Here on a peninsula that is so densely developed, Boston takes its open space pretty seriously.
After all, this is a city that is home to the Emerald Necklace, Frederick Law Olmsted's masterful system of linked parks, though it's more of a continuous, meandering strand than a necklace, because the planned return trip from Franklin Park to South Boston along Columbia Road was never completed.
The Olmsted park system is the gold standard for public space, and it's very much on the minds of Bostonians right now, because some 288 acres of new parklands are about to become available. That's the amount of open space that the builders of the Big Dig promised to create in the city, as a big thank-you for putting up with the 12-year, $14.6 billion depression of the Central Artery in downtown Boston. (Actually, the creation of the parks is required).
Out in the harbor, Spectacle Island, where much of the dirt from the Big Dig was dumped, is set to open this summer. Forty-two acres of new parks are planned for the easternmost end of the Charles River, to complement the Esplanade. And the crowning jewel will be the 30-acre strip of land from Chinatown to the North End, where the elevated highway once stood. That landscape is seen as the kind of opportunity for placemaking that hasn't presented itself since Olmsted.
It took the father of landscape architecture almost 20 years, from 1878 to 1896, to create the six parks considered the main elements of the Emerald Necklace: the Back Bay Fens, the Riverway, Olmsted Park, Jamaica Pond park, Arnold Arboretum, and Franklin Park. All told it's 5 miles and 1,000 acres of lawn, woods, fields, brooks, and pathways; in the area of Fenway Park, the system connects via the Muddy River and Charlesgate to the base of Commonwealth Avenue, a Paris-style boulevard with parks down the middle. That, in turn, connects to the Public Garden and finally Boston Common, the city's most Central Park-like open space, where cows grazed and revolutions simmered.
Though it's a perfect place to stroll or jog or bicycle today, the Emerald Necklace actually started as a flood and sewage control project, said Fred Schwartz, a ranger for the National Park Service stationed at the Olmsted homestead in Brookline. What Olmsted managed to do, he added, was combine park design, civil engineering, public health, transportation, and neighborhood development, producing a comprehensive system that gave rise to the profession of urban planning.
The idea in the 1870s was to solve the public health and flooding problems stemming from the filling of Back Bay, and give people from all walks of life "a relief valve for the gritty urban life at the time," said Schwartz. Olmsted sought to refer to native characteristics, like the marsh (the Fens) and the New England countryside (Franklin Park). A golf course was added to the latter in 1922.
As with Central Park, Olmsted had real-estate enhancement very much in mind. In the Fenway neighborhood at the turn of the 19th and 20th centuries, apartment buildings sprang up overlooking the greenspace, as did major cultural institutions such as the Museum of Fine Arts, the Massachusetts Historical Society, Isabella Stewart Gardner's house and museum, Simmons College, and Fenway Park.
Since then, there's mostly been a fine-tuning of urban public spaces in Boston, with a few notable duds that came along with urban renewal, including City Hall Plaza. The six acres of brick surrounding Boston City Hall is worth a look nonetheless; at the eastern edge, Hanover Street, which used to run through the plaza, is about to be reconnected to the North End.
Some city parks got significant makeovers. Christopher Columbus Park, by the Long Wharf Marriott, was based on a modernist design but suffered from neglect; it's been redone as a tranquil spot to look over Boston Harbor. Copley Square, named for Boston artist John Singleton Copley, has also gone through several transformations and is now a major gathering spot for concerts and sunbathing, framed by H. H. Richardson's Trinity Church, I.M. Pei's John Hancock Tower, and Charles McKim's Boston Public Library.
State and local governments aren't doing much new park building these days, so the private sector has stepped in. A prime example of that is Post Office Square, where a hulking parking garage was thrust underground, and a one-acre greenspace placed on top. Revenues from the garage keep the park going. On sunny days it's filled with office workers on lunch breaks.
Similarly, Rowes Wharf, with its signature arch, provides public access to the water and a fine view of the old Northern Avenue bridge, one of two remaining swing bridges in Massachusetts and the pedestrian link to the South Boston Waterfront. The first major building in that emerging district, the Joseph Moakley Federal Courthouse, has a wonderful if hidden-away harborside lawn. There's another park east of the Seaport Hotel, at D Street and Northern Avenue, that's
perfect for watching fishing boats.
The past, present, and future of public space in Boston can be viewed in an afternoon. The Emerald Necklace is our foundation of tradition, like a college campus quadrangle. The place where the elevated Central Artery once stood -- an Erector-set viaduct of green steel and concrete, now almost completely erased from the landscape -- is our 21st-century common ground. The city's greatest civic test is to make a place that's as good, or better.
For an interactive map to Boston's open spaces, visit www.cityofboston.gov/parks/openspaces.