Residents vent on issues related to trees and the environment
As a major initiative for 2019, the team at the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism (BINJ), in collaboration with partners at DigBoston, Somerville Media Center (SMC), and various other outlets, is focusing on identifying and reporting critical stories in the City of Somerville.
To that end, we have been leading journalism workshops at SMC, including some with high school students, and in February BINJ turned out more than 100 Somerville residents and active community members to the ONCE ballroom on Highland Ave to converse with area journalists about issues they think need more coverage. The information these participants provided has already seeded articles and will continue to bear fruit over the coming months.
In addition to our follow-ups, we have transcribed all of the presentations given at ONCE. It’s a lot to chew on, so for the purpose of reporting back we parsed sentiments of the participating Somervillians into the following categories (many of which overlap at multiple intersections):
- Neighborhoods, transit, and accessibility
- Union Square and other development
- Low-income residents and affordable housing
- Immigrant communities
- Trees and the environment
- Arts, artists, and artisans
In addition to reports that stem from the February meetup, over the coming weeks we will also publish words and ideas that stood out at the summit. This week, we get into excerpts from various testimonies related to trees and the environment.
Chris Dwan (Somerville Resident)
I got radicalized about a year and a half ago when they cut down all the trees on Beacon (Street). I started organizing and writing letters and talking to people and making friends. … The news here is that the city has just [written] a demand letter for $38,000 to the contractor that did that to us. That took a hell of a lot more work than it should have.
We have lost approximately 10% of the trees in the city last year between GLX [Green Line Extension], the high school, [and] the various street projects. None of these is just a maniac running around with a chainsaw, this is the way the city does things. We introduced [along with Somerville city councilors] an entirely new tree protection ordinance that will provide an organization that will allow us to coherently protect city trees, state’s trees, and trees on private property. I would love it if that was a community discussion so we have effective, sensible well-balanced legislation.
Renée Scott (Climate Coalition of Somerville)
We are a coalition of advocacy and activist groups collectively invested in driving environmental sustainability in Somerville. In 2014 Somerville was among the first cities in the country to set the goal of being carbon neutral by 2050. What has the city achieved since then and what big decisions still need to be made? The parts of the city most vulnerable to flooding from the bigger storms we expect in the future happened to be the neighborhoods that are seeing the biggest developments—it’s too late to build a resilient Assembly Square and it might be too late for a resilient Union Square. Can Brickbottom and Boynton Yards be developed with more forethought? Did you know that the infill of plastic blades and artificial turf fields migrated into the surrounding waterways and are microplastics by size but we do nothing to prevent this pollution?
The city’s proposed new zoning code is an important tool that will incentivize builders to construct more sustainable buildings using techniques such as the passive housing standard. Several developers have taken note and presented sustainable buildings to the public, but the state’s Board of Building Regulation and Standards holds the real key to sustainable buildings through the building code and will be instrumental not only to whether Somerville achieves carbon neutrality, but also whether the state can fulfill its obligations under the Global Warming Solutions Act of 2008.
Somerville currently has over 200 active gas leaks, which continuously emit methane and toxic chemicals found in fracked gas. They pose a public health and safety threat because of the risk of explosion. There’s minimal accountability and the state Department of Public Utilities gives utilities no incentives to address the issues of leaking infrastructure.
Somerville is the least green city in the state. There is a direct correlation with lack of green space and the “heat island” effect, and we need to be adding more green spaces, not removing them. In Union Square … there is an opportunity to increase the green space significantly over what the developer is proposing, but it is getting little traction. We are so intent on development that we are ignoring that we have displaced untold native flora and fauna that are vital parts of a healthy ecosystem and the key to a healthy future. There is an epidemic of the slaughter of trees happening right now.
Leigh Meunier (Climate Coalition of Somerville)
Just some affiliations, different groups I’m connected to in the city—Climate Coalition of Somerville, Somerville Climate Action, and Somerville Interfaith, but speaking to the issue of displacement in the city … who is being displaced, who’s already gone? What did the city look like in 2010-2012, the different communities that were here, individuals, groups? I don’t really have a good sense of all that information and so I wonder what role the local media can play in really helping to, for lack of a better term, to establish some of those baselines, so who are those communities? How much of each of these communities is already gone? Since when? Why are they leaving? Is it things related to increases in rent? Development?
Over time we’re also going to see climate change and extreme weather events. How that’s going to change [Somerville]? I think it’s the role that you can play to establish some of the information now, and then be watching that for the community over time and sharing it would be awesome.
Another way to do that would be through storytelling. Some of the long-term residents here, what are some of the barriers they may be facing to potentially stay here? Again, who’s intentionally measuring some of these changes and demographics over time?
One of the things that we support is something called depavings. Depavings is an initiative that was actually through Somerville Climate Action, a couple of different organizers who just basically helped support residents who want to lift up the pavement in their yard and put in green spaces. There’s a couple done every year—we’re at a point right now where there’s some conversations with the city and some residents and environmental groups to really build out that program.
Ulysses Lateiner (Somerville resident)
Chris and Renée mentioned the whole tree crisis that we have in Somerville, but this isn’t just a Somerville crisis, this is a regional thing. In Cambridge right now in the last couple weeks there was this huge ongoing outrage out on near Alewife … where this developer’s going to cut down hundreds of mature old-growth trees to expand like an underground parking garage …
If the media can help the people of Cambridge, Somerville, [and] Medford too for all I know, connect the dots on what’s going on here, it’s like a big story … This isn’t just us getting our trees chopped down, it’s going on everywhere … It’s just the developers that benefit from this. Most people like trees, and if the media helps sort of connect the dots, I think people realize they have a lot more power to speak up and maybe fight back.