Project Explores Hidden History Of Urban Green Spaces In Providence

Jan 10, 2016

A team at Brown University is working to uncover the history of green spaces in Providence.

When Scott Frickel came to Brown University, he brought with him a study that looks at how industrial sites have changed over decades in New Orleans, Minneapolis, Philadelphia, and Portland, Oregon. 

Frickel has added Providence to that study and expanded the scope to look at green spaces. He sent a team of students to document four Providence neighborhoods. For nearly a year they photographed and noted the location of any kind of green space.

“…abandoned lots, forested nooks and crannies and hillsides that are just there unused -- maybe fenced, maybe not -- to get a sense of what kind of green space actually exists in a neighborhood and whether that varies from one neighborhood to another,” said Frickel. 

Frickel also wants to uncover where these green spaces come from. In the other four cities, Frickel found many parks, playgrounds and even daycare centers were once industrial sites. That may be a concern for Providence, a port city with a long history of industrial pollution.

“Those industrial activities transform, fundamentally, physically, bio-geochemically, transform land by depositing hazardous waste onto that land. The activities may stop, business may move, but unless it's cleaned up, those contaminants will remain on the site.”

Policies and regulations exist to manage how to clean up and use the land of former large industrial companies. Frickel said his multi-city research project shows small and medium businesses make up the vast majority of industrial sites in urban areas. Those tend to fly under the radar of most environmental enforcement agencies.

Frickel’s research team now has two historical databases: one for industrial sites over the past 50 years and another for urban green spaces since the 1930s. The project is in its early stage. Frickel and his students will begin making sense of the collected data in the spring. 

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