Thursday, July 18, 2024

The Thomas P. O’Neill Municipal Golf Course in Fresh Pond is empty Sunday – unusable as open space during the coronavirus lockdown. (Photo: Jan Devereux)

Twenty years ago, the Green Ribbon Open Space Committee began its 2000 report stating, “While demand for open space continues to increase, it has never been harder to come by – a frustrating situation for residents and city leaders alike.”

Today, with the Covid-19 pandemic having confined most of us to our homes for the past seven weeks and counting, and a directive to maintain physical distance during our limited outings, the frustration felt by Cambridge residents over access to public open space may never have been greater. And that’s not even considering that since the 2000 Green Ribbon report, the city’s population has grown by about 14 percent, to almost 120,000 from 105,000, without a commensurate increase in public open space. Relative to other metropolitan areas, Cambridge is under-resourced in public open space, and the majority of residents do not have access to private outdoor space.

Riverbend Park, the state Department of Conservation and Recreation park created by closing a section of Memorial Drive to vehicles on Sundays, has seen its seasonal opening delayed indefinitely. Major private open spaces such as Mount Auburn Cemetery have been closed to the public, further diminishing our options for places to walk and take in the fresh air and vitamin D that are essential for physical and mental health. With the weather warming up and no end in sight to the stay-at-home directive, the frustration over sharing our limited available open space will continue to mount.

Cambridge has so far declined to follow the lead of other U.S. and international cities in rebalancing our public way by closing travel lanes or whole streets to traffic to supplement the paucity of sidewalk space. The competition for space to walk, jog and bike at a safe distance from others has triggered unfortunate conflicts, such as when a man allegedly brandished a knife at a runner approaching him at a distance on a narrow Putnam Avenue sidewalk last week.

I live very close to Fresh Pond Reservation but have avoided its 2.5 mile perimeter path for the past month because it has grown quite crowded, and it’s become stressful trying to avoid other people strolling, running, biking and dog-walking.

And yet hiding in plain sight is one of the city’s largest green spaces: the Thomas P. O’Neill Municipal Golf Course, which is closed to golf through at least May 18 by order of Gov. Charlie Baker. New signs admonish us to stay off the course, which constitutes a sizable portion of the 162 acres within Fresh Pond Reservation. I cannot find the exact acreage of the nine-hole golf course, but to my eye it looks about the same size as Danehy Park, which is 57.2 acres. When residents are clamoring for places to spread out while getting a daily dose of fresh air, we should not be prohibiting access to one of our largest open spaces.

Non-golf use was envisioned by the Fresh Pond Master Plan Advisory Board in its 2000 plan: “A commonsense set of regulations governing use of the golf course by persons other than golfers needs to be drawn up, recorded formally and posted suitably. These regulations should list low-intensity recreational activities that are officially authorized during periods when the course is closed for golf.” Right now is such a period.

In fact, during the winter under heavy snow cover, the golf course may be used for cross-country skiing. During this crisis period the course would be ideal for walking and jogging, and opening it would help relieve pressure on the perimeter path around Fresh Pond as well as on other public parks. The greens are already cordoned off with yellow caution tape, and people could easily stick to less manicured areas such as the “rough” along the edges and the paths traveled by golf carts. Picnics and biking should not be allowed, and groups should not congregate in one place. Dogs could be prohibited to reduce concern about waste, or they could be required to be leashed, as they have been during off-hours and off-season before the pandemic.

I respectfully ask our city leaders to open the public golf course immediately for walking and jogging with commonsense regulations to respect the public health rules and to protect its most sensitive areas. We cannot afford to squander such a significant public resource any longer.

Jan Devereux is a former city councillor, vice mayor and leader of the Fresh Pond Residents Alliance.