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Kaid Benfield’s Blog

Boston's Emerald Necklace sets the standard for linked city parks

Kaid Benfield

Posted November 15, 2013

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  Arnold Arboretum (by: Chris Devers, creative commons)

I’m fortunate to be participating in this week’s annual meeting of one of my favorite organizations, the American Society of Landscape Architects.  Since the conference is being held in Boston, this gives me a great opportunity to highlight ASLA’s superb Landscape Architect’s Guide to Boston, published online and similar in concept and format to the organization’s guide to Washington, which I highlighted here.

  Emerald Necklace map (courtesy of Emerald Necklace Conservancy)

The guide begins, as it must, with Boston’s “Emerald Necklace,” described as a 1,100-acre chain of green spaces connecting the Boston Common—in the heart of the city and dating from the colonial period—and the adjacent 1837 Boston Public Garden to five additional parks and an arboretum designed by legendary landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted:  The Arnold Arboretum, Back Bay Fens, Franklin Park, The Riverway, Olmsted Park, and Jamaica Pond.

  Back Bay Fens (by: Steffany F!, creative commons)  

All are linked by parkways and waterways; all the Olmsted projects were developed in the late 1880s.  The guide doesn’t specifically include the mile-and-a-quarter Commonwealth Avenue Mall – which links the Public Garden and the Back Bay Fens – as a distinct part of the chain, but the city of Boston’s description does.

  Commonwealth Ave Mall (by: Wally Gobetz, creative commons)

From Boston Common to Franklin Park (home of Boston’s zoo), it is approximately 7 miles by foot or bike.  The Emerald Necklace is the only remaining extant linear park designed by Frederick Law Olmsted.

  Olmsted Park sign (by: John Stephen Dwyer, Wikimedia Commons)

I have visited some of those, and the new guide makes me want to get on a bike and visit all of them.  According to the Necklace’s Wikipedia entry, the system comprises half of the City of Boston's park acreage, along with parkland in the Town of Brookline, and parkways and park edges under state jurisdiction.  More than 300,000 people live within its watershed area, and the parks draw over a million visitors per year.

  Boston from the Public Garden (by: Chris Devers, creative commons)

Though the chain of parks looks as if its components are as nature constructed them, they in fact are designed landscapes.  From the city’s description:

“Study these green spaces more closely and you'll find they are far from naturally occurring phenomena. They are feats of engineering, marvels of visionary urban planning, corridors of transportation, contributors to the public health, and a canvas upon which an artist has worked in plants, trees, earth and water instead of oils.

“The artist we refer to here is Frederick Law Olmsted who, for his vision and craft, is known as the father of landscape architecture . . . Olmsted designed this park system in the later 19th century to provide a common ground to which all people could come for healthful relief from the pollution, noise and overcrowding of city life. Carriages, horseback riders and pedestrians could enjoy their recreations, and Bostonians could find places for both active play and quiet contemplation. He reshaped the topography to solve major drainage and sewage problems and to create a rustic environment.”

  Arnold Arboretum (by: Chris Devers, creative commons)

I believe that cities need nature to soften the sometimes harsh or overwhelming effects of pavement and density.  We need that density – if maybe not quite so much pavement – in order to create healthy, walkable urban environments and to limit encroachment on rural land outside cities.  But nature can make it so much more livable and appealing.  I sometimes write about what I call the paradox of smart growth – urban density reduces environmental impacts across a region, but can increase them locally, at the neighborhood scale.  Parks and other forms of nature provide an antidote.

  Boston Common (by: callmekato, creative commons)

The Landscape Architect’s Guide to Boston isn’t limited to the Emerald Necklace, or even to parks, though it covers those subjects extremely well.  Take a look to find everything from community gardens to green public alleys to outdoor art installations.  But the Necklace, which gets so many things right, is a great place to start.

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Kaid Benfield writes about community, development, and the environment on Switchboard and in the national media.  For more posts, see his blog's home page.  Kaid’s forthcoming book, People Habitat: 25 Ways to Think About Greener, Healthier Cities, will be released in January.

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Neil FlanaganNov 16 2013 12:14 PM

The Emerald Necklace is really an outstanding city park. Well-designed, well-placed, and a kind of landscape infrastructure.

As you know, DC is blighted by an enormous amount of unstructured green space. I think that the Emerald Necklace would serve as a model for connecting the small parks to larger ones and creating alternative pedestrian routes.

Daniel JostNov 18 2013 12:30 AM

Nice post, but just thought you might want to know that while the Emerald Necklace is probably the greatest example of a linear park designed by Olmsted, it's not the only one still remaining. Olmsted's first interconnected park system was designed for Buffalo, NY and a number of the parkways (which at four elms wide must qualify as linear parks) still exist. I recommend touring Bidwell Parkway via google maps street view.

Jane WinslowNov 20 2013 02:25 PM

Great post. Although the Emerald Necklace may be the best example of a linear park designed by Olmsted, the parks and parkways system designed by Olmsted for Louisville, KY is another great example.

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