There is a growing trend and demand for urban parks, where mentions of the “High Line effect” are now spreading amongst urban planners of bustling metropolises across the country and wealthy philanthropists are doing their parts to fund projects that are bringing new life into the concrete jungles of downtowns everywhere, like Diane von Furstenberg and Barry Diller who donated $35 million to the High Line project in New York.
This development, however, seems to have stopped just outside the edges of Boston, the home of incredibly significant park systems, such as the Boston Common and the Emerald Necklace, arguably the world’s first urban greenway and designed by the collaborative Olmsted family firm. Where are the Diane von Furstenbergs and Barry Dillers of Boston?
Dating back to 1634, the Boston Common consists of approximately 50 acres of land in the heart of the city. More than a century ago, George Francis Parkman Jr. (1823-1908) established an eponymous fund with a gift of $5 million that, to this day, continues to provide assistance for the preservation and maintenance of the Boston Common and other parks and open spaces in the area. Along with the iconic Emerald Necklace, designed by Frederick Law Olmsted, Sr. between 1878 and 1895, with Charles Eliot, John Charles Olmsted, and with additional work completed later by Frederick Law Olmsted Jr. and the Olmsted firm in the 1920s, “the Common” composes a significant portion of Boston’s landscape. The five-mile Emerald Necklace park system is considered one of the most important works of Olmsted, Sr.’s career and ranks amongst the most well-known landscape projects, including Central and Prospect Parks in New York City and the U.S. Capitol Grounds in Washington, DC. George Francis Parkman, Jr.’s original funding to keep this living project going, however, is gradually dwindling as the city continues its search for additional resources and funding to hopefully help maintain Boston’s greenspaces for at least a few more generations to come.
Neighbors of the Emerald Necklace, the Museum of Fine Arts (MFA) and the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, both recently introduced to the public the results of their fund raising successes in the form of new wings for each establishment. On top of those projects, the rebuilding of the Harvard Art Museums in Cambridge are scheduled to be completed sometime next year. Altogether, along with the Institute for Contemporary Art (ICA), Boston will have had almost $1 billion invested in the art gallery scene within less than a decade.
“This [room] was made possible through the generous donations of […]”
These are words one can typically find, while walking through many of Boston’s institutions and museums, inscribed into large plaques or plastered onto walls to announce to visitors exactly to whom the credit for funding such a project should go to. Unfortunately, such advertising is not quite as easy to do with parks and open green spaces. Without credit being given where credit is due, there is less incentive for donors to provide funding for the civic gestures of restoring and preserving the city’s parkways, which, given the ever-increasing popularity of Boston’s parks, is becoming a growing concern for those making efforts to maintain the quality and availability of these public amenities; such as Benjamin Taylor, the former publisher of the Boston Globe (1997-1999) and current Chairman of the Board of the Emerald Necklace Conservancy, who expressed such trepidations in a recent interview with the Huffington Post.
So, if the money is there, where is this enthusiasm when it comes to the city’s parks and recreational spaces?
According to Betsy Shure Gross, the former executive director of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts Office of Public Private Partnerships (in the Executive Office of Environmental Affairs), in the Huffington Post article, the problem potentially stems from the lack of governmental leadership. Other cities, such as New York and Philadelphia, have demonstrated great strength in their public private leaderships for parks, an asset that has yet to successfully make its showing in the Boston preservation scene.
With the successes in fund raising for the MFA and the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, Bostonians have clearly shown the value they hold for their city’s art institutions. Could it be that it is time to translate that value to one of the city’s greatest architectural masterpieces and take a look at the literal greener grass on the other side of the fence?
Photo by MarkinBoston, Wikipedia.