In Massachusetts, deep roots and good harvests

City parks—our past, our future

When asked to name America’s most celebrated public places, Kevin Essington doesn’t hesitate. “Yosemite,” he begins. “The Grand Canyon. And Boston Common.”

Coming from The Trust for Public Land’s Massachusetts state director, the list may betray some home-turf bias—but for good reason. “Boston Common was the nation’s first public park,” Kevin points out. “Conservation is a tradition we associate with the wilderness, but in many ways it started in the cities.”

And the need for urban green space is as much our reality as our legacy. Today, two in three Americans live in the nation’s 100 biggest metropolitan areas. Fold in smaller cities and suburbs, and more than 80 percent of us live closer to a Boston Common than a Grand Canyon.

As Kevin sees it, “The future of conservation is right on our doorsteps.”

The view from Boston Common

“In Boston, we inherited a world-class set of public spaces,” Kevin says. “The Esplanade, the Emerald Necklace, Jamaica Pond—parks that generations have grown up around. But as the city gets filled in, these spaces become more and more precious. We need to either upgrade our existing facilities or create new places.”

The Trust for Public Land has the track record to lead the effort. For 30 years, the Boston office has worked hard to color the city green, helping guide landmark projects like the Elmhurst Street Playground and East Boston Greenway.

Now, with the mayor honed in on community health, Kevin sees ample opportunities to apply TPL’s proven planning expertise. He’s especially excited about the prospect of bringing the state’s rich agricultural heritage to the city: energy around urban farming is at a high.

“We’re in a position to help, both through land acquisitions and by identifying funds to transform gardens into real community assets. What we have now is an opportunity to link helping the needy with eating better and with protecting land.”

Kevin credits Governor Deval Patrick for consistently committing the statehouse to conservation of the state’s small farms, whose success inspires urban counterparts. The governor himself is a high-profile illustration for how access to urban green space fosters an appreciation for nature wherever it’s found-from field to forest.

“This governor grew up next to a park in Chicago, in a rough part of town,” Kevin says. “I hate to think where we’d be if he hadn’t had a park for a neighbor.”

For the love of the land

Kevin, too, formed his commitment to parks and conservation early in life. After graduating from the University of Michigan, he headed west and found himself fishing the backcountry riffles near Idaho’s Sun Valley, stunned by the beauty of the landscape around him.

“It shouldn’t even be there,” he says. “You’re in the desert and there’s this huge, cold river winding its way through lava plains. It’s surreal. I asked, ‘What is this?'”

He was surprised, back then, to learn that his quiet fishing spot came courtesy of a land trust. The discovery of this innovative model for land protection began what would become a lifelong career in conservation.

Kevin has worked across the country—from wide-open Colorado ranchlands to the urban tapestry of his current Boston office. But at The Trust for Public Land, he’s found a community connection that makes his work special.

“I love how we work with neighbors to do the projects that are important to them,” Kevin says. “We absorb the enthusiasm that they have for these projects and convert it into new public spaces-so they can make them their own for years to come. That’s unique, that’s why I’m here.”

Learn more about The Trust for Public Land in Massachusetts.