Why We Care About Newton’s Aqueducts

Newton’s two aqueducts form the sides of a triangle, entering the city across the Charles River in Waban and Upper Falls about a mile apart, and continuing to Four Corners, where they come together and run in close proximity to Newton Centre Playground. With few exceptions, the paths atop the aqueducts in these sections of the city are accessible by foot. Because they cross intersections at grade, they function as shortcuts for walkers and bicyclists. Countless school children and adults over the years have discovered not only more direct routes to their destinations over these paths, but safer and more intriguing ones as well.

For passive recreation, the trails along the aqueducts are rich with ever-changing views, the tranquility of nature and mostly level trails. Birds and other wildlife, shade trees, wildflowers, vines and other plant-life abound along the paths. The hustle and bustle of life quickly fades as the warmth of the spring sun or the cool of dappled shade or the rustle of drying leaves washes over the senses. The power of quiet, green surroundings to calm agitation, restore perspective and rebuild reserves are well established.

The proximity of these linear parks to so many residents makes them uniquely valuable. Access from nearly every intersection with streets they cross at grade opens the opportunity for short walks and longer hikes. Cyclists, joggers and intrepid walkers can venture beyond our borders onto trails in adjacent towns-both Needham and Wellesley have connecting trails that offer added miles of exercise and enjoyment.

Along Quinobequin Road, which follows the Charles River from Route 16 to Route 9, a path runs adjacent to the river. It’s overgrown in some places but could be cleared for pedestrian use. This idea has been floating for many years and regularly promoted by the Conservators. Clearing and/or improving this pathway would create a base for the two sides of the triangle formed by the aqueducts. This would yield a continuous loop of about five miles from Waban, through Newton Highlands to Newton Centre, back through Newton Highlands to Upper Falls and then along the river on the return to Waban.

From the air, the aqueducts appear as ribbons of green from the Charles River to Newton Centre, cutting across streets and villages and connecting parks and playgrounds. They are corridors along which wildlife can travel, increasing the value of our parks and open spaces as habitat for many species. They represent appendages to large open spaces such as Cold Spring Park and the Newton Cemetery, Newton Centre Playground, Hemlock Gorge and the Charles River corridor.

These uses, while important to all of us who care about open space preservation, are incidental to the purposes for which the aqueducts were originally constructed and are currently used. But they have come to serve essential ancillary services by their presence in our community. Back in the 1950s and 1960s, several parcels of the Cochituate Aqueduct were sold to private homeowners, blocking public access to several sections. While it is not clear at this point that acquiring any or all of those parcels makes sense, given the probable cost, we must certainly be vigilant in preventing future loss of this amenity, either by sale or lack of use. Understandably, adjacent homeowners see the value of this green space and many use the aqueducts as extensions of their own backyards. We see this as part of the full range of appropriate uses for these urban greenways as long as they do not conflict or interfere with public access and public use of the pathways.

The Cochituate Aqueduct is owned by the City of Newton and the Sudbury is owned by the MWRA. This ownership structure has been in place for many years. But the MWRA has talked at points in the past about the need to sell off the Sudbury Aqueduct (it is being held currently only for its value as a backup water main, should another part of the system fail). As work to upgrade the metropolitan water system continues, there may be an opportunity to acquire the Sudbury as open space. If the MWRA decides it no longer needs this aqueduct, we should be prepared to make our case as strongly as possible and to prevent its loss to private homeowners or other purposes incompatible with public use and passive recreation.

The best way to preserve the aqueducts for the future is to use them now. If community use is well-established over an extended period, it will be difficult to impose other, inappropriate uses.

Doug Dickson