Conservation History

Preserving Essential Urban Natural Habitats

The story of Boston's Urban Wilds

The Boston Urban Wilds Initiative (UWI) has its roots in the environmental movement of the 1970s. In 1976, the Boston Redevelopment Authority published a landmark document that inventoried and offered recommendations for Boston’s remaining natural areas. Boston’s Urban Wilds: A Natural Area Conservation Program identified 143 areas throughout the city, whether privately- or publicly-owned. In response to this report, the Boston Natural Areas Network was incorporated in 1977 as a non-profit organization (merged with the Trustees in 2014) to work with the city and state agencies to secure the inventoried urban wilds. With BNAN assistance, the city acquired more than 48 acres of land. BNAN, in cooperation with the Massachusetts Audubon Society, developed environmental educational programs at several urban wilds to foster understanding and proper use of these sites. Despite heightened concern, bulldozers continued to encroach upon the numerous pristine, unprotected wilds.

In 1990, BNAN issued a second call to arms with an updated urban wilds report documenting the loss of several important sites and stressing the need for increased protection of privately-owned natural areas. To confront the problems outlined in the report, the Boston Youth Clean-up Corps (BYCC) was enlisted to provide regular clean-up and vegetation control in the summer months while the Parks Department’s Maintenance Division supplied some spring and fall support. More recently, neighborhood, corporate, and non-profit groups have been recruited for clean-ups and special projects. Despite supervision by the Parks and Recreation Department since 1989, many protected natural areas remain neglected due to limited resources and/or a lack of grass-roots support. Furthermore, with the exception of properties under Boston Conservation Commission and Parks Department jurisdiction, urban wilds under city and private ownership are continuously threatened by potential development.

Besides the Parks Department and Conservation Commission, the MA Department of Conservation and Recreation (DCR) has also aggressively sought to protect significant parcels of land. Large sites identified in the 1976 BRA report, such as Sawmill Brook (Brook Farm) in West Roxbury and the Belle Isle Marsh Reservation in East Boston, are now owned by the DCR, as are a series of open spaces along the Dorchester shoreline and Neponset River. These acquisitions provide permanent protection to the city’s largest and most important remaining habitats.

Learn More

Visit the Leatherbee Woods page for photos and information on an accessible Urban Wild in West Roxbury

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