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Determining the Facts

Reading 1: Boston's First Parks

For 200 years, the only place for Bostonians to escape the crowded conditions of the city was the 48-acre parcel of land known as the Boston Common. In 1634, the residents of Boston selected a tract of land to serve as a grazing area for cattle and a gathering place for people. It was also decided that no buildings would be constructed on this land without the approval of all citizens. Bostonians made a conscious decision to maintain an open, green space in their new settlement. The Boston Common, now the oldest park in the country, would remain the only open green space in Boston until 1837.

At the back edge of the Boston Common was Back Bay. This bay was flooded by the ocean tides twice a day via the Charles River. In 1821, the Roxbury Mill Dam was built, which housed a mill that was designed to take advantage of the tidal waters. This dam cut off the tidal flow of the Atlantic Ocean to the Back Bay area, blocking the cleansing tides that used to wash out the sewage from the bay. However, people continued to dump their raw sewage into the Back Bay creating an awful odor. It was said that this area contained "the foulest marsh and muddy flats to be found anywhere in Massachusetts without a single attractive feature, a body of water so foul that even clams and eels cannot live there, and a place that no one will go within a half mile of in the summertime unless it was absolutely necessary," and in 1849, the Boston Board of Health described it as a "nuisance, offensive and injurious to the large and increasing population residing upon it."¹

What did the city do to solve the problem? In 1837, the city of Boston began filling in a portion of the Back Bay just beyond the boundaries of the Boston Common. This portion of land became Boston's second park, the Public Garden. The Public Garden added 24 acres of flowers, trees, and a man-made lagoon to Boston's open space. Although the Public Garden was a great improvement to the area, the non-filled parts of Back Bay continued to be a foul-smelling nuisance. In 1860, responding to environmental, health, and population pressures, the State of Massachusetts brought landfill from Needham, Massachusetts and filled in the rest of the Back Bay.

The reclaimed land from Back Bay allowed Boston to grow beyond its original boundaries. Boston's third park, Commonwealth Avenue Mall, was planned as a central green for this newly filled area. It was a long, narrow stretch of green with stately rows of tall elm trees that served as a popular promenade along what became Boston's most elegant street.

An 1859 report by the Committee on the Improvement of the Public Garden describes how Bostonians were beginning to think about the importance of setting aside more land for parks in spite of the limited amount of land available:

While other cities are expending fabulous amounts in the improvements of parks, squares, gardens, and promenades, what should we do? To be behind in these matters would not only be discreditable to our city, but positively injurious to our commercial prosperity, and in direct opposition to the wishes of a vast majority of the citizens....The area of our city is too small to allow the laying out of large tracts of land for public parks, and it behooves us to improve the small portions that are left to us for such purpose.

In Boston, the prospect of setting aside green space and building parks was ultimately dictated by the topography of the land and the already existing population.

Questions for Reading 1

1. Why did Boston's early residents set aside public land?

2. Why was the Back Bay an environmental and health concern in the early 19th century?

3. What impact did the filling in of the Back Bay have on the city?

4. Based on Maps 1 and 2 and Reading 1, how did Boston's geography influence the development of its first parks?

Reading 1 was compiled from Walter Muir Whitehill, Boston: A Topographical History (Cambridge, Mass.: Belknap Publishing of the Harvard University Press, 1959) and Cynthia Zaitzevsky, Frederick Law Olmsted and the Boston Park System (Cambridge, Mass.: Belknap Publishing of the Harvard University Press, 1982).

¹ Walter Muir Whitehill, Boston: A Topographical History (Cambridge, Mass.: Belknap Publishing of the Harvard University Press, 1959), 140.

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