At-large candidates go green at parks forum

October 24, 2009
By

John Ruch

Web Exclusive

Boston’s park-users, gardeners and bicyclists would have a friend in any of the eight candidates running for at-large Boston City Council seats, all of whom expressed strong support for green issues at the Oct. 22 Boston Park Advocates forum at Franklin Park, which drew more than 200 attendees.

But a wide variety of ideas and personal experiences were expressed by the candidates: Jamaica Plain resident Felix G. Arroyo, Doug Bennett, incumbent John Connolly, Tomás Gonzalez, Tito Jackson, Andrew Kenneally, incumbent Steve Murphy and Ayanna Pressely. Like most subject-specific forums, it prevented the candidates from making standard stump speeches and drew out more personal perspectives.

Where else would Arroyo be hit with the question, “What does the Asian longhorned beetle mean to you?”

Acknowledging he had no idea what the beetle is, and promising to “Google it tonight,” Arroyo drew loud laughter by saying, “I don’t even know if it’s a good or bad thing. My sense is it’s bad, because it has a long horn.”

(The beetle, a tree-destroying invasive species, actually is named for its two long “horns,” or antennae. The “horns” are harmless—it is the beetle’s burrowing larval form that does the damage.)

The general trend of candidates’ thoughts was toward active uses of the parks, rather than quiet contemplation or nature appreciation. Many of them equated quiet with crime. One exception was Kenneally, a hiker and camper who once worked for the Parks and Recreation Department at Jamaica Pond.

“We need our green spaces for our sanity,” Kenneally said, ranking the parks just behind public safety in terms of government priorities.

The candidates agreed that public safety is crucial in parks, and often boosted by such active uses as organized sports. Murphy said he would push for more than doubling the 12-member Boston Park Rangers force. Arroyo noted grimly that the “warm-up routine” for the youth baseball team he coaches is to “comb the field to pick up glass” and worse litter, including needles.

Gonzalez said that Boston needs a citywide parks master plan. Kenneally called for master planning as well, particularly on bicycle-friendly improvements.

Bicycling was frequently discussed and promoted by the candidates, drawing loud applause from the large number of bicycle activists in the room, while pedestrians were rarely mentioned. The difference in advocacy could be seen in the forum’s setting of Franklin Park. Bicycle lanes were recently added on Circuit Drive through the park. But the park still has incomplete sidewalks and other hazards that make walking challenging and dangerous, especially on the Forest Hills end of the park, where a hit-and-run driver killed a man in 2007.

When asked a friendly trick question by Franklin Parks Coalition Director Christine Poff, many audience members confessed, through a show of hands, to riding bicycles within city parks, which is illegal. In a candidate questionnaire from the LiveableStreets Alliance handed out at the forum, the four candidates who responded—Arroyo, Connolly, Gonzalez and Jackson—all said that bicycle-riding in the parks should be legalized. (All four candidates also said their main mode of transportation is by personal motor vehicle.)

In the forum, Connolly took a shot at the special privileges cars have on Boston streets. “I don’t care how many votes it’s going to cost me…We need to start lessening parking spaces” and converting them to bicycle use, he said.

Boston should be a “world-class bike city” with extensive bicycle lanes and better driver’s education for bicyclists and motorists, Connolly said.

Asked about the lack of bike racks in Boston parks, Bennett answered, “If there’s a lack of bike racks, we need to increase the number of bike racks.” The comment drew laughter, and Murphy later called it “obvious.” But Bennett was speaking from personal experience—he said he once had a bike stolen because there was no rack to lock it to.

In opening remarks, the candidates described their childhood experiences with parks. Bennett, who grew up in Pennsylvania as a young “hellion,” according to his campaign web site, recalled playing in parks and woods. “We’d play war” as well as organized sports, he said, adding, “It kept me from getting in trouble and helped set me straight.”

“When I was growing up, parks were not places we would go play,” said Gonzalez, who grew up in JP’s Egleston Square just a few blocks away from Franklin Park in the 1970s. Recalling the “murders and rapes” in many parks in that era, he said he and his friends found another outlet.

“We played in a parking lot across from Ruggiero’s,” he said, referring to the market on Washington Street that was once shadowed by the old elevated Orange Line. “We tried to kick a ball over the elevated train.”

Pressley, who grew up in Chicago, echoed the sentiment, saying she could not play in her neighborhood’s playground because of “drug lords.” But she found other parks to use, even getting her first kiss in one, she said.

“Healthy parks mean healthy people mean healthy communities mean healthy cities,” Pressley said.

The forum had a light, personal and friendly tone. At one point, Gonzalez helped out Jackson, who was momentarily stumped when asked to name a specific way he has supported a park or parks event. “By showing up,” Gonzalez quietly suggested, an answer Jackson went with.

Oscar Brookins, a candidate for the Hyde Square-area District 8 City Council seat, did not participate in the forum. But campaign literature he handed out there revealed that he is an athletic user of green space as well. A track-and-field athlete who qualified for this year’s Senior Games, he participates in 100-meter running, the shot put, javelin and discus-throwing.

The following are some of the parks policy proposals from the at-large candidates.

Arroyo

For parks funding, Arroyo called for the Parks Department to get a grant-writer, and for large institutions to pay for their organized use of city parks. He wants more set-aside programming in parks for young children. He would post maintenance and permitted-use schedules online and in the parks. Citing Boston as a rare example of a tree-filled city, he said a priority should be “making sure we don’t cut down trees needlessly.”

Bennett

Bennett agreed with Jackson’s call for creating more community gardens, saying, “When you’re planting vegetables, you’re creating oxygen.” He called for the ability to apply for parks use permits online. He would improve parks maintenance, saying he believes in the “broken-window theory” that poor conditions promote crime. Noting that suburban kids have far more access to youth sports than urban kids do, he called for improved public safety and increased parental involvement, though he did not have specific policies that would encourage them.

Connolly

Connolly presented himself as a crusader for recycling. He recently filed a proposal to expand the types of bottles covered by the recycling-deposit law, saying it will reduce litter in the parks. “We need recycling everywhere we have a trash can,” Connolly said. “We need to mandate recycling in all our businesses.”

Gonzalez

Gonzalez called for streamlining the process of getting parks use permits, and making sure that they are issued on equal terms. Right now, he said, big corporations and organizations often snatch up permits, leaving the parks dominated “by outside folks.” He called for more organized programs in the parks for seniors. He would work on more government funding for soil testing on “brownfields”—suspected polluted lots—to make their redevelopment easier. His parks fund-raising ideas included an Emerald Necklace walk-athon and special license plates that would advertise and fund the parks.

Jackson

Jackson called for converting vacant lots into community gardens. And “as the only candidate who does Zumba”—a dance-based aerobics program—he called for more organized fitness programs in the parks.

Kenneally

Kenneally suggested that Boston’s bike lanes should not only connect in a useable network, but also should be “colorized,” or painted, to make them more visible. He said that city revenue is the “chief concern” with parks improvements, so he would streamline the real estate development process and work out a better payment in lieu of taxes (PILOT) deal with large non-profit organizations to boost the city’s coffers.

Murphy

Murphy, who is on a PILOT improvement task force convened by Mayor Thomas Menino, agreed that PILOT is a good source of parks revenue. He said he would work to create a “dedicated funding stream” for the parks, and would add some capital improvements for the parks to the city budget, which he believes can be covered by existing budget margins. He is working on more youth programming for the parks. “The problem is, recreation has kind of been taken away from the parks [department] and given to BCYF [the Boston Centers for Youth & Families],” he said.

Pressley

As in previous forums, Pressley largely avoided making any specific policy proposals or position statements. She suggested taking a “survey” of park users and advocates for a “nuanced” approach to individual parks, and pledged to support the various organizations in the coalition that sponsored the forum. She did suggest two funding ideas: concession-stand sales in some parks, and setting event-permit fees that match the wear-and-tear level of the event.

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