Earlier I wrote about a project I had been working on, comparing the creek/river portions of Boston's Olmsted-designed Emerald Necklace park system to Minneapolis' Cleveland-designed Chain of Lakes park system. You can read the entry here, but I had briefly described how my experiences of the two park systems had read surprisingly differently... how the Boston park seemed rather schitzophrenically wild, throwing the stroller from a well-groomed path into a rather unkempt wilderness. On the other hand, the Minneapolis park presented one with a unified pastoral landscape.
Thinking later about these two park experiences, I had came across three different reasons why these two parks parks might present rather different encounters for today's park goer. The rather short list:
#1) Aesthetic ideology
#2) Infrastructural complexity
#3) Political intransigence
The first idea I'd had was that Olmsted, the man behind the Boston park, had intended and planned some sort of experience that would present a "sublime" landscape to the park pedestrian. I’d read somewhere that Olmsted believed in creating an existential experience of the sublime, that this sort of immersive and awe-inspiring interaction with ‘the natural’ could morally improve the unwashed 19th c. urban denizens that teemed through cities at the time. Maybe Boston’s park was like that, and the wilderness that met one’s eye when crossing the river was meant to cleanse the urban soul. (I came across this idea in a 1970's essay by Robert Smithson.)
But, after doing a bit of research on the Muddy River I realized that the river today bears hardly any resemblance to the way the park looked when Olmsted completed it. (This is very different from the Minneapolis park, which is still remarkably similar to the original design.) [insert picture of M.R. park.] One of the main reasons why the two parks are so different today is that the Boston’s project involved a lot of major engineering, a complete reworking of what had been a marshy estuary into a “river” that “flowed” through the fens and into the Charles. Olmsted designed not only the foliage that was planted along both sides of the creek, but crafted islands that sat in the middle of the river, creating a completely immersive pastoral landscape in which people rowed boats and walked for almost thirty years.
But like a lot of great works of architecture, maintaining the Muddy River as Olmsted designed it turned out to be very expensive. One of the more interesting things about this park is that it sits on the border of Boston and Brookline, a politically independent city on the edge of Boston proper with a much higher average income and tax base. Consequently, when it came to maintaining the Muddy River park each city made very different decisions: Brookline chose to clear and re-landscape their side of the river with a freshly paved path and park benches while Boston chose the cheaper option of just letting everything grow. Meanwhile, the ‘islands’ in the middle of the stream are largely disappearing, eroding, and shifting around to the point that they’re hardly recognizable. So, for the most part, today’s experience of the creek-side park reflects a combination of political boundaries and infrastructural maintenance costs that are consequences of Olmsted’s ambitious aesthetic choices in the late 19th century. Minneapolis’ park, on the other hand, was a rather simple dedication of land surrounding an already-existing river, which, partly due to Wadsworth’s famous poem about the Minnehaha Falls, was left in its natural state and featured neither large infrastructural complexity nor political boundaries.
So, to conclude with the question I asked in the previous post, there was a real mix of factors
involved in the two parks' development, but probably the most important single thing was the fact that Boston's creek park was located on a civic boundary, and was therefore susceptible to all sorts of bureaucratic tomfoolery. Voila!