View of Boston from the Islands.


Boston is a national park city that ties the theme of revolution—political, social, and environmental—to its past, present, and future. The story of Boston is one of a city with nearly 400 years of growth, adaptation and innovation—this history is tied to parks and public lands in the city. Not only does Boston have a history of urban green space, the Boston Common is the oldest public park in the United States (founded in 1634), but much of the historical narrative is preserved in and by parks across the city.

For the National Park Service, narratives and interpretation do not happen in one large park unit. Opportunities to engage with history are instead spread across the city, in the three National Parks which include Boston African American National Historic Site, Boston Harbor Islands National and State Park, and Boston National Historical Park, or at any of the more than 300 locations on the National Register of Historic Places. The Northeast Region operates several community assistance programs in Boston like the Olmsted Center for Landscape Preservation.

The three main National Park Units in Boston are all partnership parks, meaning NPS shares responsibility for management and ownership of protected lands, and works collaboratively with private non-profits and state and local government. These parks are part of neighborhoods, embedded in the city so that rather than having the community on the outside looking in, the community becomes central to determining management directions. The Urban Fellow in Boston, Ruth Raphael, used the pilot program to help connect these partnership parks even further to one another and to the larger Boston community.


One of the first and more notable implementations of the Urban Agenda in Boston was the reorganization of the National Parks in the city: Boston National Historic Park, Boston African American National Historic Site, and Boston Harbor Islands National Recreation Area. "We wanted to bring the three national parks together, transforming them into the National Parks of Boston. We used the principles of the Urban Agenda to set priorities and collectively align these three parks into one administratively" Raphael explained. This restructuring was about much more than shuffling staff around. It was a way to imagine how these three parks might break down organizational silos to encourage collaboration. Park leadership offered facilitated staff retreats and workshops, bringing together NPS staff to step into their collective power.

NPS staff in Boston used the Urban Agenda to implement innovative park design, creative place-making, and storytelling that reached new audiences. One way this was accomplished was through PARKing day. Bunker Hill National Monument, part of Boston National Historic Park, is surrounded by a rapidly gentrifying neighborhood, partially due to the value of the monument to the area. About a half mile from the monument is a public housing development that has little connection to the park. For PARKing Day, the staff took the park to this neighborhood to make connections to this community, encouraging interaction with the park and its history. This effort was also part of a larger city planning effort looking at a new model for revitalization that would rebuild the neighborhood. Park staff worked with urban designers in public engagement that brought forth historic context as well as ways to provide recreation, public art and connections to the NPS site.


Language Matters

“Partners respected the Park Service’s effort to recognize that urban parks are important places to our national heritage,” Raphael notes. The language of the Urban Agenda resonated with Park Service partners—particularly those working towards similar goals of relevancy and collaboration. The language attracted new organizations as well, drawn in as NPS staff continued to seek to understand the culture and strengths of its partners and to embrace and enact this new way of business set by the principles.

The Fellow as a Facilitator, Not the Change-maker

“Throughout the position I made it clear that my role was to assist in facilitation of change, not to be the person to make the change,” Raphael added. By establishing this as her role from the beginning of the pilot, a broader group of NPS staff was able to make change at the park level. The team effort, which included the fellow, allowed the park to focus on developing consistent messaging and widespread support for the programs and outreach tied to the Urban Agenda principles.

Striking a Balance with New and Existing Partners

Collaboration is not just about new partnerships. It’s also about taking the time to nurture existing partners that have common goals. Partner organizations and agencies periodically undergo administrative and structural changes, which in turn shifts the network available to NPS staff. The inverse is true as well—frequent staff turnover in NPS can make it challenging for partners working with a string of NPS contacts over time. Raphael explains, “We need to acknowledge that partnering takes work --we need to understand our partner’s organizational culture and for them to understand ours so that we can build effective partnerships.”


Raphael offered a few key recommendations for ways to continue implementing the principles of the Urban Agenda into a new way of working for the Park Service. By embedding the principles at all levels of the organization and changing the dialogue among parks, programs and partners, the fundamental change in approach can continue without being dependent on specific players. “The key to success is leaders serving as catalysts and connectors, not as a solo acts.” Beyond the internal collaboration through One NPS, Raphael stresses that NPS needs to spend more time with its partners to better understand their perspective. Investing more time in the quality rather than the quantity of partnerships also gives the Park Service the chance to help partners understand the capacity and strength of NPS. “There can be a lot of assumptions between partners about our capabilities and resources, but park professionals work in very different cultures—federal, city, non-federal, non-profit, etcetera.” Making a concerted effort to compare and synthesize the cultures in which program partner’s operate results in better and more sustainable collaboration.

Read more about Ruth's time as a fellow and see the variety of projects she helped support during her two years by exploring her blog.

Boston | At A Glance

The National Parks of Boston

National Recreation Trails

  • The Freedom Trail consists of sites including scenes of critical events in Boston's and the nation's struggle for freedom. Most of the Boston National Historical Park sites are connected by the Freedom Trail.

National Heritage Areas

Population: 645,966 | Park acres within city limits: 4,919 (16% of city land)

Last updated: September 30, 2019