Natural Resource Inventory & Stewardship Plan of Arlington's Great Meadows in Lexington
July 2001, Frances Clark for the Arlington Conservation Commission
I. Purpose

The purpose of this report is to provide both Arlington and Lexington with specific guidance as to how to protect the natural resources of Arlington’s Great Meadows and to provide for compatible public uses. It gathers in one place the relevant information concerning the ecological values and stewardship needs of this 183-acre open space. It inventories the many ecological, cultural, recreational, and education assets of the property and proposes specific, practical recommendations for their protection and enhancement. It will be useful for developing management policies, volunteer projects, public programs and restoration projects. It is hoped that this report will stimulate and guide the Towns of Arlington and Lexington, not only to permanently protect its unique resources, but equally important to support the ongoing stewardship of this remarkable regional asset.

II. Summary of Findings

Arlington’s Great Meadows, located entirely in the town of Lexington, is a 183-acre natural area surrounded by densely populated suburbs of Boston. While not permanently protected as conservation land, Great Meadows has served as public open space since 1872, when the large wetland was purchased by the Town of Arlington as part of its water supply system. Today Arlington’s Great Meadows is a significant green space surrounded by two schools, a nursing center, condominiums, and single-family homes. It is bordered by the highly popular Minuteman Commuter Bikeway. Great Meadows lies in close proximity to conservation land owned by Lexington, and serves as de facto conservation land for the immediate neighborhood and the region as a whole. 

The basis of any stewardship plan is an inventory of the natural resources of a site. The varied topography, created by the glaciers, includes kame terraces, outwash plains, and the extensive kettlehole that forms the Meadows. Due in part to the unusual juxtaposition of geological features, Arlington’s Great Meadows supports regionally unusual natural plant communities: marsh, vernal pool, oak woodland, and successional grassland. Eight community types in all provide habitat for an identified 56 species of breeding birds, 11 12 species of amphibians and reptiles, and 251 species of plants. Several of these species are unusual, if not rare, and many more are common "watchable" wildlife species that people enjoy seeing and learning about. In addition, over the last thirty years, several reports highlight the Great Meadows’ natural resource services, including water supply protection, flood control, and wildlife habitat. Lying within the Mystic River Watershed, Arlington’s Great Meadows buffers portions of Sickle Brook and Munroe Brook and reduces flooding of the Arlington Reservoir and Mill Brook downstream. 

In addition, Arlington’s Great Meadows features a variety of cultural, recreational, and educational assets. Stonewalls, cart paths, open fields, and extensive vistas are reminiscent of the historic Massachusetts landscape. An undeveloped trail network extends throughout most of the property except the wetlands. Visitors enjoy hiking, cross-country skiing, bird watching, dog-walking, and berry picking. Two nearby schools often use Great Meadows as an outdoor classroom. The scenic values are readily accessible for those traveling the Minuteman Commuter Bikeway.

III. Values

Great Meadows is an ecological and scenic treasure amidst suburban Boston. Not only is the extensive marsh one of the largest in the region, but also it is surrounded by open grasslands and woodlands on undulating hills that are reminiscent of naturalistic landscapes designed by Frederick Law Olmsted, the famous landscape architect of the late 19th and early 20th century. It offers a destination point for those using the Minuteman Bikeway and for birders, nature watchers, and artists. Many urbanites seek out Great Meadows because of its expansive landscape, its tranquility, and bird life. It is the only largest fully undeveloped area owned by the Town of Arlington; its other open spaces are partially developed parklands. Equally important, the combination proximity of the wetlands and to the fast draining uplands serves to regulate flooding and protect water quality of the Arlington Reservoir and adjacent streams and lowlands.

IV. Concerns

Despite a long history of citizen interest in Arlington’s Great Meadows as conservation land, it is not yet permanently protected and continues to be threatened by development proposals. Stewardship activity has been limited in part by its location in Lexington and also by the uncertainty over the future of the Great Meadows. Consequently, the full potential of this 183-acre green space has yet to be achieved. 

Several threats could affect the existence of Great Meadows and its ecological, cultural, recreational, and educational resources. The overarching threat is the conversion of land-use from a natural open space to a more developed status. As long as Great Meadows is unprotected open space, development remains a possibility and will likely continue to divert citizen support from the task of managing the property. 

The loss of Great Meadows to development would eliminate or seriously degrade many of its functions and values:

  • Unusual natural habitats would be lost or compromised
  • Flooding could increase downstream, particularly around Arlington Reservoir
  • Scenic and historic landscapes would be severely compromised
  • Citizens would lose access to 183 acres of open space within a densely developed suburb of Boston and along the popular Minuteman Bikeway
Stewardship of the property is essential to sustain the functions and values of the open space. Of prime concern is maintaining the unique natural communities that rely on periodic natural disturbance, such as fire, to keep them in early successional stages. Another is protecting the site from being overwhelmed by invasive exotic species, such as buckthorn, phragmites, honeysuckle, and swallowwort. Promoting increased public use while maintaining the natural qualities of the site is a third major challenge. While public access is essential for long-term public support of Arlington’s Great Meadows, turning Great Meadows into another suburban park would greatly diminish its special qualities. 

V. Recommendations 

Part of the purpose of the report is to make practical recommendations to the Conservation Commission, understanding that the Board of Selectmen has authority over the property. The overarching recommendations are as follows:

  • Determine the long-term status for Arlington Great Meadows. As long as the future use of the property remains unsettled, it is unlikely that either town will be willing to commit significant resources to its stewardship over the longterm. The property will remain at risk and under utilized. 
  • Protect and manage existing plant communities and wildlife values, thereby also preserving unique scenic qualities. 
  • Encourage compatible public use and enjoyment by developing access points and designing an environmentally sensitive trail network, along with public-use policies. 
  • Work with the Town of Lexington, surrounding neighborhoods, and other interests to accomplish these recommendations. It is an unusual situation to have such a significant public resource owned by one town but wholly contained within another town’s borders. Cooperation and creativity by both towns is essential.
VI. Conclusion

Arlington’s Great Meadows in Lexington is a major asset to the region for its ecological, scenic, recreational, and educational values. As the region continues to develop the last open spaces, these remaining parcels only increase in value. Whatever decisions are made in the near future will affect the quality of life of citizens throughout the region for years to come.