Although I have always considered myself a Bostonian, I have never lived in the city proper-until now.
I have always lived in the suburbs of Boston, growing up in the west, going north for a stint and out west again for college. Living in “The City” was always an aspiration, one that would creep up whenever I needed to commute into class at MIT or when I would visit friends who did go to school in Cambridge/Boston. I’ve found myself longing for the convenience and liveliness of city living and for the next two years, I finally got my wish: this fall, I moved into the Fens, the beating heart of Boston’s healthcare hub.
Lo and behold, I soon found myself wishing for a respite from the hustle and bustle of the area and wandered over to the set of parks known as the Emerald Necklace. The Emerald Necklace consists of a chain of parks and waterways throughout the city and got its name from the way that it appears “hang” on the peninsula of Boston. It was designed by Frederick Law Olmsted, the prominent landscape architect and philanthropist, in the late 1800s to combat what he considered to be the ills of the urban condition, namely air pollution, lack of conservation lands for birds and lack of leisure activities. In addition to Boston’s Emerald Necklace, he also was responsible for Central Park in New York, the Necklace Parks in Milwaukee and another set of Emerald Necklace parks in Chicago (sensing a theme?).
The Emerald Necklace parks and municipal green spaces was something that we discussed a lot in my architecture classes but I had not gotten the opportunity to see them until now. While the small section of greenery and “river” was definitely a change from my current home base of the Longwood Medical Area (with its 4-5 hospitals within 1 mile radius), I could not help but feel a little underwhelmed. The park itself was picturesque and well-used, as it was originally intended. Certainly, it is a small escape from the urban commotion. But you can never really forget that you are in a city when there are always skyscrapers visible in the distance, and museums and townhouses all around you. And you will never be alone in enjoying the space-actually, it is probably unsafe if you are. In the handful of times that I have come in contact with the parks, it always seemed like a pleasant diversion on the way to something else, rather than a leisure destination in and of itself.
Compared to my undergraduate campus, this is quite the change. When walking around Wellesley’s woods and particularly the Lake, I always felt a little bit of what I can only imagine was the “sublimity of Nature” for the Romantics. I can not even count the number of late night trudges ‘home’ across campus from the Science Center, past the Lake and up the hill to my dorm when there would be complete silence and stillness (and snow), when I would be the only person around and I could get lost mentally and physically in my thoughts and in my surroundings.
Therefore, you can imagine how my knee-jerk reaction was to immediately think of the deficiencies of this park-it was too small and manicured. But the more I considered it, the more I realized that while it may not be a constructed space the way a city is, Wellesley’s campus is most definitely a designed space as well and I would be deceiving myself to think otherwise. The campus did not fall together organically where people decided to put buildings to simply look how it is now; designers and architects made lots of decisions about what would go where and how it would contribute to the overall feel of the school. Almost every Wellesley student knows the joke that the founders of the school constructed almost every single hill on which a building is perched, in order to encourage students to stay fit (he would follow them and shout at them in an attempt to make them use passing period as a mini-workout).
Although Wellesley certainly shaped my own standards for the “natural” world and its interactions with our built environments, I realized that this perception is all relative based on perspective, rather than any inherent flaw or strength of the space. For someone coming from a huge metropolis (a la New York), Boston would already seem like a provincial retreat. Or that someone who grew up in a truly rural setting might have a more extreme reaction than I did. But unless you are deep into the woods or desert, you would be hard-pressed to find a space that has not been manipulated by designers. While I was so preoccupied trying to judge that park against what I thought to be ‘normal’, maybe it’s just time to establish a new ‘normal’.