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5 QUESTIONS: Comfort and joy

Are there distinguishing traits about Frederick Law Olmsted’s Emerald Necklace that stand apart from his other designs?
The diversity of the passages of scenery that Olmsted was orchestrating was amplified by the built scenic advantages that the Necklace would pass through. We live in a world where the civic realm is often driven by naming opportunities —  museum wings, campus facilities, stadiums, playgrounds, themed gardens. Sometimes these introductions lay lightly on the land; on other occasions they don’t take advantage of a site’s inherent attributes and values. When Olmsted massaged and melded his design for the Necklace, he created a solution that not only worked in harmony with the site’s cultural and ecological systems, but also formed a spinal column from which to organize the city and guide its growth. This sounds like landscape urbanism to me, a century before the term became fashionable.  

Jamaica Pond, Boston. Photo: Soe Lin Post.

Is there one perch or spot within those 1,100 acres that resonates profoundly for you?
For me the most bittersweet is the spot [overlooking Jamaica Pond] where the Pinebank Mansion once stood. The first time I arrived at this unrivaled scenic vantage point, I was doing reconnaissance work as part of the masterplan with Patricia O’Donnell, Tony Walmsley, Marion Pressley, and Lydia Lowry in 1984–85. Olmsted clearly intended to take advantage of this panoramic view. I sat amongst the ruins of Pinebank, with its exfoliating terra-cotta tiles and wood. What I would soon learn was that Pinebank was the only pre-existing structure that Olmsted integrated into his design. Here was a happy marriage of a landscape that was at once small and big, rich in its unrivaled topographic variation, and spoke to the idea that change and continuity under the watchful eye of the landscape architect could be site-specific, practical, and rich in its cultural narrative.

What is your earliest impression of or emotional connection to walking the Necklace’s paths and edges?
Doing fieldwork 30 years ago in the Back Bay Fens with clipboard in hand and suddenly realizing that I was not in Kansas anymore — this area, overtaken by invasive phragmites, had become a heavily trafficked gay cruising area. For a sheltered 24-year-old who had not yet come to terms with his own sexuality, this was eye opening.

Can you reflect on its candidacy as a World Heritage Site?
As the first urban greenway in the world, and the progenitor of a typology, it’s a worthy candidate. The challenge here is not just the global political climate that goes along with any pursuit for World Heritage recognition, it is also about how locals value their heritage. I often ask, “Why is it that when Bostonians contribute to the arts — including two Emerald Necklace neighbors: the Gardner Museum and the Museum of Fine Arts, which along with the Institute of Contemporary Art have raised $1 billion dollars over the past decade — that parks like the Necklace, based on giving, are not as successful?”

How do you think Olmsted’s vision has stood the test of time?
There is a reason there are nearly 200 Olmsted-designed landscapes listed on the National Register of Historic Places, dozens of Olmsted-centric friends groups, more than a dozen biographies, and two documentaries completed over the past few years. Olmsted’s legacy has been made visible to millions who live, work, and play in these richly articulated environments that enable individual and collective acts of self-joyfulness. There is a reason why so many people can be found smiling when they are immersed in one of his designs.