1. What was the role of public spaces in Boston past?
Boston’s public spaces have played many roles. The Boston Common was originally used to graze sheep, marshal troops, and hang various unpopular people. Forest Hills and Mount Auburn Cemeteries were built when Boston’s graveyards were overflowing with corpses, while the Public Garden and the Back Bay Fens were created in part to remediate Boston’s many sewage problems. Frederick Law Olmsted designed Franklin Park to help remedy the stress of city living by providing convenient access for urbanites to something resembling nature.
That said, the role of these places is not the same thing as the reason they were created. Boston’s public spaces give the city character, and have been tourist attractions for centuries. They support populations of birds, insects, and other creatures who have lived here for millennia. They make the city a little cooler, and keep a bit of stormwater from rushing into our sewers and polluting Boston Harbor. They provide a place where we can feel closer to the earth.
2. How has Boston’s geography impacted the development of the city’s public spaces?
Bostonians have been making new land since the first settlement, by dumping rocks, gravel, dirt, sand, and anything else they could find into the Boston Harbor and the Charles River. This enthusiasm for blocking off natural currents and tides created a sewage crisis, which led to Bostonians creating still more new land to manage water flow, as was the case with the Public Garden and the Emerald Necklace.
3. Transcendentalists, such as Ralph Waldo Emerson, believed that a person could find a spiritual connection to the divine through an experience of nature—do you see any evidence of that today? Of course! The easiest place to see the spiritual connection to nature is at Boston’s healing gardens, where people with chronic illness and their families go to find peace. Go to the Howard Ulfelder, MD Healing Garden at Massachusetts General Hospital, or the Virginia Thurston Healing Garden in Harvard, MA. You’ll see the connection.