Thursday, December 13, 2012

The Garden of the City

Things grow up along a river.
We walk Boston's Neponset River Trail -- some green signs at unpredictable intervals tell you that you're on it -- starting from the parking lot off Granite Avenue just beyond a rusted iron bridge that looks like the shovel end of a bulldozer on steroids, lacking the truck part behind it. It's an apparatus, I suppose, for lifting the bridge to let a sailboat through. We have never seen it lifted (thank goodness). This part of the Neponset is not a busy river for navigation purposes.
From the parking area we generally head toward Lower Dorchester Mills, a stretch of hard-surface trail that gives wonderful views of some restored and repurposed red-brick mills. People live in them, work in them. In that direction, your route parallels the tracks of an old trolley line that goes straight through a cemetery, a convenience for those postmortem journeys to the polls on Election Day Boston is famous for.
But this day we go the other way (north, roughly) just to see where it will take us. We pass under a tunnel (a roadway above us) ornamented by a skillfully executed mural divided into two dozen mosaic-like paintings of the wild species that live in or along the river: American eel, great blue heron, monarch butterfly, some fish, small mammals, many plants. All depicted in bright colors, well drawn and painted in some kind of paint that holds up to the weather.
We're not going to see these creatures -- wise creatures stay out of sight (though we see some plants) -- but their portrait not only teaches a habitat lesson. It also brightens our passage.
Why should we not have attractive architecture and ornamentation along our pathways?
The Neponset River runs through a couple of cities (Boston, Quincy) and several towns. The "trail" we follow is part nature trail, part urban stroll -- ideal for exercise, dog-walking, bike riding, fresh air. If you work locally enough, you can walk it to work.
The river's presence creates a habitat: the wildweed banks, marsh elder in some places, a mass of skinny undernourished saplings in other places, bridges, crossings, birds overhead; openness, water, fresh air.
Why should we not have an appealing landscape? When we walk through a natural place, we are natural beings ourselves.
But shouldn't we do better with our vehicular travel routes?
We live in Quincy, an old New England city with a long shoreline. One of the major connector routes through the city, known as Route 3A -- taking you south to South Shore communities whose high property values attest to their desirability; or north to Boston -- looks like who-did-it-and-ran on its local shoreline stretch. It's the architectural equivalent of a discarded candy wrapper. People, or businesses, must be doing something sweet in these places -- making money from car dealerships and fuel "tank farms" -- that line the road along with various semi- or wholly abandoned lots and a mishmash of modest, aging enterprises. In old cities, shorelines developed centuries ago as part of a maritime-based industrial corridor are treated today like the part of the basement where you put the stuff you're tired of looking at and don't know what to do with.
But from an aesthetic or planning or design point of view, it's like putting your garbage in your front yard. Everybody is looking at it. Especially along the highly traveled "connector" routes often described as city's "gateways."
We need a Frederick Law Olmsted for the urban viewscape. Cities should design their roadsides like landscape gardens. We'd all feet better about waiting at traffic lights if we had something nice to look at it.