Emerald Necklace Transect Walking Tour – Anita Goharfar



Reflective Essay

The tour of public spaces throughout South End Boston began with a few questions that we can now address. First, How have public spaces affected the housing market and consequently, the culture of the South End? During the tour, we saw a few examples that demonstrate the relationship of housing and public space. This association is a complicated one; while housing creates a demand for a recreational space, it can also occupy said space and hinder its functionality, or negatively impact pre-existing spaces. Peters Park was a great example of the first scenario: the array of the neighborhood, with a diverse socio-economic standing, made this park crucial and in return demanded more from the space. Fortunately, Peters Park has used variety as a motive to maintain, improve, and promote its facilities with the help of the City of Boston. On the other hand, Chester Park was devastated with the construction of Massachusetts Avenue. Here, we analyze the second aspect of this relationship: how a public space is taken over, or destroyed, due to housing and the variety of accommodations that are required for new developments such as transportation, emergency access routes, and aesthetics for property value. Taking a step back for a more holistic view, we encounter the third element of this question: the adverse impact of housing on an overall space. There is no better example in the South End than the Urban Renewal of the 1850s. This project took the city by storm, displacing people, devastating lots designated for green spaces, and creating a densely-packed fabric. Therefore, based on these observations, we can conclude that the relationship between housing and public space is symbiotic. The culture of the South End, made up of a rich history of disorder, hardship, and ultimately community engagement is an open window into this invisible story.

The second question posed at the beginning of the tour was, How does the availability and function of green spaces differ in various locations throughout the South End? Downtown Boston, mainly the Fenway, Back Bay, and Beacon Hill area, feature public spaces integrated into the urban fabric of the city. Frederick Law Olmsted’s design of the Emerald Necklace is a key feature, undeniable whether strolling through the Boston Common, down Commonwealth Avenue, or into the Back Bay Fens. In contrast, public spaces in the South End border the neighborhoods, mainly to its south and northwest. While understandably more residential, this format ultimately renders public spaces and recreational areas inaccessible for many residential communities. As a result, the answer is perspectival. Each citizen in the South End will have a different idea of ‘access’ and ‘availability’ to green spaces that often relies on distance, but more heavily on their own economic and social capabilities.

The third reflective question was, How can community members play an active role in addressing issues on housing and the availability of space? A common theme in relation to underprivileged neighborhoods is the idea that action only occurs when people come together. Catie Marron, author of City Squares, states, “a square is not just about light, air, proportion, and people. It must also give form to some shared notion of civic identity.” As seen in both Roxbury and Dorchester, and now in the South End, citizenship is perhaps one of the most impactful forms of activism. An example is seen with the Berkley Community Garden and the Titus Sparrow Park where the citizens came together to demand public space based on their needs, not that of the housing market. In order to reassure their commitment today, a few steps must be taken according to the findings of the 2009 Center for Cultural, History, and Environment Committee. First, we must uncover the legacy of a landscape– the origins, its permeability with the economy and the effects of poverty, and its evolutionary processes over time. Second, we must unveil the urban ghost that haunts the vanished landscapes which have historical and material evidences of how people lived and how they moved. Thirdly, we must use more than our eyes; sound, smell, and touch allow you to create a sensory geography of a space that might otherwise be impossible through research. Finally, we must become a tourist even in our own city. I would not have discovered this relational landscape in the South End if I had not wandered off into the area with an attitude of exploration. So to answer this final question, community membership relies on not only the people who occupy a space, but travelers, commuters, and even researchers.

With this understanding, we can now connect the relationship of public spaces in the South End Boston to the Emerald Necklace. Looking back at the starting point at the Boston Common/Boston Public Garden, our definition of public space has transformed greatly with the change in time and the change in geography. Green spaces are no longer our only versions of public space; we have extended our reach to value athletic facilities, urban agriculture, and even art installations. The Emerald Necklace itself is a marvel of engineering and city leadership. Just as it creates the essence of beauty and functionality in the main area of Boston, many surrounding neighborhoods such as the South End require the same consideration. Whether Bostonians, Massachusetts residents, or from all the way across the globe, we all place a special emphasis on our city’s identity. Olmsted saw the same and breathed it into life through his landscape projects. He revived an abandoned city and restored the community into what it is today. Architect Jan Ghel explains, “the quality of public spaces has become very important. There is not a single example of a city that rebuilt its public places with quality that has not seen a renaissance.” Now, centuries into the future, we look back and learn from the positives, and the negatives, in hopes of creating a better image for our future citizens.

The mistake in public space is often not made in diversity but in quantity. The South End opens our eyes to the issue of population consideration in creating public spaces. While there is a variety, it is not enough for the high density. Many passive spaces are seen, but not used. High demands overuse others, and children and families are in constant need of better accommodations from the City. As we look forward to the future of the South End, or Boston as a whole, we must consider the health and resilience of the people and the environment in which they thrive. From housing, to transportation, to public space, we must make informed decisions to improve the inter-connected and highly complex relationship explored in this tour.


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