American Landscape and Architectural Design 1850-1920

Boston's Emerald Necklace
by F. L. Olmsted

The park movement in Boston began in reaction to New York’s Central Park, which was begun in the 1850s. Nonetheless, a committee was not created until 1875. However, in the last half of the 1870s, the commissioners were finally able to develop a scheme for the Boston Park System. (1. Zaitzevsky) They envisioned a continuous line of parkland, stretching from the Boston Common to West Roxbury. During the 1870s, Frederick Law Olmsted had already designed two major park projects in Boston, the Arnold Arboretum and the Back Bay Fens. In 1887 he was enlisted by the park commission to interconnect those parks and to design more. The end product of this vision was the Emerald Necklace. The entire scheme comprised The Boston Public Garden, the Commons, Commonwealth Avenue, the Back Bay Fens, the Riverway, Olmsted Park, Jamaica Park, Arnold Arboretum, and Franklin Park, strung together with a series of parkways.

Map of Emerald Necklace
Map of the Boston area   Boston's Emerald Necklace

Back Bay Fens, 1879

The Back Bay Fens was not a park as such, but instead an attempt at sanitizing the area, which had been a health hazard for the residents of the Back Bay. Olmsted’s second concern was to return the area to its original state as a salt water marsh. The area was needed as a storm basin, and at times would be mainly covered with water. For this reason, only about half of the park was available for recreation purposes; paths for pedestrians and horses meandered around the edges of the area, but did not enter into the interior.(2. Zaitzevsky, p.59)

Back Bay Fens
descriptive record icon Pond surrounded by trees   Back Bay Fens

Riverway, 1881

The Riverway follows the path of the Muddy River. Frederick Law Olmsted suggested a parkway along the river rather than a grand boulevard as the link between the Fens and Leverett Park in keeping with his concern for preserving the natural scenery of the landscape whenever possible.

descriptive record icon River surrounded by trees   Riverway

Leverett Park, 1881

After Olmsted’s retirement in 1895, the City of Boston combined Leverett and Jamaica Parks, and renamed them Olmsted Park in honor the designer.

Leverett Park
descriptive record icon Marshy area   Leverett Park


Jamaica Park, 1892

Jamaica Pond is the largest body of water housed within the Emerald Necklace. For this reason, the pond was a popular recreation spot. During the summer, residents of the Boston area went boating and fishing, while in the winter ice-skating was a popular sport. A tudor-revival boat-house remains from that era.

Jamaica Park
descriptive record icon Grassy area with trees   Jamaica Park

Arnold Arboretum, 1872

Arnold Arboretum is linked with Jamaica Park by the Arborway, which has paths for carriages, horses and pedestrians. The Arboretum is part of Harvard University and was designed by Charles Sargent Sprague, with Olmsted’s advice, as a museum of different species of trees and plants. The plan is scientifically formal, but meant to resemble a typical New England rural landscape.

Arnold Arboretum
descriptive record icon Road through a wooded area with a horse-drawn carriage and people walking   Arnold Arboretum

Franklin Park, 1885

With 520 acres, Franklin park constitutes the largest element of the Emerald Necklace. Olmsted used the design of Joseph Paxton's "People's Park" at Birkenhead England as a model for the park. In the nineteenth century, carriage operators, Bacon and Tarbell, provided pleasure drives through the park to visitors.

Franklin Park
descriptive record icon People playing tennis in a park   Franklin Park

Bibliography for Boston Park System

Olmsted, John C. "The Boston Park System." American Society of Landscape Architects, Transactions 1899-1908.

Zaitzevsky, Cynthia. Frederick Law Olmsted and the Boston Park System. Cambridge: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1982. [1, 2]