed committee to advocate for the playing fields of Newton all participated in the two-hour meeting.
The ostensible goal of the organizers in city government was to solicit our input to aid the commission designated to draw up the plan, due in draft form by April 30. The meeting followed a familiar format: we broke into smaller groups and drew up lists of priorities for the city to tackle. It quickly became apparent that all of the lists were nearly identical:
- The playing fields and courts and swimming areas need better maintenance; they are worn out from age, heavy use, or neglect.
- The parks and green spaces need attention as well, from protection from invasive species to maintenance of trails.
- Newton needs to provide safer lanes to encourage cycling across the Garden City.
- The parks and green spaces need to be more accessible by foot or bike and more interconnected.
The participants acknowledged the city’s recent efforts on behalf of open space and recreation, particularly the acquisition of Webster Woods and the Upper Falls Greenway; the trail improvements and habitat restoration at Kennard and Noriega Parks, and the power washing of Newton North’s tennis courts. At the same time, we all observed how much more work needs to be done. Some observed that the parks and fields in neighboring communities seem to be in much better shape.
Remarkably, those in attendance were of like mind: all of these priorities, from restoring Gath Pool to repairing the trails of Cold Spring Park, deserved Newton’s attention. As several speakers noted, however, these dreams come with high costs. The Department of Parks and Recreation is grossly underfunded and understaffed, especially given all that we hope to accomplish.
How can we fund these projects and then maintain them properly going forward? Sometimes the city funds these efforts with bonds; sometimes it forms partnerships with the Friends groups to share expenses; sometimes it solicits grants from the Commonwealth or charitable foundations; frequently the city pays through tax revenues. With all of the fixed expenses in the city budget, discretionary funds to improve our open spaces and recreational facilities are inevitably constrained.
There’s the rub. Whatever plan for open spaces and recreation emerges must include proposals for funding the efforts envisioned, especially ongoing maintenance. That might involve more partnerships between the public and private sector; selling naming rights, something the city has always resisted; and other creative means for generating the funds. It would be vain to expect that our taxes alone will suffice to sustain the parks and fields and open space at levels we all desire.