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Boston Society of Architects

Renew Feature

On the right tract

Investing in Boston’s parks is crucial to revitalizing the city for the 21st century

RENEW Jan-March 2020


Summer/Winter: At Moakley Park in South Boston, a proposed elevated berm will help to prevent flooding while serving as a community amenity for sports, picnics, and even winter sledding.

Images courtesy of Stoss Landscape Urbanism, ©2019

Boston is a city that prides itself on having parks before there were parks. Boston Common, set aside in 1634 to graze cows, is credited as “America’s first public park.” One hundred thirty-five years ago, the city was also home to America’s first playground, when Frederick Law Olmsted designed and developed the Emerald Necklace—envisioning 1,100 continuous acres connecting major parks from the Common to Franklin Park and eventually Boston Harbor, along rivers, streams, and parkways. Olmsted’s parks were built to address issues of the day: increasing urban density, public health, flooding. These historic parks still provide some of what’s needed today, but we are facing new challenges. What can we do now that will set a new standard of excellence for our parks for the next 135 years?

In 2020, Boston is experiencing its most rapid population growth in nearly a century. Thanks to immigration, the populace is becoming increasingly younger and more ethnically diverse. The current tally is just under 700,000, and the Boston Planning and Development Agency (BPDA) projects 732,000 residents by 2030. With its increasing density and diversity, what does this city require to support the health and well-being of its citizens?

Boston is also experiencing the unprecedented effects of climate change, the existential threat of our generation. We are expecting the harbor’s high tides to rise by more than 3 feet by 2070. This is significant in a city where one-third of its land was once under water. We will experience déjà vu if Mayor Walsh’s Resilient Boston Harbor plan to protect against sea-level rise and climate change is not successfully implemented. Storms are increasing in frequency and volume of precipitation, and temperatures are rising. We could experience as many as 90 days with temperatures exceeding 90 degrees by the summer of 2070. These changes create serious challenges to our public health and economy.

The Boston Common masterplan aims to balance park use and care. Strategic planning and decision making will increase the health and maintenance of the much-loved open lawn spaces.
Image courtesy of Weston & Sampson

Cities around the globe are confounded by increasing land values and income inequality; Boston is no exception. Maintaining affordable housing and economic diversity is a struggle. Congested roads and underfunded public transportation challenge citizens and businesses. Our education system is failing many of our young people. What can we invest in today that will help to positively influence all these issues for our future?

Regrettably, parks are one of the least appreciated threads in the city’s fabric. One needs only to glance at the annual appropriations for public parks agencies to appreciate where these resources stand compared to other state and municipal priorities—yet they have the potential to have the most impact. Their role is magnified in the face of increasing growth, climate change, and gentrification. If we define parks and open space broadly to include public infrastructure such as sidewalks and bike paths, they become a critical piece of our transportation network. As natural areas and open spaces for play, they are a necessary component of our children’s education. Most important, as was recently illustrated in Palaces for the People by Eric Klinenberg, parks are some of the last democratic spaces so crucial to our civic health and community.

After six months of public outreach and site analysis, Weston & Sampson developed “opportunity vignettes” to suggest changes to critical areas of the Common that address both public commentary and anticipated park needs.
Images courtesy of Weston & Sampson

Boston is a city in transition. Our greatest ideals and ideas have come from our greatest challenges. As Jill Lepore recently wrote in This America, “A new Americanism . . . would foster a spirit of citizenship and environmental stewardship and a set of civic ideals, and a love of one another, marked by benevolence and hope and a dedication to community and honesty.” There is no better way to do this than through parks and for Boston to exemplify what a 21st_century park-centric city can achieve.

After decades of incremental change, Boston has begun to invest millions of dollars into three of its largest and most important public grounds: Boston Common, Franklin Park, and Moakley Park. Each park investment starts with a masterplan to reenvision how these greenspaces will be developed, used, and managed with the intent of addressing contemporary challenges to better serve the citizens of Boston and our visitors for decades to come.

Boston Common, located in the heart of downtown and serving the surrounding neighborhoods, will celebrate its 400th birthday in just 15 years. Its history and location make it a popular site for large gatherings, festivals, and events. It will soon become the site of a major piece of public art celebrating Dr. and Mrs. Martin Luther King Jr. The masterplan will determine how $23 million in capital and $5 million for an operating endowment will be spent to better design and manage the space to increase the urban tree canopy, improve stormwater management, and create a place able to endure intensive use.

Franklin Park, originally designed by Olmsted and Boston’s largest park at 527 acres, is located in the geographic center of the city and close to half a dozen neighborhoods. The size and diversity of its landscapes offer a wealth of opportunities to reimagine its role in the lives of Bostonians. Opportunities abound: restoring the Elma Lewis Playhouse in the Park to host arts and cultural events, improving wayfinding to increase trail use, and making the edges of the park more open and welcoming to every neighbor. For its size, the park—with little proximity to public transit and few upgrades in decades—is underused. The masterplanning effort, like that of the Common, is funded by the sale of the downtown Winthrop Garage for an investment of $28 million, with the same capital and operating formula as that of the Common.

Moakley Park, the city’s largest waterfront greenspace, has completed a public visioning process to increase recreational opportunities while maximizing its role in protecting against future sea-level rise and storm surge as well as the other impacts of climate change. This 60-acre park has boundless potential to serve as a national model for resilience and recreation and to become a regional waterfront destination of more than 100 acres of open space when combined with Carson Beach and other local developments.

Planning is only the first step and must involve neighbors and citizens to reflect the needs and desires these public spaces hope to serve. How can these initial commitments leverage even greater investment needed to develop their potential? How do we increase the amount of public and private funds we are willing to invest in these shared spaces? And most important, how do we make these investments while ensuring that the people these places are being developed to serve are not displaced?

At the Bolling Building tree lighting in Roxbury, the Franklin Park masterplan team engaged with residents by asking community members of all ages to share favorite memories and places in the park by adding a flag to a 3D model. Image courtesy of Reed Hilderbrand; Agency Landscape+Planning

We need a radical shift in our thinking. We need to come to terms with the scope and scale of funding truly needed to build and operate our public park system. Creating the political will to find the public dollars we need and changing what we celebrate as “adequate” from philanthropy and businesses are critical. Other cities around the country are creating new sources of public funding and raising tens, even hundreds of millions of private dollars to invest in their parks. According to the City Parks Alliance report, “Investing in Equitable Urban Park Systems,” in 2016 Los Angeles County passed a new tax-based parks measure to bring $94 million annually to community parks. In 2017, Philadelphia’s City Council passed Rebuild, to fund hundreds of millions of dollars into parks, recreational centers, playgrounds, and libraries from the Philadelphia Beverage Tax. Finally, Pittsburgh passed a parks tax referendum in 2019 expected to generate $10 million annually to invest in its Parks Plan.

These investments cost less, and the benefits can be realized relatively quickly. Compared to other public systems such as the $50 billion that Boston-based nonprofit A Better City says we need to fix our transportation system or the $1.4 billion needed to fund Massachusetts’ public schools, the need is hundreds of millions—not billions.

Parks must be tied to the development of affordable housing, economic development, transportation, education, and climate-resilient infrastructure. Public officials, business leaders, philanthropists, and citizens need to think bigger and invest more, recognizing multiple returns. We all need to appreciate the role parks—democratic and welcoming to all—play in keeping us healthy, economically successful, and resilient. It’s time for Boston to honor Olmsted’s bicentennial by building on his centuries-old system and creating a new standard for parks in this country.