The Secrets of the Rose Fitzgerald Kennedy Greenway

The Rose Fitzgerald Kennedy Greenway is a land of mysteries. Why does it look the way it does? Is it successful? Wouldn’t it look better with more buildings/ a bar/ a giant beanstalk/ a twelve-lane highway running through it?

You want the answers? I’m going to be co-leading a tour of new Big Dig parks – including the Rose Fitzgerald Kennedy Greenway – on June 13. Come on the tour, and I’ll fill your pretty head chock full of information about the Greenway’s past, present, and future. But in the spirit of public service, I’ll give you a few answers now.

I recently had the pleasure of talking with Toby Wolf, a landscape architect who helped design the landscape on the parcels between Congress and State Streetnear Rowes Wharf and Fort Point Channel. “A lot of the Greenway landscape we accept as permanent was conceived to be temporary,” said Wolf–like short trees and open lawns.

Wolf worked with Copley-Wolff Design Group (no, it’s no relation, and yes, it’s spelled that way) putting together the streetscape for those parcels in 1996. Although the area was envisioned as a tree-lined boulevard, Wolf said, there was a problem; “No one had given the civil engineers the tree locations,” said Wolf. “… They [the Turnpike Authority engineers] are not in the tree planting business.”

Underneath the Greenway-to-be was a vast angle of water lines and electrical conduits and, well, a gigantic tunnel. No one had given a thought to the notion that there might be trees with roots somewhere on top.

Copley-Wolff had to make a map of which trees conflicted with what structures, and figure out where power lines could be shifted, where trees could be shifted, and what simply wasn’t going to work. If you look at the parcel by Rowes Wharf now, you can see that in some places trees are sitting on one side of a sidewalk, some places another.

That parcel by Rowes Wharf is supposed to be an “urban arboretum;” it says so on the Greenway Conservancy map. The trees there are grouped by their structure, the form of their branches and the shapes of their leaves… and none of this thoughtful arrangement is going to be apparent until they’ve grown for another decade or so. The “rotunda” of dawn redwoods isn’t apparent, either, as several of them have died. That’s sad for an ancient tree just rediscovered in 1948; but it may be an improvement, making the area feel more like a grove for people to enjoy rather than a tree display.

I’ll have more to say about the Greenway and my conversation with Wolf next week– but if you want to hear a lot more, come on the tour!

To register for any of the three walking tours please email:

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *