Blackstone Parks Conservancy

“We have a short window in which to get started between the end of grass growing and when the snow flies,” says Bob McMahon, superintendent of the Providence Department of Parks and Recreation. On a gusty day in late October that promises rain, with two landscape architects and five Blackstone Parks Conservancy (BPC) volunteers he is inspecting Blackstone Boulevard. In between mowing and leaf removal–two demanding seasonal tasks–early fall is a good time to focus on pruning, tree-planting, and path restoration.

Pivoting to the Boulevard from the 45-acre Blackstone Park Conservation District (BPCD) after the recent completion of a large trail restoration project represents triage of a sort. Ideally, both Blackstone parks would enjoy full-time management, but the stewardship partners are stretched thin. Over 100 city parks require the department’s attention and the Conservancy is perennially short of volunteers.

There is one saving grace to moving slowly, however: it offers an opportunity to test innovative solutions in small areas, and then to invest in the ones that work. In heavily used parks where humans and nature hold sway, this is an especially helpful approach to the problem of stormwater management challenging the Blackstone parks. The question is, What can best withstand pounding rain and feet?

Repairing and refreshing gardens – In the South Garden, volunteers point out the damage wreaked on several yews by a truck careening through the bottom end this summer. Next the superintendent checks out the new planting funded by Senator Donna Nesselbush and organized by the BPC that he had approved in plan. Volunteers also show him a mountain laurel and a clethra donated from a supporter’s garden, and he quickly approves a BPC proposal to add several low-bush blueberries in the bare north end of the South garden.

Trees – Deming Sherman, acting treasurer of the BPC and keeper of the new tree list, matches new donors and tree choices with landscape architect Joel Booden, a recently retired department employee who is volunteering today. An eastern redbud is suggested for the tree a young couple might donate to celebrate the birth of their new baby, Alexander. In Taiwan, where they come from, planting a tree on such occasions is a custom.

Pruning – In several places enormous 40-year-old yews in the Boulevard Park extend over sidewalks, interfering with pedestrian movement or safety. To improve visibility, pruning orders are given to landscape architect Ed Sanchez.

Next, the superintendent points out that the statue memorializing young Constance Witherby is being eclipsed by overgrown holly bushes and cedar trees. He asks that the canopy around statue be raised by “limbing up” the trees and that the bushes be pruned to give the popular statue some breathing room and more visibility.

Fixing Paths –The superintendent plans to address the deteriorating center path early next year. He wants to try out a new surface material designed both to stabilize paths and to allow for water absorption in the worst area on the Boulevard, at Lorimer Street.

A novice might wonder why the path can’t be fixed directly, but the landscape architects explain that good drainage must be in place before the path is fixed. Mapping grades are needed first. The possibility of adding a small rain garden to absorb water to the east of the path just north of Irving Avenue is suggested.

The stabilizing material the superintendent wants to test is expensive, and installation is challenging. McMahon says the department will try to get a discount on the material. Apparently, Blithewold Manor has had some installed, so BPC volunteers consider a field trip to inspect it.

Wrapping up the visit, the superintendent says they’ll get going right away on what was discussed today and start with pruning. He asks the landscape architects to get grades and photos of the five or six areas already discussed, which they estimate will take two days. Winter will provide time to plan it out and get suppliers lined up, he adds. Depending on when the spring rains end, a tentative rough schedule might be March to late April. If all goes well, path work can begin six to eight weeks later, sometime in May.


Jane Peterson