Some wayward bit of internet flotsam recently turned my attention to Boston’s Complete Streets web page about the Audubon Circle project in the Fenway. This “circle”—or, rather, this expanse of pedestrian-imperiling imitation highway—was designed by Frederick Law Olmsted, sort of. Olmsted, the landscape genius who designed most of Boston’s Emerald Necklace, wanted to connect Beacon Street to the Back Bay Fens. He extended the Fens’ Park Drive to meet Beacon Street, and voila! A circle was born!
Do you doubt me? Audubon Circle is featured on Unmapped Boston’s map of public squares and thoroughfares. You can also see a rather demure illustration of it in this 1894 map Olmsted’s firm produced titled “Plan of Portion of Park System from Common to Franklin Park.” (Looking at Olmsted’s map, it’s clear there was a severe street shortage around Jamaica Pond in 1894. That deficiency has been corrected.) Olmsted’s map calls Park Drive “Audubon Road.” Apparently, the name Audubon was too controversial to persist in proper Boston—or perhaps it was wishful thinking on Olmsted’s part. I simply don’t know.
Over time, though, bits of Audubon Circle have disappeared. Olmsted’s plan shows Audubon Circle lined with pretty trees. Today, there’s one, and a patch of lawn next to the Ruggles Baptist Church. Olmsted’s plan does not show the endless caravan of cars cutting over to the Riverway from Memorial Drive via Mountfort Street and… Audubon Circle. Oh woe to the circle placed in such a popular spot!
Today, this circle of pretty houses intended to connect the Fens with Beacon Street and the Charles River has at least fourteen different traffic travel lanes spread out across a circle 250 feet wide. The Complete Streets site states, “Audubon Circle has a history of speeding and traffic accidents.” Judging by how hard it is just to count how many traffic lanes there are, it’s astonishing anyone can get across this Mad Max free-for-all safely—in a car, by bike, or on foot. Take a look at the overhead map: pedestrians have to use four separate crosswalks just to cross the street. It’s an excellent facility for discouraging people in all modes of transportation from visiting the Back Bay Fens.
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The Complete Streets plan calls for eliminating the bizarre extra diagonal travel lanes and planting, yes, trees! And grass, so you can hug the ground after escaping death traversing the remaining half-dozen traffic lanes to get across the street. Actually, the “grass” will consist of greenery sloped planters leading to rain gardens below street level. See the design here.
And here is the connection to Olmsted; the Back Bay Fens were designed to correct Boston’s storm water problems in a beautiful way. The wide, winding channels, sloped banks and islands would let flood waters rise without damaging nearby properties, and the salt marsh would filter noisome sewage that spilled into the Muddy River. Alas, Olmsted’s plan didn’t really help with flooding, and Boston started filling in the Fens’ artificial oxbows almost as soon as they were finished. If they hadn’t, the Fenway Victory Gardens would be under water. Audubon Circle is poised to continue this tradition, and improve on it by actually working.
The Audubon Circle plan is only at the 25% design stage; it could still change with public input. For example, I’m not sure where all the bicycling college students are supposed to go. (Perhaps they’re expected to stay in their dorms and study. Heh.) But the plan is a big improvement over the current fragmented space. With shady trees, paths for walking, and a place for water to flow, Audubon Circle may yet become whole.