Tuesday, August 8, 2017

Newton’s Lost Wetlands and Buried Brooks

Posted by Richard B. Primack

“As in many countries precious metals belong to the crown, so here natural objects of rare beauty should belong to the public.” -Thoreau in his Journal, 1861

Until about 120 years ago, Newton, MA, was filled with wet meadows, marshes, and swamps, connected by miles of brooks. Where did they go? In an article published June 7 in the Newton Tab, I explain how over the past two centuries, as Newton changed from farming to industry, and then to a Boston suburb, developers and town workers buried brooks in culverts or put them into channels. Wetlands were filled in and became the sites of playgrounds, schools, other public buildings, and residential neighborhoods. The forgotten brooks and wetlands of Newton are periodically remembered when basements, streets, and playgrounds become flooded after heavy rains. 

Modified 1892 drainage map showing the main brooks and associated wetlands, with the current position of some schools and village centers and the Newton Library. Map by Matt Rothendler.

Many New England towns are revisiting past decisions to bury and channelize brooks. Some towns are uncovering buried streams and removing the vertical walls of channels, allowing streams to re-integrate with wetlands. Restoring brooks to something closer to their original condition and adding natural vegetation could help clean the brook’s water, reduce flooding, provide natural water features, and improve the recreational value of playgrounds, parks, and neighborhoods. 

Cheesecake Brook appears wild and well-integrated with the surrounding forest along Fuller Street.

Returning brooks to their natural state is expensive in the short term, but in the long run the economic, environmental, and recreational benefits to the people and businesses of Newton might be worth it. After a long history of channelizing and burying brooks and filling in wetlands for development, Newton’s future could benefit from undoing some of its past. 

Cheesecake Brook is channelized and separated from natural habitat along Albemarle Road. 

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