In Manhattan, we saw the visual impact of Frederick Law Olmsted’s expansive, 778 acre Central Park. When he came to Boston, the original Boston Common, established near the beginnings of the peninsula’s settlement, was only 50 acres. Boston’s fills had leveled its hills into its bays to grow landmass. The result was an ever stagnating water flow from the rivers that fed these bays.
Olmsted’s challenge was to create a larger, more interesting park. But a single, rectangular park would not be possible in Boston due to the irregular growth pattern. Although the Back Bay had a regular pattern like New York, it had already been developed with buildings.
The genius of Olmsted’s idea was to use the restoration and revitalization of the rivers and marshes as the parks themselves. This, in a city that had leveled its natural hills to fill its natural waterways!
Beginning about 1878, Olmsted finalized a design to link the original Boston Common with the large 527 acre Franklin Park (both in forest green). A long necklace of parks was developed as a series of varied emeralds totaling 1,100 acres.
Through the Public Garden adjacent the Common, a great parkway was created as the central avenue through the even grid of the back bay (orange) adjacent the Charles River (blue). Then, a long, varied park system (yellow) would meander along the Muddy River from the Fens1 to Jamaica Pond, the Arboretum, and a tree-lined roadway connection to Franklin Park.
Although not a singular recognizable form in the figure of Boston like Central Park stood in Manhattan, the resulting park reflected a similar variation of scenes, distinct moods, and landscape features strung through the city. In their course, the Emerald Necklace also successfully managed storm and wastewater and revitalized severely weakened marshes.
The strategy seems like such an obvious solution to the problem. But at a time just after the Civil War, when the country had barely conquered steam power and the electric light bulb, Olmsted’s ideas were a challenge to the industrialized mindset of the country.
They became the inspiration for a very common planning scheme seen throughout North Carolina today…
1. Softball question: Any guesses to what major league sports park would be located beside a path through the Fens?
2. There is a good one-hour documentary on Olmsted you can watch online for free at the PBS.org page dedicated to it: Frederick Law Olmsted: Designing America. The particular segment on Boston begins at 42:12, but watch the whole piece for connections in Olmsted’s work to Central and Prospect parks, Buffalo, parkways, Tacoma, and the Biltmore House.