A summer evening. It’s hot and we’ve been cooped up for days, except for masked walks on city sidewalks. We decide to go for a drive. It’s aimless, like so much in this uneasy summer of the pandemic. We drive through Somerville, Medford, Malden.
And suddenly the road stops being suburban and starts looking like something you would find in Maine. Deep woods, lakes, no houses. It goes on for miles. We are in the Middlesex Fells.
These winding parkways are part of a visionary project from the 1890s, dreamed up and implemented in less than a decade by two men working together. One of them was Charles Eliot, a protégé of the great landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted. The other was Sylvester Baxter, a journalist.
At the end of the 19th century, real estate development was booming in the Boston area, and the suburbs were spreading and thickening. Eliot and Baxter recognized that although there were still fragments of wilderness around Boston, these wouldn’t last long. They came up with the idea of creating a nonprofit land trust that would, as Eliot wrote, preserve this wilderness “just as the Public Library holds books and the Art Museum pictures — for the use and enjoyment of the public.” The Trustees of Reservations was the result and it would acquire valuable tracts from private owners, either through donation or purchase, to be protected as permanent open space, an original idea that has since been imitated all over the world (Britain’s National Trust, for example, was modeled on it).
Next Eliot and Baxter persuaded the Legislature to establish a metropolitan parks commission. Its goal would be to create a unified parks system for the many cities and towns constituting the Boston region. This was a radical idea for several reasons. First, it prioritized open space and land conservation as part of the public good. Second, it grew out of an awareness of ecology: wanting to preserve clean natural spaces as buffer zones against water pollution and flooding. Third, it viewed the wider Boston metropolitan area as an organic region and was intended to cut through the resentful sniping that had always gone on between towns (“Why should our town pay to build a park if the citizens of some other town are going to come over and use it for free?”). And fourth, it democratized the use of the land; the parks would be open to everyone.
Eliot and Baxter organized a series of day trips to show the newly appointed commissioners the rich landscapes they wanted to preserve, from the Blue Hills south of Boston to Revere Beach and Nahant in the north. They took boat rides up the Charles and Mystic Rivers and explored the Boston Harbor Islands. These revelatory outings, Baxter wrote, were like “voyages of discovery about home.”
Just as the parks project was getting underway, the economy crashed, and thousands of people were suddenly out of work. The Legislature responded by investing in a public works project to create new jobs; many people were put to work building a network of parkways, designed by Eliot to connect the parks.
One of these parkways is the road we’re driving along this evening. People are out walking in the green summer dusk — couples pushing strollers, or being pulled along by dogs. A man carrying a fishing rod. Cyclists, some intense and pumping, others just slowly rolling along. Well over a century after Eliot designed these parks and roadways, they are still being used by the public in the ways he first imagined (albeit with cars and, for now at least, a bunch of face masks).
As I look out the car window, I’m refreshed, not just by the greenery but by the thought that what I’m seeing is the enduring result of intelligent altruism. Tonight’s drive has turned out to be a “voyage of discovery about home” — a bucolic, and heartening, reminder of what is possible when politics can transcend short-term self-interest in favor of long-term thinking for the public good.
Joan Wickersham’s column appears regularly in the Globe. For more about the history of the Boston metropolitan parks and parkways, read “Inventing the Charles River,” by Karl Haglund and “Eden on the Charles,” by Michael Rawson.