Blackstone Park: our great green asset – Morgan architecture reviewer

Saturday May 29, 2021

What city has ever complained about having too many parks? Are there enough green spaces, hiking trails, fishing grounds, ice skating ponds, or places to walk your dog?

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Fishing on River Drive, home to herds of ducks, swans and geese. PHOTO: Will Morgan

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The East Side of Providence seems to be destroyed by over-construction. The very things that make this part of town so desirable are being sacrificed for a lens mess. Beautiful older homes are torn down and replaced with shoddy McMansions or stick-frame apartment blocks lined up on small lots in town. The ratio between green spaces and hard surfaces is tilted in favor of a runoff inhibitor tarmac.

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York Pond in Blackstone Park. PHOTO: Carolyn Morgan

Let’s stop and consider some of the green spaces that serve as the city’s lungs and act as a safety valve to compensate for the harshness of city life. The Blackstone Park Conservation District is one of Providence’s great treasures; it reminds us why we need to protect this equipment and actively support it. The “emerald necklace” of Blackstone Boulevard, a constituent part of the park, is a buffer against avid developers.

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The park offers quiet places and contact with nature all year round. PHOTO: Will Morgan

The last large estate along the 1.5 kilometer boulevard is for sale. Is there anyone who believes that the 3.6 acres of Bridgham-Granoff will be bought by a philanthropist who plans to create, for example, an arboretum, a research center, a retreat for painters or poets, or some sort of business that will maintain the gardens as an oasis? Or if the land is developed, will a smart green architect create a brilliant project with cluster life that will actually improve the property and make the city proud?

Further down Blackstone Boulevard, the main house in the center of Nicholson’s estate has been preserved, but supporting structures, such as a charming Arts & Crafts performance hall, greenhouses and a car shed have been razed. The first house built on the carved out property is a little over a million dollars in suburban blandness. We hope in vain that the remaining lots cut in the field will be more sensitive in spirit and scale.

The 45 acres of woodland and meadows of Blackstone Park are remarkably overseen by the Providence Parks Department and a voluntary nonprofit organization called the Blackstone Parks Conservancy. In addition to contributing funds, educational programs and maintenance manpower, the conservation acts as a watchdog to ensure that the park is maintained, while its flora and fauna are studied and maintained.

Civic leaders too often come up with misguided projects such as stadiums, wider streets or skyscrapers that destroy zoning to revitalize the city. Yet the boulevard and the three sections of the park along the west bank of the Seekonk river provide a permanent recreation solution, as well as democratic access to nature. In all seasons, from dawn to dusk, the park is there for fresh air or simply for contemplation that gives you back your soul.

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Dog walking on a trail in Blackstone Park. PHOTO: Will Morgan

On a recent walk in Blackstone Park, I spoke with a man and his grandson who were fishing for stripers. I watched two large Bernese mountain dogs curl up as a rowdy puppy approached. Three RISD industrial design graduate students, two from India, the other from Albany, set up a participatory design project, labeled Treeggered. A tree stump had been transformed into a sculpture adorned with various sayings about the land, the forest and “rebuilding our relationship with the natural environment”.

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The park conservation was founded in 1979, but the park is over a century old. The Works Progress Administration built trails here in 1935-1937.

Two women stopped to chat. They had just completed their masters at Brown. One was from Peru, the other from Kenya. It was their first trip to Blackstone Park, and both lamented that their science studies didn’t give them time to explore the city. Now that they were soon to be leaving, they wished they had found the park sooner, declaring it their favorite place in Providence.

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“Treeggered”, Vrinda Mathur. PHOTO: Will Morgan

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Brown graduate students explore the park. PHOTO: Will Morgan

Architecture critic Morgan has taught the history of landscape architecture and was editor of Landscape Architecture magazine.

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