Five Questions for Magazine Beach Advocates

Cathie Zusy and Brian Conway of the Magazine Beach Committee of the Cambridgeport Neighborhood Association.
Cathie Zusy and Brian Conway of the Magazine Beach Committee of the Cambridgeport Neighborhood Association.

On the fifteen-acre section of parkland between the banks of the Charles River and Memorial Drive, between the BU Bridge and the Riverside Boat Club, bird-watchers have identified no less than 94 species. This area, called Magazine Beach, also attracts a regular stream of walkers, joggers, bikers, boaters, and families using the state-run outdoor swimming pool. A powder magazine–built as a gunpowder storage facility in 1818 and converted to a bath-house in 1899—is slated for occupancy about two years from now. New landscape plans include a 10-foot multi-use path along Memorial Drive, a dock, two overlooks, stormwater-related improvements, and a splash deck and natural play features.

Cambridge Outdoors talked with Brian Conway and Cathie Zusy, members of the Magazine Beach Committee of the Cambridgeport Neighborhood Association (CNA), who have worked in recent years to champion the park’s revitalization.

1. What is the history of the parkland at Magazine Beach?

“It was originally an island surrounded by marshes but was turned into one continuous piece of land. It was a park created by the city. The Olmsted Brothers created a plan for the park inspired by Charlesgate Park, where the Esplanade is now. The Cambridge “city fathers” wanted something just like that—a water park and a “play ground for the young.” It was inspired by envy. But a financial panic in 1893 got in the way. 

All the parklands along the river were turned over to the Metropolitan District Commission in the 1920s for the purpose of consistent parkland management.

There’s a long history of people trying to make Magazine Beach better. There have been many different plans for the park over the years, most of which never were implemented. The last real improvements happened in the 70s, other than the 2009 city investment in new playing fields.”

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The powder magazine at Magazine Beach in 1935, converted into a bath-house, with swimmers and beachgoers in the foreground.

2 What role has this (adjacent) neighborhood had in the history of Cambridge, and what is it like today?

“From the late 1800s to the mid-1900s, many immigrants lived in this part of Cambridge. There were many factories here and close by. Magazine Beach was created to provide a place where factory workers could cool off on hot summer days. Today, instead of soap, biscuit, candy, lantern and telescope factories, we have biotech and high tech companies. But the need remains: we all need “breathing spaces” to relax and revitalize along the river.”

3. Why is Magazine Beach an important place in your own mind?

“At 15 acres, it is Cambridge’s second largest park. It offers access to the river, old shade trees, cool breezes, the sky and the sunset. And it is the location of the oldest building on the Charles River Basin. As a community park, it represents the ideals of democracy—it is everyone’s green open space.  It is a mixing ground.”

4. Are there animals at Magazine Beach? What can people do there?

“In addition to the 94+ bird species, there are rabbits and squirrels. It’s a favorite dog walking spot. Single and double shells launch from there at the Head of the Charles Regatta. It’s used by pick-up soccer players, Cambridge Youth Soccer, Cambridge Central Youth Baseball, Youth Lacrosse, the Boston University Academy Quidditch team, swimmers, and rowers (at Riverside Boat Club).” [Note: Click here for wildlife sightings at Magazine Beach]

Magazine Beach has been the venue for art activities, musical performances, and nature exploration for the past several years, supported by the Cambridge Arts Council, Cambridgeport Neighborhood Association, and other sponsors.
Magazine Beach has been the venue for art activities, musical performances, and nature exploration for the past several years, supported by the Cambridge Arts Council, Cambridgeport Neighborhood Association, and other sponsors.

5. What’s the more recent history of the revitalization effort?

“The CNA has been working on the project since November 2010. For the past three summers, we’ve had a full roster of outdoor events at Magazine Beach.The CNA has been working with Massachusetts Department of Conservation and Recreation to revitalize the park and to restore it as a place of beauty. We’re committed not only to the revitalization of the park—we want to make sure its maintained. If there isn’t a “guardian” group, it may be forgotten.

With the help of Cambridge and private contributors, DCR has stabilized the exterior of the Powder Magazine. Cambridge just allotted another $100,000 to renovate the interior by adding public bathrooms and lighting, etc. (DCR will match this.)

The landscape is in design now. We hope to have “shovel-ready” plans by the end of the year. Then we need to find the money for park improvements.”


  1. Prospective community-oriented tenants for the powderhouse building should contact
  2. For the Dept. of Conservation and Recreation’s Presentation on 10/20/16 regarding the landscape plans for Magazine Beach, click here.
  3. For updates, events, a bird list, and historical information, visit the Cambridgeport Neighborhood Association’s Magazine Beach Committee website.

Nature as a Recharge System for Attention

Andrea Faber Taylor at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign has launched a study of the effects of nature on learning. In this controlled study in three schools, children who spend 100 minutes or more outside every day will be compared to others who spend much less time outside.

Research is mounting that green space is not just an accessory. It’s actually a necessity, an important component of healthy living.*

“Directed attention requires effort. We use it to tune out distractions, stay focused on a task and direct our thoughts. But when it fatigues, we become impulsive and irritable and we make bad choices. We also have this other capacity called involuntary attention, which helps restore focus and allows room in our mind for reflective thinking. It doesn’t require effort. Nature has a lot of characteristics that seem to draw on involuntary attention.”*

The research participants in the two-year study  kindergartners in northern Ontario. A high proportion of Simcoe County’s school district, which has 85 elementary schools, now have outdoor classrooms. Faber Taylor:

“While we intuitively know green space is good, it doesn’t get priority when push comes to shove in terms of time and money. Research is mounting that green space is not just an accessory. It’s actually a necessity, an important component of healthy living. But policy-makers always look for quantitative evidence to make those decisions.”

But is “greening” playground space enough? Is exposure to a grass playing field the same as a walk in the woods? Is replacing a concrete playground with plastic or metal structures with a “green” playground of wood chips and “natural”-looking logs enough, under all circumstances?

The multiple factors present in nature that may lead engage the restorative “involuntary attention”  are still very much under study. Marc Berman, a psychologist at the University of Chicago, is digging into this question:

“Berman and his colleagues have zeroed in on the “low-level” visual characteristics that distinguish natural from built environments. To do this, they broke down images into their visual components: the proportion of straight to curved edges, the hue and saturation of the colors, the entropy (a statistical measure of randomness in pixel intensity), and so on.”**IMG_9510

…softly fascinating stimulation.**

Whether the strongest positive attentional effects come from natural objects  and animals seen and experienced in nature, or from the activities into which children naturally fall (collecting, climbing, hiding, etc.) when in a real habitat, the jury’s still out. The two aren’t after all, mutually exclusive.

We must consider children in ecological planning for they have no voice of their own.***

Urban planners, recreation departments, school principals, social-emotional learning educators, and public health departments would do well to bushwhack through the paperwork and lines of command to collaborate to meet the needs of children with open space planning. They must collaborate also with children,  youth, and parents to respond to the increasing evidence of the positive effects of natural settings on learning, health, and mental health, for as Roger A. Hart said, more than thirty years ago, “We must consider children in ecological planning for they have no voice of their own.”

Further Reading:

Happy Park[ing] Day, from a New England City

This just in.

Plankton have been sighted on Huron Avenue.

Children have been observed observing pond water through microscopes.

A new arboreal species has been discovered: the Tree of Really, Really Small, Teeny Tiny Things, whose symbolic foliage depicts the minerals, water, microarthropods, bacteria, and mycorrhizal fungi critical to good tree health.

Fragilaria algae handpuppet created at the Park of Microscopic Life, Park[ing] Day 2013, Cambridge, Mass.
Fragilaria algae handpuppet created at the Park of Microscopic Life, Park[ing] Day 2013, Cambridge, Mass.
The tree of really, really, small, teeny tiny things.
The tree of really, really, small, teeny tiny things.

Models of algae have been multiplying rapidly on the site, says Kristin L., a volunteer ranger at the corner of Huron and Chilton who preferred to remain semi-anonymous.

Paparazzi snapped photos of Fresh Pond Reservation’s ranger, Jean Rogers, transporting phytoplankton from Black’s Nook across Chilton Street well before working hours. Stay tuned for all the news from microorganism’s reporter in the city of Cambridge, Mass., yours truly.

Photo of kindergarteners and teacher looking through microscopes courtesy of D. Jamas.
Photo of kindergarteners and teacher looking through microscopes courtesy of D. Jamas.
Photo courtesy of D. Jamas.
Photo courtesy of D. Jamas.
Fragilaria (non-puppet version).
Citizens and Microscopes. An excellent match.
Citizens and Microscopes. An excellent match.

Free-Range Meets Children and Nature

Free Range meets urban planning meets the play outdoors movement—this trirumvirate is like a pitch you’d make to a film studio. Bend It Like Beckham meets Totoro meets Stand By Me. We’d get Claire Danes to play Lenore Skenazy, who starts the new movement, Ralph Fiennes to play Richard Louv struggling to turn off his iPhone as he enters his off-the-grid bunker-with-a-view, and Roberto Benigni to play an under-employed historian mother-of-two accidentally impersonating an ecologist (That would be me. It’s my blog so I get to do the casting).

A recent post by Skenazy in her blog reports on an outlier example of outright un-neighborly neighborhood design:

One impediment to spontaneous, outdoor meeting/greeting/playing is simply a lack of city planning. Or at least, a lack of planning that prioritizes helping people connect.  it’s hard for a group of kids to meet up at the park, if it’s across a major access road with few stop lights and a sea of cars.

from Free Range Kids » Backdoor Neighbors Have to Drive 7 Miles to Shake Hands.

People connecting with people? No one’s going to object to that goal outright, you might think. Yet cities have their peculiar geographies. As bizarre a circumstance as traveling seven miles to shake hands with next-door neighbor—that stands out. That’s a headline . Other peculiarities are as quotidian as segregated neighborhoods; mixed-zoning areas that are “under the radar,” where environmental pollutants may be less regulated; or the allocation of shade trees along class lines. These are the features that go unexamined to the majority of city dwellers because they are—precisely—part of the landscape.

I’m looking forward to hearing Skenazy speak at Wheelock College when she comes to Boston next week.

Her constant questioning whether our parenting in this era has gotten ridiculously overprotective probably makes a lot people even more uncomfortable in the aftermath of the Newtown, Conn. school shootings. What is the right amount of safety, or more to the point, what is safety itself?  I’m one to say that physical safety, what our gut-level parent instinct tells us to protect, deserves a new look. Preventing our kids from suffering from immediate physical harm from school-shooters, pedophiles and the like, while important, is the low-hanging fruit. Gun control is a no-brainer. Some other things—to name just a few—such as the prevention of noncommunicable diseases, climate-change environmental catastrophe, Internet addiction, relegating people with autism to second-class citizenship, and so-called lifestyle-related diseases, require a bit more coffee (or a few more brain cells) to solve. So, here’s the manifesto (cue ironic brass band music):

Ralph Fiennes: Out of the hammocks and into the trees!

Claire Danes: Out of the cars and onto the streets!

Roberto Benigni: Zone for the Voles, Owls,  Toddlers, and Myriapods!

Not coming to a theatre near you. But to your neighborhood? I hope you’ll go the seven miles (if necessary) to shake hands with your warm, fuzzy city planner and your city councillor and ask them to option this film.

A Toolkit for Community Planning with Regard to Open Space

Fresh Pond

A Toolkit for Community Planning with Regard to Open Space

Caveat: this array of links from Mass Audubon may not be fully up to date. However, I offer it here for those of us relative newbies interested in understanding and working on open space issues.

Park[ing] Day

Enormous, lumpy, bright green spheres—walnuts sporting their whole husk—are littering the byways of Fresh Pond Reservation like a shell midden in the middle of nowhere. Asters are in full flush. A vole was so busy with fall it didn’t bother to hide itself, scuttling right in front of my feet across a wood chip path.

People are choosing their indoors existence right and left; even I am choosing my walled and locked and upholstered and gas-fueled exploits above just the wandering, lolling, and gazing that I could be doing. Every day. Or at least every week.

Park[ing] Day tests our indoors-burrowing, busifying, bustling outer shells. Park[ing] Day, now an annual event the world over, says What is open space, anyway? And is the line that designates a parking spot really etched in its rectangular purity, or should we, maybe, try to unthinkour privileging the presence of cars amongst our stalwart and tiniest pedestrians, our neighbors, our shopkeepers?

Kids from a local school not only making red-winged blackbird wings and beaks to wear, but just generally hanging out in the Play Outdoors! Parking Spot

At our Park[ing] Day spot, on Huron Avenue in Cambridge, Massachusetts, amongst the pine cones, chestnuts, birds nests, tracking guides, and diorama of Fresh Pond Reservation, I met a woman who said “I don’t want to be churlish.” What she then said wasn’t what I expected—perhaps that we aggravated traffic by our little park, or that our hasty signage was a blight. No, she related how she had played amongst the dirt and plants in Arizona as a child, that children today call out, above a floor littered with playthings, that they are bored.

The official co-sponsors of our spot were the Friends of Tobin (a local school organization) and Friends of Fresh Pond Reservation. Unofficially, let’s say the wild turkeys that have been crossing our streets, the gray squirrels mad with storage strategy, and the pines and chestnut trees that are giving kids in our neighborhood the best toys ever these days, are the real sponsors.