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Fulfilling the Promise: Overview

Fulfilling the Promise: Community Building and the Emerald Necklace

Overview by Kishore Varanasi

Designed by landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted over 100 years ago, the Emerald Necklace runs from the Boston Common to Franklin Park and is seven miles long and contains some 1200 acres of park and recreational space. Franklin Park itself, with its beautiful rural scenery, is over 500 acres. Olmsted considered it the crowing jewel of not only the Emerald Necklace but all his country parks.

Olmsted shaped hundreds of urban parks and open spaces across the country. Indeed, Olmsted and his firm carried out over 500 commissions, including 100 public parks and recreation grounds. Notable among these are New York’s Central Park and Prospect Park, California’s Yosemite Valley, Stanford University’s campus, Washington D.C.’s Capitol Grounds, and, of course, Boston’s Emerald Necklace.

He drew much of his inspiration for these parks from his travels in Europe. He liked the new European idea of public parks that were open for all to enjoy and felt that America’s great cities should offer the same types of open spaces to their residents. Throughout the Fulfilling the Promise: Community Building and the Emerald Necklace series, we too will look to global park precedents for ideas and inspiration.

Working in an age of urbanization, Olmsted believed parks like the Emerald Necklace could offer visitors of all walks of life a much-needed respite from busy urban life. Although we now live in a very different age of urbanization, this is still true today. The difference is, however, that we now ask our parks and open spaces to do much more than just provide a place for leisure or recreation.

When Olmsted first began to study and work on the Emerald Necklace in the late 1870s and early 1880s, Boston was an industrial city with a population of about 362,000, and growing steadily. Today, we are an innovation city–with booming technology, medicine and education sectors–of about 667,000, and once again growing steadily. More than ever, we need that respite Olmsted aimed to provide with his parks. But we also need to mitigate urban heat island effects, adapt to climate change and update our transportation systems. These are challenges that these same urban open spaces designed by Olmsted so many years ago may be able to help us solve.

This has been a popular topic of late, particularly as it relates to the completion of the Emerald Necklace along Columbia Road in Dorchester. The subject of a recent BSA Greenway Links Charrette, a promised piece of the Boston 2024 Olympic and Paralympic Games legacy plan, and a community discussion topic of the Imagine Boston 2030 master planning process, this 2.3 mile stretch of road represents the missing link between Joe Moakley Park and Franklin Park and the rest of the Emerald Necklace.

Indeed, Columbia Road was originally a part of Olmsted’s vision for the Emerald Necklace. And it can be once again today. However, we must ask not only what it means to be a part of this park network today, but also what it means to be a part of the surrounding and remarkably diverse neighborhoods that have developed along this corridor over the last century.

Columbia Road exists today as an essential part of a robust residential fabric. It is at once a critical urban connection and a critical hole in our open space network. Should this corridor be treated like other parts and parks of the Emerald Necklace, or is it a clasp--so to speak--all its own? Could it be a piece of urban and open space infrastructure that holds together not just neighborhoods but also parks?

As we explore this corridor and its potential for community building over the next few months, we will ask and aim to answer many such physical and social questions. Who lives on and around Columbia Road today and how can we use improvements to give back to these communities as well as the city as a whole? Is it possible to improve public transportation, as well as access to healthcare, educational and employment opportunities? To what degree might these changes encourage gentrification? And how might we ensure that new open spaces remain open to all, just as Olmsted envisioned?

Our goal in asking these questions and hosting this series is not necessarily to posit a solution to these challenges but rather to frame the problem as accurately as possible. To ensure that we, as a city and community of designers and citizens, work together to understand this remarkable corridor’s fullest potential. Only then, will we be able to complete the Emerald Necklace and Olmsted’s vision for a truly public and enduring urban park system.

Olmsted himself wore many hats over the course of his life. He was a farmer, a journalist, a project manager, an author, and of course, a landscape architect--a term he coined himself, by the way, with his partner Calvert Vaux. Perhaps because he himself brought so many different perspectives to the table, he always believed deeply in collaboration across professions. If we hope to complete the Emerald Necklace in a way that is fitting of Olmsted’s vision, we too must take a collaborative and creative approach to this problem!


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