Boston’s “Emerald Necklace” Park System

Created by: Erica Bressler
Time Period: 19th Century, Progressive Era
Topic: Remaking Urban Space

The Emerald Necklace park system in Boston was created by landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted during the late nineteenth-century. The 1,100-acre series of parks and parkways served as a “spatial fix” to a variety of environmental, economic, and social problems associated with increasing pressures from urban growth. In response to deteriorating urban conditions, social reformers during the Progressive Era in Boston adopted environmentally deterministic views of the industrial landscape and advocated for the creation of public parks, playgrounds, and other spaces of recreation thus starting the nineteenth-century park movement in Boston and the eventual creation of the Emerald Necklace.

My argument is that the Emerald Necklace park system did more than provide a “spatial fix” as an ascetically pleasing space for recreation, but that it also advanced the elite’s economic and cultural agendas of boosterism, real-estate speculation, and cultural assimilation. To better understand the purpose of the park system and how it served the interests of Boston’s upper-class it is important to discuss Olmsted’s naturalistic design philosophy and Boston’s most influential elite class: the Boston Brahmin.

Frederick Law Olmsted

Commonly referred to as the “father of landscape architecture” Frederick Law Olmsted’s park designs were both highly influential and desirable, which is why in 1878 he was asked by the Boston Park Commission to create a park system for the city of Boston. Olmsted’s naturalistic design philosophy was key to serving the interest of the the elite park advocates in Boston. He believed that naturalistically designed parks could play a central role in counteracting what he saw as the debilitating aspects of living in dense cities, and provide a space where people could regain their mental and physical health. In particular, Olmsted heavily advocated naturalistic parks with gentle landscapes that offered views of meadows, pastures and still waters; thus giving mental recuperation to park visitors so that they could “maintain a temperate, good-natured, and healthy state of mind.” Also central to Olmsted’s philosophy, so was the ideal of societal inclusion. He envisioned public parks as spaces where the many different groups of American society- newly arrived immigrants, descendants of early colonists, working people, and wealthy people could come together and through shared aesthetic experience, develop a basis for creating a community.

The Boston Brahmin

As Boston’s most influential elite class and the city’s leading park advocates, the Brahmin’s used Olmsted’s park design of the Emerald Necklace to further advance their interests through boosterism, real-estate speculation, and cultural assimilation. As a leisure class of politicians, merchants, land speculators, and property owners, the Brahmin used their power and influence to shape the park movement in Boston by emphasizing the social and environmental benefits of parks. In reality however, it was land economics that drove the creation of the park system designed by Olmsted. The Emerald Necklace served as a way for boosters and park advocates alike to attract capital and increase nearby property values in order to increase and protect their own wealth. The Brahmin not only gained social order and urban sanitation from the parks but also reaped the economic benefits that came from a world class system park.

Sources

Zaitzevsky, Cynthia. Frederick Law Olmsted and the Boston Park System. Cambridge, Mass.: Belknap Press, 1982.

Kennedy, Lawrence W. Planning the City upon a Hill: Boston since 1630. Univ of Massachusetts Press, 1994.

Birge-Liberman, Phil, “The Ghost of Olmsted: Nature, History & Urban Park Restoration in Boston’s Emerald Necklace” (2014)

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