Taking us to the river


, Newton TAB

Newton —

Wedged between the Bunker Hill Bridge and the elevated tracks of the Green Line is a little piece of East Cambridge waterfront filled with parking lots, warehouses and cement plants, where highway and bridge ramps weave overhead and the sun seldom makes it to the ground. Like many parts of the city, it is an area planned and maintained with the convenience of one user in mind: the driver.

But while it may look like a place few people would ever want to walk now, Renata von Tscharner of Newton Corner, president of the Charles River Conservancy, sees the New Basin Parklands project under construction there as an opportunity to rethink and reconnect Boston with its most famous waterway. She is heading the effort to build the country’s largest skateboard park underneath those ramps in the hope it will bring people back to this neglected area of the river and connect it with the system of parks that stretch from the harbor to the Watertown Dam.

“We wanted to pick a model project that could create excitement,” von Tscharner said. “We picked the skatepark to say that this park is not just for older people to walk along, this is also for young people to do their sports and to have their spot. And also, we want the X-Games to come to Boston.”

While the skatepark is the conservancy’s highest profile project, it is only one part of the organization’s larger vision: to increase the level of recreation in and around the river, and in turn, raise the level of support for the parklands. It is a goal with origins in the European roots of its founder, von Tscharner, who worked on the redevelopment of Covent Garden in London and came to this country from her native Switzerland, where she was trained as an architect.

“There is a different attitude toward civic space,” she said. “It’s not only a different attitude, but there is a much bigger investment in civic spaces in Europe. And also there is more pride in civic spaces, there is more celebration in civic spaces. In that sense I am bringing my European love for civic spaces to the Charles River.”

While the chance of public investment in parks in the United States reaching the level of investment in Switzerland is unlikely, the conservancy hopes that spending on parklands in Massachusetts can reach the level of the rest of the United States. Since the early ’90s, state funding for the environment has decreased to the point where, according to a report published by the Environmental League of Massachusetts, the state now ranks 48th in the nation in environmental per capita spending.

According to von Tscharner, many of the bridges spanning the Charles have suffered from years of neglect, the bike and walking paths are in serious need of repair, the vegetation surrounding the river has not been adequately tended and the water in some sections still contains pollutants. And while soliciting donations for park projects is a major part of the conservancy’s work, the foundation does not want to take over responsibility, or give the impression it is taking over the responsibility, for funding and maintaining the parklands from the owners of the land, the state.

Von Tscharner did point to two positive developments – the state’s commitment of up to $100 million for rehabilitation of the Longfellow Bridge and last May’s Environmental Protection Agency test results indicating that the water east of the Massachusetts Avenue Bridge is clean enough for swimming – as proof that progress is possible. In fact, the notion that swimming in the river could soon become popular again appears to be von Tscharner’s greatest source of inspiration. That she frequently windsurfs on the river during the warmer months may have something to do with it.

“One of the main things we want to do, in order to make the river more active, is we want to bring swimming back,” she said. “It will take a few years, because there are no facilities, but the water is already clean enough. We need to create places where people can swim.”

Of course, not all of the conservancy’s efforts focus east of Massachusetts Avenue. Von Tscharner said the parklands along Newton’s section of the river have major needs as well, and pointed to the bike and walking paths near the Newton Yacht Club as being in particular need of repair.

The Newton Board of Aldermen have passed resolutions to narrow Nonantum Road, which runs alongside the river, in order to slow the speed of traffic and make the parklands more hospitable for pedestrians and cyclists. Von Tscharner thinks that the idea makes sense, because the current volume of traffic on the road does not require such a large, high-speed thoroughfare.

One of the primary objectives of the conservancy is to involve members of the community in volunteer work in the parklands. This not only helps with the upkeep of the parks, but also forges a connection between the volunteers and the river. According to von Tscharner, a large amount of the conservancy’s support in this area comes from Newton, and while the foundation’s headquarters have moved from her house to a building near the skatepark site, the focus is still on bringing people together along the whole length of the river.

“I love living in Newton,” she said. “It is the tree city. People choose to live in Newton because of the trees. And the same things that they sought in Newton, we want them to look for in the whole river.”

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