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Determining the Facts

Reading 2: The Green Connection

In 1875, the Boston City Council passed a Park Act. The Boston Park Commissioners were finally able to propose a park system where people could "in effect, find the city put far away from them."¹ The commissioners, empowered by the Park Act, approached Frederick Law Olmsted in June of 1878 to be their professional advisor for the proposed park system. Olmsted (1822 -1903) is thought of as the "Father of Landscape Architecture" in the United States since he was the first person in this country to make a profession out of designing parks and other landscapes. His landscape design firm's work can be found in 45 states and several countries throughout the world. Perhaps his most famous work was Central Park (1857-1863) in New York City. In fact, the success of his design in Central Park was a model for cities such as Boston, who saw the positive influence rural parks had on city dwellers.

Between 1878 and 1881, Olmsted was able to study the proposed sites in the park system. During this time he formed the vision for the park system as expressed in his letter to the Chairman of the Parks Commission: "Sir, The Park System for Boston, advised by your Commission, though of smaller area than that of many other cities, differs from all others in the scope of its landscape design; and this is, in part due to topographical opportunities possessed by Boston, which, for the purpose in view, are probably unrivaled."² He further explained the advantages of a series of parks linked together: "It will be obvious at a glance, to any one having a superficial knowledge of several localities named upon the map, that, if due advantage is taken of the distinctive capabilities of each and due respect paid to the distinctive limitations of each, the results to all concerned...will be incomparably more interesting and valuable than they can possibly be under a policy such as seems to be commonly entertained of regarding each proposed park and parklet as an independent affair...."³

Olmsted believed that overcrowding in cities made people nervous and wary of each other as well as susceptible to disease. Therefore, he felt that "city dwellers need contact with the natural world in order to preserve not only their physical health but also their mental tranquility."4 In order for all city dwellers to have contact with the natural world, Olmsted envisioned a linked chain of parks as more beneficial than a large single park. The linked parks together would fill a need for the entire city, not just the neighborhoods closest to a large, central park. He saw as an additional benefit that all parts of the city would be connected through the chain of parks. Olmsted also believed that each park site had its own genius that it could contribute to the whole system stating: "The fitness of a site will largely be found in its adaptation to supply some form of park refreshment that others of the series are ill-adapted to supply....Regarding the natural opportunities and limitations of the several localities to be named below, it will be found that each will, through a judicious method of improvement, be adapted to induce a distinct impression; and that, in each, the space to be applied to this impression is sufficient for this purpose."5

Olmsted's idea of a chain of parks allowed Bostonians to travel for miles surrounded by greenery, even though many of the individual parks were quite small. New parks were planned to connect with the existing Boston Common, Public Garden, and Commonwealth Avenue. In areas where space was too limited for parks, the plan called for parkways, roadways that were widened and planted with overhanging trees. In his report to the Board of Commissioners in 1881, Olmsted called his chain of parks the "Green Ribbon." However, over the years it became known as the "Emerald Necklace." Today, the Emerald Necklace remains a model in urban landscape design. Other cities and towns have used Boston's model to design their own greenways. The concept of a greenway has also spread to rural areas, as a method of conserving wilderness areas. For example, the Appalachian Trail is a greenway that connects Georgia to Maine by way of a hiking trail.

Questions for Reading 2

1. What are some of the reasons why Boston decided to build a series of small parks instead of one large park?

2. What did Olmsted originally call the Emerald Necklace?

3. Olmsted believed each of the smaller parks had unique recreational opportunities. How does Olmsted say he will decide on the fitness of a park site? What advantage did he see in coordinating the planning for all the parks together rather than treating each park independently?

Reading 2 was compiled from Walter Muir Whitehill, Boston: A Topographical History (Cambridge, Mass.: Belknap Publishing of the Harvard University Press, 1959); Frederick Law Olmsted, Boston Parks and Parkways - A Green Ribbon, Seventh Annual Report of the Board of Commissioners of the Department of Parks for the City of Boston for the year 1881, City Document No. 16, 1882, pp. 24-28, as taken from S. B. Sutton, ed., Civilizing American Cities: A Selection of Frederick Law Olmsted's Writings on City Landscapes (Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 1971); Frederick Law Olmsted, Public Parks and the Enlargement of Towns, 1870; and Cynthia Zaitzevsky, Frederick Law Olmsted and the Boston Park System (Cambridge, Mass.: Belknap Publishing of the Harvard University Press, 1982).

¹Frederick Law Olmsted, Public Parks and the Enlargement of Towns, 1870.
²S. B. Sutton, Civilizing American Cities: A Selection of Frederick Law Olmsted's Writings on City Landscapes (Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 1971), 223.
³Ibid.
4Ibid.
5Ibid.

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