Sunday, May 19, 2024

As cities grow, providing enough open space can become challenging. Parks and open spaces are crucial social determinants of health, giving us safe places to exercise, socialize and enjoy nature in urban areas. Fewer of these vital areas are in Black and Brown neighborhoods, though, leading to significant health inequities, quality-of-life gaps and increased air pollution.

Many cities have created “open streets” programs to fix this problem. These programs provide streets for people by closing them to cars, such as “Riverbend Park” along Memorial Drive. The existing parkway becomes almost 7 acres of contiguous open space next to a state environmental justice corridor during the weekend. The program has existed for more than 50 years but expanded to a beloved full weekend closing more recently. Given that Cambridge residents have only half the green space per capita as in Boston, residents from marginalized communities especially need these programs.

As density in neighborhoods such as Riverside grows, it becomes harder to create open spaces. Therefore, we must focus on better using and improving our existing ones. And to make sure our most vulnerable residents can access open spaces, we must listen to the affected communities and identify ways to preserve open space along the riverbank.

This fight is not new. In the 1960s, the Inner Belt highway threatened to divide the city and its residents. Black leaders and neighbors were at the forefront of opposition, creating coalitions to reclaim their communities. They fought successfully against “renewal” projects that would have removed open space and threatened their homes, including Harvard’s Treeland development and a dangerous proposed highway expansion of Memorial Drive.

Providing open space requires doing so in a just, safe and equitable way in our most marginalized communities. Indeed, we cannot ignore how historical injustice and systemic racism have affected access to open spaces for people of color today.

Cambridge and Boston created open spaces in predominantly white neighborhoods but not in Black or immigrant ones. For example, development along the Emerald Necklace excluded nonwhite residents in South Boston from accessing and living in other parts of the city. This exclusion reinforced the racism and classism inherent in Greater Boston’s development policies.

We must acknowledge this history and repurpose Memorial Drive with support and care for all neighbors who may be affected. Based on conversations with some of our community members, we know this is not currently the case.

Public engagement at the Department of Conservation and Recreation has been weak, with no efforts to mitigate the traffic signal issues we repeatedly raised during the lengthy public process about Memorial Drive last year. The department has paused plans to improve Memorial Drive, then resumed with a scaled-back version without adequate communication or stakeholder input.

Our state government’s inability to address these local needs makes our communities more frustrated and distrustful of the system. We must work toward mobility justice, a vision in which people of all races, backgrounds and abilities feel safe using our streets.

Residents near Memorial Drive believe there has been increased traffic and air pollution in their neighborhood on weekends. As a resident of Riverside, I understand their concerns. Our suggestions for mitigation have fallen on deaf ears. Without long-lasting solutions such as traffic calming, changes to traffic signals and better lane markings, we are effectively pushing the loud, noisy, fast cars we want to avoid on Memorial Drive into a neighborhood that doesn’t deserve it. This disrespect is a clear example of systemic injustice that we must work to correct.

Addressing these issues means we need our leaders to fight for structural changes in how the state and city communicate with and respond to the community. We need them to listen to us and value community voices as essential data. Working together, we can implement solutions that keep our much-utilized open space while improving traffic issues.

By pushing our government to mitigate traffic impacts, we can improve neighborhoods and build stronger relationships with our communities and the city. Let’s continue to advocate for a future where everyone has access to the open spaces they need and deserve.

Clyve Lawrence is a student at Harvard College, a transportation columnist in the Harvard Crimson and chief editor of the Harvard Undergraduate Urban Sustainability Lab.