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Miyawaki Forest pilot project could offer pride of place with benefits for Ayer, Devens

A group of key participants in the Ayer/Devens Miyawaki Pocket Forests Project stand in an over-sized parking lot across from St. Mary’s Catholic Church, which owns the lot and has agreed to give up part of, swapping pavement for trees. Left to right: DEC Associate Planner and Ayer resident Beth Suedmeyer, DEC Director Peter Lowitt, Kiddie Depot teacher Ciarra “CC” Latimer, Ayer Community and Economic Development Office Director Alan Manoian; Mary Hamblett, officer manager at St. Anthony’s Catholic Church in Shirley and Julie Murray, Executive Assistant to St. Anthony’s pastor, Rev. Edmond Derosier, who is also acting pastor at St. Mary’s. (M.E. JONES/NASHOBA VALLEY VOICE)
A group of key participants in the Ayer/Devens Miyawaki Pocket Forests Project stand in an over-sized parking lot across from St. Mary’s Catholic Church, which owns the lot and has agreed to give up part of, swapping pavement for trees. Left to right: DEC Associate Planner and Ayer resident Beth Suedmeyer, DEC Director Peter Lowitt, Kiddie Depot teacher Ciarra “CC” Latimer, Ayer Community and Economic Development Office Director Alan Manoian; Mary Hamblett, officer manager at St. Anthony’s Catholic Church in Shirley and Julie Murray, Executive Assistant to St. Anthony’s pastor, Rev. Edmond Derosier, who is also acting pastor at St. Mary’s. (M.E. JONES/NASHOBA VALLEY VOICE)
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Pocket forests, or Miyawaki Forests, based on a model created by the late Japanese botanist of the same name, will soon be a green and growing feature of Ayer and Devens streetscapes.

More than a beautification effort, the mini forests, compact enough to wedge into small spaces that are decidedly unbeautiful now, offer a doable, sustainable way for cities and towns to combat climate change at a local level and spruce up neighborhoods that could use a helping hand, with a green thumb.

The new project is made possible in part by a $280,000 state grant and a working partnership that includes MassDevelopment, the Devens Enterprise Commission and Ayer’s Office of Community and Economic Development, whose director, Alan Manoian, announced the project’s launch in late September.

Neighborhoods like Shirley Street in Ayer, for example, where Manoian, DEC Director Peter Lowitt and others met with a reporter recently to talk about the Pocket/Miyawaki Forests pilot projects, soon to launch in the two adjacent communities: Devens and the town of Ayer.

The grant-funded effort may be led by government agencies, but it hinges on community engagement.

Residents in targeted areas will be consulted and involved in all aspects of the project, start to finish, Manoian explained in a press release.

“The residents of Ayer’s most vulnerable urban neighborhoods will directly engage in training, knowledge exchange, visioning, selecting, designing, planting, establishing and monitoring (their neighborhood’s) young and growing Miyawaki Forests,” he said.

It’s the second time in recent years that the town of Ayer has collaborated with DEC and MassDevelopment, the quasi-state agency that runs Devens, on a successful grant application. The other joint application was for a major makeover on Ayer’s West Main Street. That project is ongoing.

This one is different, though. Instead of a re-envisioned set-up lined with pedestrian-friendly sidewalks and dotted with businesses and a few homes, neighborhoods like Shirley Street are primarily residential and this project won’t change that.

The goal is to make the streets more attractive, more livable, while contributing to a greener, more eco-conscious planet. Sidewalks are not the focus — trees are — and some pavement may have to go.

Although Manoian prefers the title “Miyawaki Forests,” which opens a descriptive door to the concept, the term “pocket” is also telling. It suggests another innovative idea that has been aptly applied in urban settings countrywide: Pocket parks.

These are small, strategically placed, accessible oases of trees and greenery that can relieve the tedium and turbulence of big city life and serve practical purposes, too, such as reducing traffic noise and air pollution and mitigating adverse effects of pavement overkill, from radiant “heat islands” to water runoff and drainage problems.

Pocket forests, advocates say, can do all that and more. Which is why Massachusetts is promoting the idea and offering grant opportunities to communities that embrace it.

Ayer and Devens will be trendsetters, according to Manoian, who said he knows of only one other Miyawaki Forest project in the Northeast — in Cambridge.

Ayer is an apt choice for such a project. It’s small, just over 2 square miles, and densely settled, and is categorized as “urban,” on the state’s “Kind of Community” roster, with several neighborhoods next door to train tracks.

Shirley Street seems particularly suited. It is one of Ayer’s oldest neighborhoods, built by immigrants who came to work in area mills and factories, it was centered by St. Mary’s Catholic Church.

Dating to the 1800s, the stately white church, with its tall spire, still sits atop the hill, creating a handsome backdrop on one side of the street.

Not so across the way, where a rail yard is only partly concealed by scrawny trees, bare in winter. Noise from passing trains goes on all year, with related haze and odor. Plus, the street is a truck route, Manoian said.

Amid errant soda cans and plastic grocery bags on that side of the street, a rusted old smoker-barbecue rises from the weeds, a reminder that neglected areas tend to accumulate junk and litter. A huge, paved parking lot that looks almost big enough to land a small plane completes the picture.

It’s across from St. Mary’s and belongs to the church, which may have needed an expansive parking area back in the day, when congregations were larger, with two or three services on Sunday mornings. Today, only one was posted in front of the church: Sunday Mass, 9 a.m.

Times have changed, and the church is ready and willing to part with a chunk of the oversized lot, said Julie Murray, executive assistant to St. Mary’s acting pastor, Rev. Edmond Derosier, who was away.

“God loves trees more than pavement,” she quipped. And “Father D,” whose dual pastoral role also includes St. Anthony of Padua Catholic Church in Shirley, is on board with the project, she said.

Manoian said, the Shirley Street branch of the project involves ripping up pavement. But it’s not likely to be missed. This group thought so, anyway.

Besides Murray, Manoian, Lowitt and Suedmeyer, the group included St. Anthony’s Church office manager Mary Hamblett and Ciarra “CC” Latimer, a teacher at Kiddie Depot, a child care center and preschool across the street, housed in a building that was once St. Mary’s Catholic School. Another long-gone reason for the expansive parking lot.

Given that it’s mostly empty now, most of the time, they are probably right. On this day, fewer than a dozen cars were parked there, some of which likely belonged to school staff. Manoian said Kiddie Depot owners are on board with the project, too.

Manoian and Lowitt outlined an ambitious schedule for year one.

First steps include a community forum in October to gauge public interest, gather input and fill in blanks as a drawing board sketch becomes a full-fledged action plan. When a date is set, it will be posted on the town website, Manoian said.

Next on the multi-item to-do list: “outreach and coordination with local environmental/ science educators and students.” That phase has already begun, he said, and response so far has been positive. “People are excited about this,” he said.

Lowitt noted some of the project’s benefits. For example, trees capture pollutants on their leaves that would otherwise permeate the air, settling on houses and other surfaces. Basically, the leaves are a natural filtration system.

DEC Associate Planner Beth Suedmeyer agreed. “Trees are receptors of contaminants,” she said.

Suedmeyer is an Ayer resident, Manoian pointed out, well-versed in environmental matters and active in community affairs, serving on town boards such as the Community Preservation Act Committee. According to an online profile posted in 2016, she was then director of a nonprofit called People of Ayer Concerned about the Environment Inc.

Lowitt said DEC plans to enlist help from students at Francis W. Parker Essential Charter School in Devens for research. They also have a “great group of consultants” with technical expertise, he said. Together, they aim to pinpoint locations for Miyawaki Forests and pick the best species of trees for each one.

The working assumption is that Shirley Street will be bettered by swapping pavement for trees, which will also provide shade and eye-pleasing scenery, key for an area with train tracks and a railroad yard.

But doesn’t Devens have lots of trees already? It does, Lowitt said, but DEC’s green infrastructure map shows barren areas, gaps for new, cultivated growth to fill in.

Manoian is eager to get started. Besides the forum, neighborhood walking tours are planned in both communities, he and Lowitt said. There will also be community planting days and a resident-oriented monitoring program to track the growth of the new mini-forests and ensure that they survive and thrive.

DEC Environmental Planner Neil Angus couldn’t make it to the meet-up on Shirley Street, but he commented via email.

“This is an important project that has the potential to benefit so many people … and really be a catalyst for integrating nature into all urban environments,” he wrote. “We (at DEC and MassDevelopment) are excited and proud to be partnering with Ayer on this initiative,” Angus said.

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