Buttonwood Park has long served its original purpose. For over 100 years it has been a multi-use recreation venue, with features designed to attract visitors in all seasons. It's a convenient urban getaway featuring 97 acres of green grass, green trees, and a pond bordering four busy thoroughfares and tightly-packed neighborhoods.
The park has always seen action in every season. Baseball fields and tennis and basketball courts pull in the jocks. There's a playground for children near the Arboretum, a community center, and the Lawler Library. Schoolchildren visit, there are car shows in summer, and Buttonwood Pond was an ice skating mecca, though in recent years it has frozen much less often. In winter, birders might spot the occasional odd duck species on the water.
But keeping the park spruced up is a costly and labor-intensive effort. Serious improvements have been fitful and tough to work into the city's budget.
That has been true from the start. Buttonwood Park was designed in the mid 1890s by Charles Eliot of Olmsted, Olmsted & Eliot, a famous Boston firm specializing in landscape architecture. The plan was shelved in the succeeding administration, but many of its features were incorporated in the park.
In 1986 a master plan for the park was developed, and the Friends of Buttonwood Park was established around the same time to advocate for upkeep and improvements detailed in the master plan, and to find ways to fund those efforts. The Friends currently has about 400 members.
A Little Help from the Friends
The group's most recent push started in 2014 with new basketball courts that the community wanted and is making good use of.
"We try to strike a balance between active and passive recreation," said Richard Leary, past president and current board member for the Friends. "It's achieving that balance that really makes a park successful."
In the way of passive recreation, the Friends have recently spiffed up the grounds around the Arboretum and its collection of large specimen trees, the greenhouse, and the wetlands buffer garden bordering Buttonwood Brook, which will make the spot a wonderful place to stroll as plants and trees come into bloom.
Now the Friends are shifting gears for the Buttonwood North Restoration Project, a plan to turn the neglected eighteen acres of brushy woods sandwiched between Buttonwood Pond and Route 6 into an appealing web of nature trails and picnic areas along the northern edge of the pond.
The North Woods project supports the Friends' overarching “Buttonwood on the Move” health initiative, intended to promote exercise and mental relaxation. "We want to see people getting out and getting exercise," Leary said.
Buttonwood on the Move parallels what's going on elsewhere in New Bedford such as the Buzzards Bay Coalition's efforts at The Sawmill on the Acushnet River, and the Trustees of Reservations' revival of Haskell Gardens.
The interest in easy-access recreation spots reaches beyond this area. For example, similar efforts can also be seen along the South Boston waterfront. Exploding redevelopment there is being matched by an extension of, and dramatic improvements to, Boston's Harborwalk, offering more opportunities for active and passive recreation for both residents and visitors.
No timeline has been announced for completing the Buttonwood North project because the Friends are still working on funding, and Leary doesn't want to create expectations that can't be met. Prodded, he estimated – just guessing, he said – it's probably a three-to-five-year project. Advancing the project depends a lot on fundraising.
The Friends are working to raise $100,000 needed for the master plan and the actual work on the trail system.
All According to Plan
The North Woods project encompasses the land from the northwestern edge of the pond on Brownell Ave. to within a hundred yards or so of the community center – the old warming house on Oneida Street.
An old path leads around the northern shoreline of the pond, but the bridge across Buttonwood Brook was vandalized and destroyed about ten years ago, which reduced foot traffic around the pond, Leary said. That path is now mostly overgrown.
Once work gets underway, the bridge will be rebuilt. Also, the culvert bridge along the old bridle path near Route 6 will be improved, and the Friends plan for a third bridge between the current two to access the woodland.
On the east side of the brook, a series of gravel paths will weave through the heart of the woods.
Phragmites have taken over the northern shoreline of Buttonwood Pond, blocking some of the view. Eliminating the reeds would open the view of the pond from the new trail system, but phragmite is a tenacious reed that's expensive to eradicate. It will be the city's job to decide
what will be done with them. No decisions have been made yet.
On the north end of the park along Route 6, bordered by the stone wall created as a WPA project during the Depression, plans call for the underbrush to be cleared and trails developed. This is a spot currently most used by the homeless and those looking for a spot for an impromptu drinking party.
"I think one of the reasons neighbors want this part built is to see the problem eliminated," Leary said.
There will be a trail around the meadow near Ilion Street, and a possible Ilion Street access point.
The new trails' starting point on the northeast side of the pond will be where the Oneida Nursery on Oneida Street was located about 50 years ago. The nursery sat just behind the residences that now back up to the park.
This was the city's tree nursery where trees were grown, then replanted around New Bedford. The spot was neglected for decades, but Friends members have been cleaning up the brush for the last two years.
There are low spots in this section of the north woods, and roughly 300 yards of raised boardwalk will be installed to keep pedestrians out of the mud. Plans also call for viewing platforms that will overlook the pond. The route for the boardwalk appears to be about twenty-five yards in from edge of pond.
To achieve its goals, the Friends coordinates with other organizations and oversight agencies such as the New Bedford Conservation Commission, with which the Friends has established a good working relationship.
"The Friends understand the need to minimize environmental impacts to sensitive wetland areas while at the same time opening these areas up for the general public to enjoy," said Sarah Porter, the conservation agent for the commission. "They come in and present their projects professionally and in advance of permit application submission. They ask for guidance on the permits they will need under the [Massachusetts] Wetlands Protection Act and City Wetlands Ordinance."
The Friends have also benefited from interacting with such nonprofit organizations as the Buzzards Bay Coalition and the Trustees of Reservations.
"I think that's one of the real strong suits of the South Coast: a number of nonprofit organizations who are really strong advocates and forces for environmental and recreation-oriented change," said Leary. "I think there's a lot of synergy between all these nonprofits. As an organization we look to these organizations to see what can be done."
Maintaining a thriving Buttonwood Park is a never-ending task requiring ongoing funding. For example, the beloved Japanese Cherry trees along the pond are in tough shape and are likely to require an investment. Down the road, the Friends are planning to replace the section of Fuller Parkway leading into the park from Brownell Avenue, which also serves as a dam for the pond.
Not to be forgotten in the ongoing Buttonwood Park story is the popular, controversial, and well-regarded Buttonwood Park Zoo, which is undertaking a fifteen-year, $22 million restoration project. The city may have a tiger by the tail supporting both Buttonwood Park and the zoo, but those 97 acres have provided experiences enriching the lives of a lot of people.
To make a donation to the Friends of Buttonwood Park, visit buttonwoodpark.org and click the onscreen “donate” button.