The Big Sprig

Boston’s Rose Kennedy Greenway has finally gotten what it always needed—time.

By Mark Hough, FASLA / Photographsy by Sahar Coston-Hardy

An aerial view into Wharf District Parks.
An aerial view into Wharf District Parks.

Call it the Emptyway. That was the headline of a 2009 Boston Globe article lamenting the perceived failure of Boston’s Rose Fitzgerald Kennedy Greenway, which had opened a year earlier atop the city’s infamous “Big Dig.” For years, the Globe had expressed concern over the greenway—over its design and the process that created it. The paper was not alone. Others in Boston, including many in the media and the design community, shared a sense that what was built fell short of what had been possible. After decades of dealing with the project, which buried what had been an elevated freeway into a tunnel running beneath downtown, everyone had expected something special. What they got, however, to many people was at best mediocre. The New Republic, in an otherwise glowing 2010 treatise on contemporary urban parks, declared that the greenway “is not merely bad, it is dreadful.”

Hyperbole aside, there was some merit to the early criticism of the greenway. Attendance in the park was slow during its first few years, and there were times when it did appear fairly empty. A common complaint was that the designers had not provided enough for people to do. There were things to look at and paths to walk along, but not much more. People expected immediate gratification after years of headaches caused by the project, which was plausible but unrealistic.

What many critics of the greenway didn’t recognize is that even the best designed urban landscapes are organic and require time to mature. That has been the case with the greenway, which, after eight years in the ground, is now a busy and vibrant urban park. The trees and plantings have grown and filled in. On nice days, people stroll, lounge, and gather in the more than 15 acres of plazas, lawns, and gardens. Food trucks and markets line the sidewalks and streets. Kids play all over the fountains and the carousel. It may not be perfect, but it is certainly not empty.


The greenway is not a typical city park. The former transit corridor is a mile and a half long and ranges from only around 50 feet to 175 feet wide. It maneuvers through Boston’s convoluted grid, crossing streets and sliding past the distracting mix of downtown architecture. Multiple lanes of busy traffic border the space, so there is little opportunity to create long views. It is a lot about the surrounding buildings and works best as a series of urban rooms rather than some version of a green oasis like Central Park or Millennium Park—two landscapes that had often been cited as inspiration. It is, however, aging well. And much of the credit for that goes to the Rose Fitzgerald Kennedy Greenway Conservancy, the nonprofit group assigned by the state legislature in 2008 to maintain and manage the park.

Jesse Brackenbury, who has been at the conservancy since 2009 and has served as its executive director since 2014, says that he was well aware of the negativity toward the greenway when he started working for it. He was drawn to the challenge of making it better. “If I had taken the equivalent position at the High Line, the job would be to keep it from going downhill,” he says. “Everybody loves it. So mostly what you’re trying to do there is to not wreck what it is that everyone thinks is so great.” The greenway, on the other hand, was weighted with so much baggage from the tunnel project, he says, that “the park could have been paved in gold and people still would have said, ‘This is all the Big Dig gave us?’”

You do not need to know all of the details of the saga behind the Big Dig to appreciate the greenway. But the site’s complex and sometimes painful past makes the story of its success all the more interesting.

As recently as the 17th century, the land beneath the greenway was submerged in Boston Harbor. It was gradually exposed as the shoreline was filled in to expand the waterfront. By 1959, the site had been converted to the Central Artery, an elevated, six-lane freeway built in the hope of reducing traffic congestion and revitalizing a downtown that was struggling for relevancy against its booming suburbs. It was not successful. Congestion worsened, and structural problems came to light that put the artery’s future in question. Besides that, the route was an urban design disaster, a barrier that cut off downtown from the vibrant and historic North End and Waterfront neighborhoods. In 1982, planning began on the Big Dig, which turned out to be one of the most complex, controversial, and expensive infrastructure projects ever undertaken in the United States. According to some estimates, it has cost more than $20 billion to date.

This was not an easy time in Boston. Conflicting constituencies, competing jurisdictions, and the lack of vision created a mood of frustration and downright anger among a lot of citizens. Journalists and critics tracked the multitude of logistical headaches, ballooning costs, and missed deadlines of the project. A lack of effective leadership was a big problem. The State of Massachusetts owned the land, and the Massachusetts Turnpike Authority was charged with administering the project. Both entities focused more on constructing the tunnel than on what its roof looked like. The City of Boston had coveted the land and had the most to gain by creating something really wonderful with the new open space, but it had less to say about how to make that happen.

By the time the tunnel neared completion, budget and schedule blown, there were endless opinions about what the greenway might look like, but no clear process to manage its design. Landscape architects and architects had played a role in the planning, but the project had primarily been the work of engineers and contractors.

Frustration and high expectations prompted intense community interest. The site abuts several distinct residential, commercial, and cultural neighborhoods—each with its own personality and constituency—and the public process was long and complicated.

The greenway was ultimately broken into three major open spaces—Chinatown Park, the Wharf District Parks, and the North End Parks—each to be designed by a different landscape architect-led team. Other parcels were set aside as sites for cultural buildings. Some people had advocated for a unified design vision for the entire site. Others understood that involving multiple design teams might better address the diversity of each neighborhood. The latter group included Bill Taylor, who was a principal at Carol R. Johnson Associates (CRJA) at the time, and had been involved in planning the artery since 1988. He led the design for Chinatown Park at the southern end of the greenway.

“Boston is a historic city made up of different enclaves,” Taylor says. Responding to the distinctiveness of neighborhoods such as Chinatown, where families of Chinese descent had lived for generations, was important. The CRJA team, which included the Beijing firm Turenscape, gathered “a lot of specific stories and literature to design from about the life of Chinatown,” he says. This input added authenticity to the design of the park, which takes a fairly literal approach in responding to Chinese culture, with contemplative gardens, bright red decorative gateways, a serpentine fountain, and a lot of bamboo. Chinatown had been at risk of losing its identity as people in the community moved to the suburbs and gentrification took hold. Emphasizing its unique culture strengthened the design concept and solidified the support of the neighborhood, which made the process more efficient and, Taylor says, much more enjoyable.

At less than an acre, Chinatown Park is the smallest of the greenway’s individual parks. Taylor believes its relative size helped keep it from being a target of criticism. The same might be said for the three-acre North End Parks, designed by Gustafson Guthrie Nichol and Crosby | Schlessinger | Smallridge.

Having a fairly unified Italian American population within the historic neighborhood brought something closer to consensus to its design process. So did working with the best site on the greenway. Being in the widest section and surrounded by the shortest buildings gives it the most comfortable human scale. The park is also at the crossroads of the historic Freedom Trail, which means there is a consistent presence of tourists in the area. These factors, combined with some elegant design solutions and beautiful detailing, made this the most positively reviewed part of the greenway after it opened. Even the New Republic liked it.

Reclaimed stones mark the location of the old Boston Harbor seawall.
Reclaimed stones mark the location of the old Boston Harbor seawall.

The brunt of the criticism landed on the Wharf District Parks, designed by EDAW and the Copley Wolff Design Group. At more than four acres and four blocks long, it is the greenway’s largest area. Dennis Carmichael, FASLA, who is now a principal at Parker Rodriguez in Alexandria, Virginia, was the principal in charge of the project for EDAW (now AECOM), and Lynn Wolff, who, according to Carmichael, was the “glue that held us all together,” led the planting design. (Wolff died in March of this year.) The site adjoins several communities, so there was no single constituency with which to work. “It was the hardest consensus-building process that I have ever been involved with,” Carmichael says. The process involved about 130 public meetings that were often contentious. “People simply did not want to compromise or concede anything,” he says. Without much support from the neighborhood, the plan lost much of what the design team had advocated for. “They would have been happy with colonial lampposts and cute little benches and grass.”

Neighborhood dissension was not the only challenge the design team faced. They knew that trees would be important to make the park work, given the scale of the adjacent buildings, but the city, Carmichael says, wanted a huge civic space that was all paved and did not have any trees. “We told them that if you don’t have trees, you don’t have shade. And if you don’t want shade, you won’t have people. But they held us to it. We literally had to fight for every single tree.”

The lack of tree canopy in the park compounded the sense of emptiness for which it was criticized. But critics also complained the place was just boring. Carmichael explains it was intentional to keep the design simple to “let the place breathe a little bit” and let people figure out how to “make it their own.” He acknowledges this notion is not always easy for designers, but it lets a design evolve in ways they can’t predict. “It couldn’t be prescriptive, with only one use, one user, or one season or one anything,” Carmichael says. He says he feels good about the general outcome of the park, but thinks it does not reflect EDAW’s best work.

Of the massive budget for the Big Dig, only $31 million was allocated for the greenway. This is about 0.2 percent for landscape based on costs at the time, and a much smaller percentage of the final figures. Taylor remembers Chinatown Park being built for approximately $30 per square foot, which is not much. Similar high-quality urban landscape projects were costing three times that much. Even with small budgets and all the other significant challenges, the greenway was never as bad as critics wanted you to believe. Its initial design, though flawed, successfully set the stage for the conservancy, which has since brought the park to life through its ongoing programming efforts.

Artist Ross Miller's Harbor Fog—an interactive work featuring lights, mist, and sound—is one of the temporary public art installations acquired by the greenway.
Artist Ross Miller’s Harbor Fog—an interactive work featuring lights, mist, and sound—is one of the temporary public art installations acquired by the greenway.

The conservancy counted 96,000 visitors to the greenway in 2009—the year it was lambasted by the Globe. In 2013, that number jumped to more than 800,000 people, inspiring the newspaper to flip its message in a 2013 article that celebrated it as a “people’s park.” In 2015, visitation jumped to nearly 1.2 million—more than a tenfold increase in just six years. This is not an estimate of how many people casually use the greenway by sitting on benches or walking through the spaces, but tallies of food vendor sales, Wi-Fi log-ons, event attendees, and ticket buyers for the carousel and ferries.

Brackenbury says the conservancy operates within a $5 million annual budget, which includes $2 million from the state and $3 million raised through philanthropy and ticket sales. Although the budget is not enough to support major changes, or even a sufficient maintenance endowment, it does allow for small-scale interventions and improvements. “We have been looking at ways to transform people’s experience at the greenway without actually physically transforming the space that much,” he says. The focus has been on “making this the most fun place in the city to go for lunch or spend an afternoon.”

Bringing art to the greenway has been identified by the conservancy as an important way to draw people in. May 2015 brought a temporary installation by the Boston area artist Janet Echelman. During the five months the piece was up, it attracted international attention and became a magnet for the greenway.

Echelman’s piece, aptly titled As If It Were Already Here, was an abstraction of the landscape’s transition from freeway to greenway. It is made of about 100 miles of colorful rope and was secured to three buildings. Although it weighed approximately one ton, the sculpture has an airiness that allowed it to float hundreds of feet above the ground with seeming ease. The installation was in Fort Point Channel Parks, which are located between Chinatown and the Wharf District and have been designated as the site for a large glass winter garden for the Massachusetts Horticultural Society that was never built. Halvorson Design Partnership subsequently redesigned the space with the society as a horticulturally rich series of gardens that buffer the park from the noise of the city and provide the setting for art displays and popular hangout spaces filled with hammocks and scattered Adirondack-style chairs.

Bob Uhlig, ASLA, the CEO and a principal at Halvorson Design, which had earlier collaborated on a master plan for the artery project, says the Echelman piece “was very interesting because Boston tends to be fairly lowbrow” when it comes to public art. The piece was funded with a mix of public and private money. “It was a pretty big move for Boston,” he says. “It gave a stronger awareness of the opportunities on the greenway, and helped to amp up the thinking about arts in the public sector.”

The greenway is said to have brought in more than $3 billion worth of development along its edges. There are new luxury condos, hotels, and office towers, and several buildings that once turned their backs on the artery have switched orientation to face the open space with new entries and outdoor gathering areas. This reminds Uhlig of what has happened at the nearby Post Office Square, which was awarded the Landmark Award from ASLA in 2014 and was also designed by Halvorson. It opened in the early 1990s and, says Uhlig, it has only been over “the last 10 years or so that adjacent buildings have been responding to the park, which has activated its edges.” He sees the same incremental process now helping the greenway.

The pergola in North End Parks creates a structured edge to the greenway.
The pergola in North End Parks creates a structured edge to the greenway.

The most ambitious move made by the conservancy came in 2013, when it added the Greenway Carousel inside the Wharf District Parks. It is located in a central spot that had been left open in the EDAW plan as a placeholder for the Boston Harbor Islands Visitor Pavilion, which was built in 2011. That project had been championed by the late U.S. Senator Edward Kennedy and supported with a $5 million earmark from the federal government. The two structures sit next to each other in the landscape, which was recently redesigned by Reed Hilderbrand. This new area creates a functional heart for the park and shows how important it is for urban landscapes to be allowed to evolve.

Innovative programming remains a constant priority for the conservancy. Brackenbury recognizes that the greenway needs to become more viable in the winter months. On frigid days it can still be fairly empty. “Most other cold-weather cities embrace winter more than Boston does,” he says. Even though it is windswept and snow-covered, “we’re going to try to make the greenway fun in the winter—and that’s a lot harder than making it fun in the summer.” In the works are venues for ice skating and winter markets, which have proven successful in many American and European cold-weather cities.

Financial stability may be the conservancy’s most important challenge. “We’re still a small nonprofit,” Brackenbury says. He recognizes that the maintenance will grow more costly as the park ages. Tapping into the billions of dollars in adjacent wealth will be important—something to which the Central Park Conservancy and the Friends of the High Line in New York City can attest.

The greenway still has serious challenges. Unless someone finds a way to plant more big trees, there will always be an uncomfortable scale to several of the spaces. Cars remain an unavoidable part of the experience, even as the elevated freeway fades from memory. Almost all the cross streets were rebuilt to slice through the park along its length. Also, two ramp sections jut up awkwardly from the tunnel below, carving into the space like open wounds, and creating visual and physical barriers for pedestrians. The ramps were the intended sites for buildings, but costs have made that idea unfeasible. Brackenbury says the state is still “on the hook” for covering the ramps with something more acceptable than what is there today. These conditions don’t ruin the experience of the individual spaces, but they do create an inescapable sense of chaos and make traversing the greenway a little more daunting—and less safe—than it should be.

The Canal Fountain in the North End Parks acts as a foreground for Boston's skyline.
The Canal Fountain in the North End Parks acts as a foreground for Boston’s skyline.

There will probably always be urban thinkers, critics, and designers who complain the greenway is not as good as other high-profile urban parks. The High Line, for instance, has been praised as being better. We all love to love the High Line, but I would argue that the transformation generated by the greenway has been far more impressive. The very fact that you can walk along a beautiful park where a six-lane freeway only recently plowed through downtown is amazing. People celebrate the High Line for its visionary reuse of urban infrastructure, but it pales in comparison to what the Big Dig accomplished.

To create the greenway, 16 million cubic yards of dirt had to be excavated to as deep as 120 feet beneath downtown, 3.8 million cubic yards of concrete were needed to build eight to 10 lanes of now hidden interstate traffic, and 29 miles of utility lines were relocated. And all of that without ever closing traffic. That is monumental urban planning.

I can think of no clearer example of what can be gained by cities when they invest in their public realm than the greenway. Criticism is easy, but the days of picking apart the park’s design elements because they do not meet certain expectations should be over. Bostonians who actually use the greenway seem to have moved beyond wondering what might have been and are savoring all they have. Now, as the city moves forward with plans to revitalize its emptiest urban space—the brutal City Hall Plaza across the street from the greenway—one can only hope its leaders use what they have learned.

Mark Hough, FASLA, is the university landscape architect at Duke University. He writes about campuses, cultural landscapes, and professional practice for LAM and contributes to other publications, including Places, the Chronicle of Higher Education, and regular postings for Planetizen.

Credit: Sahar Coston-Hardy.

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