One of the key figures in the decades-long struggle to reclaim our neighborhoods’ waterfront for public use is stepping down from her leadership position this year. Valerie Burns, who has served as the president of Boston Natural Areas Network for the last quarter-century, last week announced her intention to leave the post in mid-March.
“Over that time working with so many residents and partners, BNAN  has enriched Boston with many acres of permanently protected urban wilds, community gardens, and greenways—results only dreamed of when Eugenie Beal and her colleagues formed BNAN in 1977,” Burns wrote in a letter to supporters on Wednesday. “BNAN is committed to neighborhoods that are not well served by traditional public parks, and to listening, then supporting residents’ ideas by forging partnerships that transform abandoned land into walking and biking trails, conservation land, and community gardens. BNAN has never been afraid of big projects that take time to bring to completion, as the many volunteers and partners of the Neponset and East Boston Greenways know so well.”
Those of us in Dorchester and Mattapan who’ve been even casually involved in the steady progress of reclamation along the Neponset River know that the organization— and Burns herself—have played the pivotal role as advocates and planners, helping to steer effective patient, visionary strategy towards concrete results. Burns has helped cobble together an impressive patchwork of environmental activists, politicians and business interests at key moments— leading directly to key advances, such as the opening of the Neponset Greenway, Neponset II Park, and Pope John Paul II Park.
Jim Hunt III, who led the city of Boston's Office of Environment and Energy under Mayor Menino, was one of those who found a critical ally in Burns.
"Valerie is our modern day Olmsted - a visionary and champion for Boston's greenspace, said Hunt. "She has been the driving force behind so many successes in Dorchester, from the Neposet Greenway to hidden gems like our community gardens and urban wilds. Our community is greener, healthier and more livable because of her efforts."
Burns also led BNAN’s efforts to advocate for additional state funds to build out a new park in Port Norfolk and extensions to the Greenway in Mattapan and Milton, two major projects that are now in the works. She also led BNAN to begin its stewardship of many community gardens in Dorchester and other Boston neighborhoods.
“I am especially proud of BNAN’s Youth Conservation Corps, now entering its 20th year as a three-season program serving 60 youth annually,” Burns noted this week.
Burns says she will continue as vice president of The Trustees of Reservations, BNAN’s affiliate, through June to aid in the transition. She’ll also assist in the search for her eventual replacement – a tall order. No doubt Valerie will remain an important voice in planning and speaking out on behalf of city neighborhoods that have benefited from her visionary leadership all these many years.
– Bill Forry