The Greening of the Gray

Editorial: Worcester Magazine

Worcester Magazine, Spring 1997 by Allen Fletcher

Ten years ago, in the heat of the development boom and the concomitant alarm over the rapid loss of open space in the city, the Conservation Commission issued a report entitled “What’s Left” – a comprehensive inventory of the city’s major remaining open space parcels. The city’s open space, it was found, had dropped from 50 percent of its 25,000 acres in 1966 to 10 percent in 1986; and during that period, the amount of protected land in the city had actually declined.

Ten years later, as we come up for air, it is somewhat astonishing to realize that much has been accomplished in the realm of open space protection. Of the report’s list of 10 priority parcels – totaling some 975 acres – a third has come under active protection and 54 percent remains in limbo, while 13 percent has been lost. Of the list of 25 priority tracts greater than 25 acres – totaling almost 2,000 acres – 27 percent has come under active protection, while 13 percent has been lost. Tracts with familiar names like Perkins Farm, Middle River Park, Broad Meadow Brook, God’s Acre, Cider Mill Pond, and the Cascades have all been salvaged from the development mill through a combination of private and public efforts.

These are fine accomplishments indeed, by the reckoning of anyone who values quality of life in the Heart of the Commonwealth. An enormous amount of work remains to be done, but it is worth celebrating the fact that an issue was framed, a course of action was charted and progress was made. If the efforts of the development community had borne as much fruit over the same course of time, our downtown would be the envy of cities throughout the northeast.

If there has been one important evolution of consciousness in this arena since the stridency of the sixties, it is the increasing acknowledgment of the interdependency between economic development and environmental quality. Just as companies once refused to locate to a city such as Fitchburg, that had made such an unholy mess of its local river, so can a record of sound environmental accomplishment become an inducement to economic investment today. The simplistic antagonism between the forces of conservation and development belies a potential dynamism between the two. A good city needs them both, and the genuine success of each enhances the other.

Several local environmentalists recently made the discovery that the city’s vaunted marketing plan made absolutely no mention of our environmental amenities. The city of Raleigh, North Carolina, as a counter example, bills itself as the “City on the Park” in its efforts to attract new residents and investment. We would do well to do the same.

Local marketing officials are appropriately embarrassed by their oversight; but it serves to illustrate a regressive attitude that still lurks in the heart of the business community – the attitude that environmentalists are marginal obstructionists at best, to be granted lip service but ultimately to be ignored. Such an attitude has an insidious tendency to be self-fulfilling, to everyone’s frustration and nobody’s benefit. The potential payoff from active collaboration between the two camps is far, far greater.

Worcester’s image in the outside world is a gray and grim and gritty one. It needs a greening – and all the new buildings and parking lots in the world will do nothing to help.

We have at our doorsteps a wonderful, unheralded and resurgent environmental legacy – of urban parks, larger open space parcels, abundant trees and swimmable waters. It is high time that the economic development community perceived this as an asset and treated it as such. This means understanding how to boast about it, but it also means understanding the ongoing effort required to maintain it; and it means lending active support and commitment to the considerable task ahead.