Monday, May 20, 2024

Danehy Park on Aug. 8. (Photo: Charles Teague)

The visit to Danehy Park came in mid-August, after reading a description from city councillor Quinton Zondervan: “The conditions were shockingly hot and dry. All the ground is brown, all the grass is dead … one of the stands of trees in particular is in serious trouble.” Ruth Loetterle and I went; we categorized 108 trees to be in a range from “poor” to “dead.” Of them, 87 were mature and classified as “significant trees” by city ordinance – which values the “dead” trees at about $120,000.

The park’s irrigation system had failed, and repairs did not start until Aug. 8. Backup irrigation for the 50-acre park was next to impossible with only three fire hydrants and without help from the fire department.

To be sure, our count of “dead” trees can rightfully be questioned. What cannot be questioned is that a drought started in May and later became categorized as “extreme,” and city management didn’t fix the irrigation until August. The actual damage won’t be known until “leaf out” in the spring, but when a mature tree has no leaves in August it’s absolutely in “poor” condition. Worse, now that the irrigation has been on for a month, some trees have put out new leaves for the fall instead of the spring. This can’t be good.

Why should you care?

The importance of trees for public health, especially in heat waves, was recognized when the city created its “tree task force” in 2018, updated the tree ordinance in 2021 and passed a council order in September declaring that trees are “essential infrastructure.”

Danehy Park is very important for healthy youth and family activities, with its many sports fields, water playground, public restrooms and cookout area. It’s between the affordable housing of the Rindge Towers and the hundreds of affordable units across from the park’s Sherman Street entrance. The park’s trees supply not only shade in the age of multiple heat waves and extended droughts, but emotional support to adults and children trying to relax in the park.

Why the slow response?

City management is not organized to respond to a drought emergency. Park management is distributed across multiple departments and divisions of departments, and those then must navigate various other departments, such as purchasing and legal. Human Services has oversight of Danehy Park, the Fresh Pond Golf Course and others; the Water Department has Fresh Pond Reservation; the Conservation Commission has community gardens; the Department of Public Works overlaps park responsibilities between its Parks Division and Urban Forestry Division. The Community Development Department does park designs. This is baroque and broken.

City management failed to train city staff, contractors and vendors on the public health importance or even the monetary value of trees – the time it took to repair the irrigation system suggests this. After many years and countless hours of climate change planning, task forces and committees, it’s clear that city management had no contingency plans for this inevitable drought and inevitable equipment failures.

Our new city manager should reorganize existing staff into an independent Parks & Trees Department with a mission statement implementing the existing tree master plan and, for parks, balancing priorities of green open space with healthy trees and recreation facilities to maximize Public Health.

Charles Teague has been advocating for preserving the tree canopy and Linear Park since 2016. Ruth Loetterle, categorized the trees using Teague’s measurements, was appointed by the City Manager’s Office to the Committee on Public Planting and has recently retired from a 35-year career with a local landscape architectural firm. She holds a Bachelor of Science in botany and a Master of Landscape Architecture, and serves on the board of Grow Native Massachusetts.