Land Forum International , No 10. 2001

Matthew Tucker

Turn on your radio Saturday evening and near the lower end of your FM dial you’ll hear Garrison Keillor’s Prairie Home Companion emerging from the static. Listen long enough and eventually Keillor will proclaim “It’s been a quiet week in Lake Wobegon….out there on the edge of the prairie”. We are then whisked by our imaginations to the fictionalized and folksy town of Lake Wobegon with its devout Lutherans, neighborly rivalries of tomato gardening, and other eccentricities that lie beneath the supposed being normalcy of small town life.  As we dream along we know the narrative is fictional.  Yet, Keillor weaves just enough of the Wobegon yarn, the threads of the people and the place, so we may add our own memories of places known and histories lived. Indeed, while Keillor weaves the tapestry of fiction, it is the listener and the participant, who make the place and the story real.

In Boston, a similar imagination of place has occurred, albeit of a different character and time. It was of tree-lined promenades, carriage paths and stone bridges skirting wetland waters and picturesque vistas of pastoral open meadows dotted with trees. Today it is known as the Emerald Necklace, and its romanticized memory is constructed not through weekly novellas heard on your radio, but rather through the archival records of black-and-white photographs, yellowing images, fading ink and parched onionskin drawings. But in a reality that only 100 years of landscape change can produce, today’s landscape is much different from the memory of the late 19th century designed landscape. A physical tracery remains. Yet storm water wetland basins have been filled and carriage routes converted to four-lane boulevards. Pleasure ground meadows have been injected with posthumous designs of every style and reason, yet apparently many of these additions function well. Designed plantings have vanished long ago, replaced by withered and surly vegetation compositions one would surely expect in your local nature reserve but certainly not in your local pastoral park setting. What vegetation that does exist along the banks of the Muddy River is vigorous, aggressive and “exotic” as only a monoculture stand of phragmites australis can be.  (Forget for now their enhancement to water quality as they act as urban nutrient supersponges). And the waterways run polluted, once again full of sediments and assort contaminants only to be supplemented with occasional putrid discharges from combined sewer outflows.

Usually the Muddy River’s flow but a trickle due in large park to watershed changes as well as the geomorphological memory of the Back Bay being that of a tidal flat. Occasionally storm-water pulses make the river run, but in 1996 and 1998 the river ran too much, or rather, it didn’t run enough. The hydrologic context of a designed river combined with the accumulation of years of infrastructural neglect and the Riverway backed up like a bathroom drain resulting in over $100 million in property damages to surrounding landowners.

These low and high flows are generated (and exacerbated) in large part by the Charles River Dam, added some short 15 or so years after Olmsted’s design for the Back Bay and Muddy River was completed. The result virtually prevented the Muddy River from draining at times when local landowners need it to drain the most. Indeed, the addition of the Charles River Dam eradicated the very landscape process tidal ebb and flow that Olmsted harnessed and utilized as the modus operandi for the design of the Back Bay Fens as both an idealized stream and salt marsh meadow as well as a detention basin, capturing storm pulse events and releasing stormwater slowly.

Ironically, today’s environmental problems are eerily familiar to the conditions Olmsted faced at the commencement of his office’s design response in the late 19th century. Fouled sediments, stagnant sewer outflows and stormwater backflows are once again tangible emblems of the engineering and single purpose infrastructure attitude towards the landscape.  This attitude is one that sees fluctuating processes as problematic, negative-value variables to be eradicated by putting uncontrollables into a pipe and evacuating them from the mind’s eye. Nevertheless, studies have been conducted and the engineering proposals are on the table to mitigate (possibly) the future flooding potential. Dredging, day-lighting, and exotic plant removal are the primary solutions, which accordingly, seem to fit into Boston’s landmaking psyche regardless of the proposed remedies short-term social impact or long-term environmental efficacy. Obviously these actions will require significant changes in the constitution of the Emerald Necklace/Middy River landscape, at least for the short-term. But herein lies the dilemma of a flood abatement project situated at the heart of the landscape architectural canon with the omnipotent shadow of Olmsted looming in the foreground: what to do with this tired, yet historically significant landscape? Up to this point, the apparent remedy of this intimidating dilemma has been to wheel out the local scholars of Olmsted and historical landscape architecture and blow the dust off the tomes of history, hoping to divine Olmsted’s intent. And what better solution for an engineering approach that to turn to the shelves of history for a formulaic answer to the preservation of history, albeit with a needed landscape liposuction here and there to accommodate the 21st century?  And so historic writings are researched, image catalogs scoured, and drawings unfurled. What results from this divination is an applique of a historic veneer upon the landscape . From period light poles to exacting shoreline configurations, Olmsted is restored through replication.

But before we start mitigating history along with troubled waters, perhaps we as a profession should take a second look. Aside from the obvious changes that have occurred over the past 120 year, some troubling questions have yet to be answered:  First, at obvious risk of being a pariah, I must ask, “What if Olmsted just got it wrong?” Perhaps not the visionary quality of the grand Emerald Necklace, but rather the details. Even in his time, Olmstead saw the problems of his design arise, specifically in his deployment of the naturalistic design style. In this style, the artificial condition is soon lost on the memory of its users, particularly those of Central Park, Biltmore, or Golden Gate Park. Olmsted himself wrote about this dilemma whereby the “made” condition of the landscape was mistaken for a pre-existing nature that required reverence and conservation of “Nature”.   And while Olmsted in all his capacity clearly could not have foreseen the significant changes that were to occur in the urban landscape after the Back Bay Fens and Muddy River project “completion”, clearly some of the aspects of the design collapsed under their own weight, sooner rather than later. This makes it all the more important to reconsider the reclamation of Olmsted.  Second, do we value the product branding of a F.L.Olmsted project over the process of Olmsted?  What is attractive about Olmsted’s significant works is that he combined design process with an amazing capacity to analyze, re-frame, and synthesize complexity social, political, infrastructural and environmental to produce landscape art. If we value the process, then surely we can open our imaginations to the realities of today’s urban context while keeping the spirit of Olmsted alongside. To shift the current aperture- focused on historical specimens into a larger field of view, one of both historical legacy and contemporary identity and process. Not the (re)vision of yesterday, but a vision for the context and complexities of today.

“That’s the news from Lake Wobegon. Where all the women are strong, the men good-looking, and the children above…average”


This essay was published in Land Forum International (No. 10, 2001) as an editorial commentary in response to a $93-million proposal to dredge the Emerald Necklace park system in Boston, MA. This seven-mile long park was designed by Frederick Law Olmsted in 1878.  This was the world’s first linear park and it consisted of an idealized watercourse, along with paths and carriageways connecting open fields and wooded lots. The park was also public infrastructure- predating the contemporary interest in ‘landscape urbanism’ by over 100 years. As public infrastructure, the park program and design south to ameliorate problems of water and sewage pollution by detaining the waste and then flushing it into the Charles River and Boston harbor through the flushing of tidal cycles. As with many public parks in North America, the park had deteriorated due to lack of maintenance, as well as changing programs of park use. In 1996 and 1998, flooding in and around the Emerald Necklace caused extensive property damage, in particular to the cultural institutions (MFA and Gardner Museums) lining the Emerald Necklace. The current proposal to prevent this property damage from occurring again is by in-large to dredge the “river” and restore portions of Olmsted’s design regardless of how much the physical and hydrologic context has changed.