It was standing room only at the Friends Annual Meeting on April 12. After the usual Board business, Executive Director, Liz Vizza gave an inspiring summary of the year’s accomplishments to the attending members. Thanks to the generous donations of the members, the Friends was again able to make over a $1 million investment in the maintenance of the Common, the Garden, and the Mall focusing on trees, turf, and sculpture while also pursuing notable capital improvements.
Sunlight-Sensitive Park Resources and Shadow Impacts
- Sunlight-sensitive park resources are those resources which are dependent on sunlight to maintain the overall usability and/or health of a park space, whether it be for human activity or horticultural needs.
- As the city develops, the extent and duration of shadows cast increases. Direct sunlight exposure becomes all the more important as a resource for people and nature, particularly in the city’s central greenspaces, the Boston Common and Public Garden, which are used by millions of people each year as places to relax, gather with the community, walk to work, and recreate.
- In considering the impact of shadows on these parks, it is necessary to assess how they affect the growth cycle and sustainability of the parks’ natural features, as well as the comfort and enjoyment of their users.
- The issue of human use and comfort is particularly important during the cold winter months when there is less available sunlight, especially during morning and afternoon commuting hours, when thousands of people pass through these parks daily. Human-related sunlight-sensitive resources during the warm months include use of the wading pool at the Frog Pond in the Common and the lagoon and Swan Boats in the Garden.
Horticulture and Shadow Impacts
- Trees and turf need 4 – 6 hours of direct sunlight.
- Less sunlight = less photosynthesis = less energy for trees and turf to grow
- Full day and yearlong analysis of cumulative shadows show that the Common and Garden are under significant shadow pressure
- The Tremont and Boylston edges of the parks in particular experience significant shadow pressure
- When trees and turf are in the shadows of buildings, soil surface temperatures may not reach normal levels.
- A lag time in warmth, and a shaded condition that can keep soil wetter, favor disease development. This is a contributing factor in the root rot some trees have suffered in the Garden, and the decline and removal of trees in the Tremont/Boylston corner of the Common
- Shade impacts the success of seed growth, with colder soil temperatures slowing and shortening their growing period.
- Grass is less tolerant of shade than trees. It is easy to grow grass, and easy to kill grass.
These days our parks are quiet, often covered with a blanket of snow, the trees dormant and flowers having long disappeared…is the staff on vacation? Not at all! The winter months are full of activity. Friends Project Manager Bob Mulcahy, Collections Care Manager Sarah Hutt, and consulting arborist and soil scientist Normand Helie are hard at work planning for the year to come, and overseeing winter tree work.
Sarah and Bob evaluate every piece of sculpture throughout the year, planning out the annual cycle of care and cleaning. Together they prepare the budget, receive proposals from conservators, ready contracts for the proposed work, and notify Boston Parks and Recreation Department, the Boston Arts Commission and Boston Landmarks Commission about upcoming annual maintenance. Once the contracts are signed and paperwork filed, Bob and Sarah will work with the conservator contractors to schedule when the Women’s Memorial, among many, will get the TLC they need.
There is an important bill in the State House that needs to be moved out of committee by March 15, which will have a very important impact on getting gas leaks fixed in Boston. The bill is H2870, “An Act relative to protecting consumers of gas and electricity from paying for leaked gas.” (We were pleased to see that H2871 “An Act relative to gas leak repairs during road projects” made it out of Committee.) The Friends of the Public Garden is interested in this as it relates to trees and the greenspaces we care for and the overall urban health of our community. The impact the leaks have on the trees of the Commonwealth Avenue Mall are of particular concern to us because they are at greatest risk of damage from the leaks.
We have reached out to our representatives and are urging you to do the same. We are pleased to be joined by the Neighborhood Association of the Back Bay, Garden Club of Back Bay, and several other community organizations from across the city. Please feel free to use the template below.
Dear Representative XX:
I respectfully urge you to contact Representative Thomas Golden, the House chairman of the Telecom, Utilities and Energy Committee, and urge him to report out Representative Lori Ehrlich’s gas leak bill H2870 favorably by March 15. We were pleased to see that H2871 was reported out favorably but your support is still needed.
Gas leaks are a major concern in our neighborhood, throughout Boston and the state. One year ago a Harvard-BU study found that leaks from natural gas distribution pipes cost ratepayers $90 million a year in greater Boston. Gas leaks also cause explosions: they blew one Boston home off its foundation in 2014, displacing 11 residents, and another in 2015. Gas leaks contribute to asthma, a major health problem in Boston; kill trees by displacing oxygen in the soil; and they are probably Boston’s #1 greenhouse gas. Methane, the main component of natural gas, is 86 times more potent a greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide during its first 20 years in the atmosphere. Given that, the Boston Climate Action Network estimates that gas leaks are a bigger climate change factor than all the vehicles in Boston.
The Legislature acted on this issue in 2014. The gas leaks bill it passed that year required gas utilities to report all their known leaks to the Department of Public Utilities and to repair or replace hazardous leaks promptly. Unfortunately, those repairs are not keeping pace with new leaks in Boston’s century-old, leak-prone distribution system. Central Boston, including the Back Bay, started 2015 with 201 known leaks and it now has 232.
Rep. Ehrlich’s two bills would incentivize faster repairs and would fix all the leaks within a decade. The first bill, H2870, would require utilities to pay for the gas their pipes are leaking instead of charging their customers. The second, H2871 would require them to fix all leaks when a street is opened up for substantial repairs.
Please contact Representative Golden and urge him to report these two important bills out of TUE favorably before this session’s March 15deadline. Also please contact Speaker DeLeo and tell him of your concern about this issue.
In midwinter it is not uncommon to have intermittent mild days that tantalize us with reminders of spring. Walking through a park on a warm February day, we might even look to the trees for some confirmation that spring is around the corner—a swelling bud or hint of green, perhaps? Alas, all we’ll note are markers not of the season to come but of the season past: some branches retain from the fall a few straggling, brown leaves. In Boston parks, the only trees that do this are beeches and oaks—both in the same family: the Fagaceae. The botanical word for leaves that remain on trees well into or through the winter is marcescent (from the Latin marcere, meaning enfeebled or withered). Such papery leaves hold fast until the wind rips them free, or until the emerging bud of the spring leaf pushes them off. Scientists speculate that the abscission layer, which forms in most deciduous trees to cut leaves off in the fall, is delayed for some of the leaves of beeches, resulting in a characteristically half-dressed look. In the wild, American Beeches (Fagus grandifolia) form mature forest in parts of central New England alongside Sugar Maples (Acer saccharum). These forests are strikingly beautiful as the Beech often reproduces vegetatively, through sprouts from roots or from rooted branches. This can result in a mother tree surrounded by her offspring in a circle, or, if she is dead, a perfect circle of beech trees of uniform age—a fairy circle in the forest.
All but one of the beeches in our Parks, however, are cultivars of European Beech (Fagus sylvatica). There are some striking horticultural forms represented in the collection, including the Pendula cultivar, with weeping, sweeping limbs; the Rotundifolia, with dark blackish-green leaves and a beautiful, round canopy, and the Asplenifolia, or fern-leafed variety, with lacy cut leaf margins: and the Spaethiana,which holds its deep purple color longer and emerges in the spring with a rich burgundy color. It is fitting that the sole American Beech in our parks is found on the Boston Common, just north of the Frog Pond, as one looks toward Beacon Street.
The Friends of the Public Garden cares for 14 Beech trees in the Garden, some of which date back to the original plantings during the 1870s. These older specimens are special both because of their age and size, but also their placement—three of the oldest are near the Bagheera and Triton’s Baby’s fountains near the mid-block Charles Street crossing. One venerable specimen reaches out over the pathway and over the Bagheera fountain, with a large branch that has rooted in the bed beyond and is cabled to its multi-stemmed main trunk. This tree, which may be over 150 years old, is in its decline, but the Friends work seeks to prolong its lifespan. To do so, we may need to reduce the weight of the wood in the crown, since it has significant interior rot and is vulnerable to wind damage because of its weakened wood. Click here to learn more about load reduction pruning in the Public Garden, Boston Common, and Commonwealth Avenue Mall.
One striking feature of ornamental Beech trees is their bark, which is characteristically smooth and light grey, like an elephant’s skin. Their beautiful bark is unfortunately threatened by two major concerns: vandalism by humans, and a suite of fungal diseases. The Friends of the Public Garden works tirelessly on both of these issues. Together with the Parks Department of the City of Boston, the Friends strives to maintain these parks at the highest level of excellence, to inspire the public to love and respect these important public resources (and refrain from vandalizing them!) And most significantly, the Friends hires hard-working professionals who use the latest scientific practices of Integrated Pest Management to treat the beeches for fungal bark diseases, such as the phythoptera canker and nectria.
Across from the Hampshire House and Cheers, one finds a grove of Beech trees, planted in the 1980’s by two significant early Friends of the Public Garden, Polly Wakefield and Westy Lovejoy. Both woman were long-term members of the Board and Horticulture Committee. This cluster of trees, a testament to these two volunteers’ many years of service, is thriving thanks to the careful pruning, disease management, and judicious fertilizing the Friends has provided over the decades. I like to imagine that in 150 years a new generation of park lovers will look up at the marcescent leaves and wonder when spring will ever arrive.
Claire Corcoran is an ecologist and member of the Friends of the Public Garden Board of Directors. She is a self proclaimed “tree hugger” and dedicated advocate for greenspace in Boston and beyond. Claire lives in the South End of Boston with her husband and three children.
Photos by Claire Corcoran
From the 1970s, our advocacy for the Common, the Garden and the Mall has included protecting them from excessive shadow and wind resulting from development near the parks that would have a damaging impact on these centrally important greenspaces and the people who come to enjoy them.
We believe that development is essential to the vitality of Boston. We also appreciate that it brings new life and positive activity to our parks, and have seen this benefit in the recent growth of the Downtown Crossing residential and college communities. Recently, a project has been proposed across the street from the Common (171-172 Tremont Street) that exceeds the height limit of the Boston Common and Public Garden Protection Zone of the Midtown Cultural District. We are advocating for compliance with both the 1990 Shadow Law and Boston’s zoning code’s provisions protecting the Common as well as the Public Garden.
We wanted to provide an update to let our Members and supporters know that we continue to monitor projects and seek out information to understand their potential impact, including shadows, on the three parks that we advocate for. As always, we look forward to continuing discussions with our elected officials, residents groups, business community, and developers to speak on behalf of our parks. If you have feedback to share with us on this topic, please email us at email@example.com. As updates become available we will be sure to share them.
Thank you to our 2015 tree and bench sponsors for supporting our parks!
- Sloane Fellows Class of 2000 in memory of Yoshi Baba
- McKey W. Berkman
- Barbara and Julian Cherubini
- Janet J. Fitzgerald
- Jared Gollub
- Christine and David Letts
- Anita Lincoln
- Committee to Light Commonwealth Avenue Mall in honor of Mimi LeCamera
- The Family of Werner A. Low
- Margo Miller
- Scott Thatcher and Nawamas Chumowart
- Sherley Gardner Smith
- Lynn Wiatrowski-Madsen
The Boston Common, Public Garden, and Commonwealth Avenue are greenspaces steeped in history. They are important places where we honor the history, culture, and milestones of our nation, city, and neighborhood with sculptures and memorials. Famous people and events are recognized with statues, tablets, and other displays. And as much as these three greenspaces serve as a place to honor some of the most public figures known to us, they are also a place where individuals celebrate special people or events in a very personal way by sponsoring a tree or bench in their name. The next time you stroll by, read the plaques and ponder the stories of people and events they represent.
For information about the Tree and Bench Sponsorship program in the Common, Garden or Mall visit our website.