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Urban Hikes: Boston’s Emerald Necklace

Park system offers seven miles of outdoor recreation

Boston may be a major metropolitan area, but it is a major metropolitan area with more than 2,200 acres of clean, green, and accessible open space, much of which winds its way through the downtown and surrounding areas.

The crowning jewel of Boston’s extensive park system is the Emerald Necklace, a 1,100-acre chain of nine parks linked by pathways and waterways. Designed in the late 19th century by nationally renowned landscaper and urban planner Frederick Law Olmsted, the Emerald Necklace connects the Boston Common and the Public Garden, located in central Boston, to Franklin Park, a partially wooded 500-acre parkland in the Jamaica Plain and Roxbury neighborhoods. From end to end, it stretches approximately seven miles.

It took Olmsted, the mastermind behind New York City’s Central Park and Prospect Park, nearly 20 years to create the Emerald Necklace. Today, it is the only remaining intact linear park designed by Olmsted and is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

While the Boston Common, the Public Garden, and the Commonwealth Avenue Mall are part of the Emerald Necklace, they were not designed by Olmsted. “Those three parks date back to colonial times,” says Don Eunson, senior project manager for the Emerald Necklace Conservancy, an organization dedicated to protecting and maintaining the Necklace’s landscape, waterways, and parkways. “Olmsted envisioned the new and older parks working together as one system.”

Alan Banks, a supervisory park ranger at the National Park Service, says the beauty of the Necklace is that it functions as a series of neighborhood parks as well as a linear park system. “You can actually walk or bike the entire length of it,” he says. “You can see how each park connects the different neighborhoods.”

Below are the nine components of the Emerald Necklace:

Boston Common

Founded in 1634, the 50-acre Boston Common was once a utilitarian space for cow grazing, militia formations, and public hangings. Today it includes ball fields, a playground area, and the Frog Pond, which provides skating in winter and a children’s spray pool in the summer.

Public Garden
America’s first public botanical garden, founded in 1837, features monuments and fountains, more than 80 specimens of plants, and the famous Swan Boats, which tour the park’s central lagoon.

Commonwealth Avenue Mall
The Commonwealth Avenue Mall is the spine of the Back Bay neighborhood and the crucial green link between the Public Garden and Olmsted’s new park system. The mall is a vital amenity for neighborhood residents, providing much-needed green space in the urban Back Bay, as well as an attraction for those visiting the city.

Back Bay Fens

Olmsted created the Back Bay Fens to change a foul-smelling tidal marsh into a park. In 1910, when the Charles River Dam opened, the park was transformed from a saltwater to a freshwater marsh. Today, the Fens features a ball field, a track, a rose garden, a war memorial, and a community victory garden.

The Riverway
The Riverway lies in the valley of the Muddy River, which is the boundary between Boston and Brookline. The Riverway is entirely man-made and has steep banks lined with beech trees that shield park users from the busy road. The Muddy River flows from Olmsted Park through the Back Bay Fens  to the Charles River.

Olmsted Park
Originally named Leverett Park, the park’s name was changed in 1900 by the Boston Parks commissioners to honor Olmsted. The park contains woodlands, meadows, and three ponds.

Jamaica Pond
Here, visitors enjoy sailing and fishing for trout and other fish stocked yearly by the Boston Parks Department. The park has free bandstand concerts in the summer.

Arnold Arboretum
The Arnold Arboretum, run by Harvard University, is a park with a dual purpose: outdoor enjoyment and scientific exploration. It was North America’s first public arboretum, and it consists of 265 acres of rolling meadows, forests, and ponds, as well as 4,000 different varieties of woody plants and 14,000 trees, shrubs, and vines. Peter’s Hill, the highest point in the Necklace, provides views of the Boston skyline.

Franklin Park

Named for Benjamin Franklin, this 527-acre park brings together rural scenery, a woodland preserve, and areas for recreation and sports. Franklin Park has 6 miles of roads and 15 miles of pedestrian and bridle paths. The 18-hole William J. Devine Golf Course and the Franklin Park Zoo are also favorite destinations.

Paul Heerlein can be reached at heerlein@bu.edu. Vicky Waltz can be reached at vwaltz@bu.edu.