Building Consensus for Natural-Resource and Water-Quality Preservation at the Fresh Pond Reservation

Sept. 1, 1999

The Fresh Pond Reservation is one of metropolitan Boston’s premier public open spaces. Originally designed by the landscape architecture team of the Olmsted firm and Charles Eliot in the 1890s, the 162-ac. reservation has long served as a natural haven in the city of Cambridge, MA. Thanks in large part to the Olmsted-Eliot design vision, which emphasized vegetative diversity and native plantings a century ago, today the reservation is an interesting and complex ecosystem, loved no less fervently by its diverse users than Central Park is by New Yorkers.
The reservation’s natural features are a challenge to inventory, monitor, and manage: wetlands and upland woods; stands of large evergreen and deciduous trees; shrub borders; steep hillsides; ravines and small ponds; seasonal marshes; meadows, grassy areas, and dense thickets; irregular vegetated shorelines; and various soil types and hydrologic conditions. Adding to this complexity is the fact that the reservation serves as a protective buffer for the 163-ac. Fresh Pond Reservoir, the terminus of Cambridge’s water supply.

After a century of increasingly heavy recreational use, the reservation is showing its age. The environmental stressors are easily visible. Evident are soil compaction and erosion from hillsides. Lawn areas and pathways are threatening the reservoir’s water quality. Shoreline erosion is contributing to the degradation of numerous water bodies on the reservation, and invasive plant species are overrunning natural areas.

History of Public Involvement
Throughout much of the reservation’s history, municipal management and maintenance have been minimal. Cambridge residents, long characterized by their strong tendency toward activism, have taken the initiative to preserve the reservation’s natural resources for more than four decades. In fact, the residents have succeeded in improving portions of the reservation without the benefit of a coordinated plan or significant public funding.

An early example of citizen involvement focused on the Black’s Nook pond area, which was seriously damaged by illegal dumping. Says lifelong Cambridge resident Patricia Pratt, who has been a leader in efforts to improve the reservation’s environment for the past five decades, the ecologically significant Black’s Nook area was “rescued” by members of the Cambridge Plant and Garden Club in the early 1960s. Setting the framework for future efforts, the club raised the funds for the area’s cleanup and then worked with the city to clean and dredge the pond and to provide plantings for Black’s Nook. Additional Plant and Garden Club projects in the 1970s and 1980s added to the beauty and biodiversity of the reservation’s vegetation. The club also produced a horticultural survey of the reservation in the late 1970s in the first attempt to comprehensively manage the reservation’s resources.

By the 1980s and 1990s, however, recreational use of the Fresh Pond Reservation had multiplied. Higher levels of monitoring and maintenance were required to handle new stresses on the reservation’s natural resources. The need for a coordinated plan to protect these resources, particularly those within the reservoir’s watershed, had become clear. The City of Cambridge Water Department developed a comprehensive watershed management approach to preserve water quality in all of its reservoirs, including Fresh Pond. The city and residents alike also recognized that long-term guidance for natural resource management and enhancement was crucial as the reservation moved into its second century. In addition, the city and its residents recognized the importance of the role of the public in the planning process and long-term management efforts.

The Planning Process
The Fresh Pond Master Plan Advisory Committee (FPMPAC) was formed in 1997 to plan for the long-term use and management of the reservation. The committee is completely comprised of citizen volunteers, with the exception of member Chip Norton, watershed manager for the Cambridge Water Department. The FPMPAC has been the critical driving force behind establishing the planning framework for the reservation. The committee’s overriding goal has been to complete the Fresh Pond Master Plan, a comprehensive plan for management of the reservation. The committee set as the top priority the completion of the Fresh Pond Natural Resource Stewardship Plan, the first major component of the Master Plan. The FPMPAC was responsible for determining the Stewardship Plan’s scope, worked with the city to secure the plan’s funding, and oversaw the planning process and the plan’s development. In contrast to the general Master Plan’s broad scope, the Stewardship Plan’s focus was strictly on natural-resource and ecological issues related to preservation of the reservoir’s water quality.

Pratt and fellow subcommittee member Deborah Howe agree that public participation and citizen advisory committee oversight were built into the stewardship planning process from the very beginning. The FPMPAC horticultural subcommittee, with the Cambridge Water Department, conducted the consultant selection process. Rizzo Associates Inc., an environmental science and engineering firm based in Natick, MA, was selected to complete the Natural Resource Inventory and Stewardship Plan. The Rizzo Associates team included J.E. Ingoldsby & Associates, ecological designers and planners in North Marshfield, MA. Subcommittee member Howe, who is also a landscape architect at Copley-Wolff Joint Venture of Boston, explains why the Rizzo team was selected: “It presented a clear framework for the planning and long-term management processes, which included the public as an integral component. In particular, Rizzo Associates showed how data plots would be established during the plan’s inventory phase, which would provide baseline information on vegetation cover types, for instance. The general area of the individual plots could then be revisited in future years by, say, community volunteers to monitor change in vegetation character specifically and environmental conditions in general. In addition, Rizzo Associates could analyze and present the data in a GIS [graphic information system] format, which could then be added to the city’s overall GIS system.”

The planning process included six monthly meetings between Rizzo Associates, the six-person FPMPAC subcommittee, and the Cambridge Water Department. These meetings were held between May and November 1998. Additional meetings were also held with other interested parties, such as the Cambridge Conservation Commission, the Cambridge Recreation Department, the City Manager’s Office, and city agencies concerned with public health and safety. These meetings provided the chance to prioritize issues, assess progress to date, look ahead at upcoming tasks, and determine if the complex planning process was on course or if new directions needed to be taken. The monthly meetings also served as an important first step in building consensus within the core group—the FPMPAC subcommittee, the Cambridge Water Department, and the consultants. Since perceptions and opinions of core group players varied widely, this step proved challenging at times.
One example was a lengthy debate over whether or not to include recommendations for cultural features of the reservation with the recommendations for natural resources. It was ultimately decided that cultural recommendations would be left out of the Stewardship Plan but included in the full Master Plan for the reservation. Another hot issue was whether or not to recommend strictly native plant species to the exclusion of potentially beneficial non-native species. The final plant lists were largely native in character. Still another issue of debate focused on which terminology to use to accurately describe and represent the reservation’s range of user types. 

Natural Resource Inventory and Stewardship Plan
The resulting agreed-upon Stewardship Plan process consisted of two major components: the Natural Resource Inventory and the plan itself. The inventory phase comprehensively investigated and recorded natural resource conditions at the reservation and around the reservoir. This systematic, ecological study of the reservation’s open spaces focused on water-quality issues and the identification of surface conditions, such as erosion and compaction, vegetation cover types, wildlife habitat values, and shoreline and stream conditions. It also identified many areas of notable natural or cultural character, including healthy stands of old trees and historic water-treatment structures.

Recalls Norton, “The public demanded that the inventory be conducted in a comprehensive, holistic fashion in contrast to the piecemeal efforts of the past.” The inventory findings were presented at the first major public meeting as well as before the full 25-member FPMPAC and the deputy city manager, while the draft Stewardship Plan recommendations were the focus of the second major public meeting. These meetings gave a wide cross-section of community interests an opportunity to give input on the inventory, planning process, and draft stewardship recommendations. It is important to note that the modes of public input were diverse and public-friendly. Comment sheets were distributed at meetings, as were fax and telephone numbers and the city contact’s e-mail address. It should also be noted that all other meetings with the subcommittee were open to the public as well.

Building Consensus
In addition to these public meetings, three onsite tours of the reservation were conducted with the subcommittee, FPMPAC members, and city officials to lend a sense of reality to the ideas being generated on paper. One notable site tour of the reservation’s golf course area was designed to get buy-in from the city’s Recreation Department for buffer-zone and wetland restoration recommendations.

The tour allowed the Recreation Department to “take ownership” of the recommendations, thereby gaining consensus on potentially divisive concepts. As a result of these site tours and public meetings, strong community support of the planning process and the Stewardship Plan recommendations was achieved.

Stewardship Plan Suggestions
The Stewardship Plan identifies long-term strategies for management and enhancement of the reservation’s resources. The plan provides recommendations for general topics reservationwide, such as slope stabilization, wetland management, and trail management. It also provides extensive recommendations for 11 subareas of the reservation, including a municipal golf course and specific water bodies within the reservation.

As a reflection of the reservation’s diverse needs, the recommendations themselves range widely in character. Typical recommendations called for reduction of invasive plant species, such as Norway maple; enhancement of meadow areas through annual mowing and new planting; control of trail access; and improvements to trail surface and drainage. One specific recommendation for shoreline stabilization was contested: whether or not to use riprap in addition to “green” bioengineered solutions for patching existing rip-rapped sections or to strictly recommend bioengineering for all eroded banks. In this case, a clearer definition of “bioengineering” to include some structural components helped gain consensus for the use of riprap, as long as its use was minimized and concealed by heavy replanting. The limited use of riprap was shown to be consistent with the public’s interest in seeing natural materials used as much as possible at the reservation.

In addition, the plan emphasizes the reuse of onsite materials, such as downed trees for mulch and trail resurfacing and composting of leaves for widespread reuse in soil improvement efforts. It also identifies what’s essential for further study, such as stormwater drainage patterns and the reservation’s suitability for wetland restoration projects. 

The Stewardship Plan includes appendices that list preferred surfacing materials for trails and recommended plants for different planting zones (for example, wet meadow, upland slope), with an emphasis on native plant materials.

Erosion Control
The Stewardship Plan recommendations cover a broad array of topics, from forest management to wetland enhancement. However, perhaps most critical to the plan’s primary goal of preserving the reservoir’s water quality, which Norton identifies as the Water Department’s mission, are its recommendations regarding shoreline and upland erosion control strategies. Of the 35 separate capital projects recommended, more than half involve erosion control or shoreline/upland stabilization work.

The fundamental recommendation for shoreline/upland stabilization and erosion control is to use environmentally friendly bioengineering techniques to secure slopes. These techniques emphasize both soil-quality improvements and heavy revegetation, with emphasis on native plant species. “Because of the need for hand labor in the installation of many bioengineering projects,” says Howe, “this approach lends itself to including community volunteer participation and public education in the implementation process.”

Soil improvements are to be accomplished in a number of ways. The first recommended technique, which applies to the reservation’s many eroded, forested upland slope areas, is to allow woody debris, including downed trees and branches, to simply remain in place. This debris will act as natural dams collecting sediment and organic matter, such as fallen leaves. In some areas, additional woody debris will be added to the forest floor to hasten organic accumulation. The second recommendation is to add highly organic soil amendments, including compost, to eroded shorelines and slopes. The third recommendation is to secure soil amendments with biodegradable fabrics and materials and to heavily seed and plant these areas with appropriate vegetation: ground covers, wetland and upland grasses, perennials, shrubs, and trees. Shrubs and trees may be planted from container-grown stock as “live stakes,” from branches cut from live plants as “live brush,” or by combining the two methods. The use of structural materials, such as riprap along shorelines and retaining walls along the base of upland slopes, is to be minimized and integrally planted where its use is critical to meeting design goals.

Because of their central role in preserving the reservoir’s water quality—the primary stewardship goa—projects requiring slope stabilization and erosion control and projects in highly visible areas were typically given the highest-priority rankings. These highest-priority capital projects were recommended for implementation within the next three years. The public-involvement process played an important role in prioritizing projects for implementation.

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Looking Ahead
As a crucial piece of the Fresh Pond Master Plan, the Stewardship Plan recommendations will not go into full effect until the comprehensive Master Plan document is approved. The Master Plan is scheduled to be released in the summer or fall of 1999.

General implementation of the Stewardship Plan’s recommended actions, including the addition of city staff to oversee the implementation process (which the public pushed for) and to better manage the reservation’s natural resources in general, is expected to begin in late 1999 or early 2000. However, certain critical remedial actions might proceed more rapidly.
As has been the case with the planning phase, the upcoming implementation phase is certain to be strongly influenced by public participation.

As Norton explains, “A critical element in successful implementation, as has been proven during the planning phases, is to get the public to take ownership of the program and the resources upon which it focuses.” With this in mind, the details of the proposed soil stabilization and revegetation work at the Fresh Pond Reservation will surely be shaped by the Cambridge public’s vision for the preservation of this much-loved Olmsted and Eliot-designed park.  
About the Author

Thomas S. Benjamin

Thomas S. Benjamin is an environmental designer with Rizzo Associates Inc. in Natick, MA. He co-managed the Fresh Pond Natural Resource Stewardship Plan.