Capital Improvement: The Trustees’ Work in Boston-Then and Now

Edited and adapted from the Spring 2018 issue of The Trustees’ member magazine, Special Places

Ever since Charles Eliot founded The Trustees in Boston in 1891, the city has remained a vital area of interest for the organization. Rapid development back in Eliot’s day sparked the young conservationist’s desire to create an organization that could preserve swaths of nature “as a valuable antidote to the poisonous struggling and excitement of city life.” His landscape design work, both alone and eventually through the Olmsted, Olmsted & Eliot office, resulted in many of the beautiful parks and open spaces we see in Boston today.

“The work Charles Eliot began so many years ago is still vitally important today,” says Barbara Erickson, President & CEO of The Trustees. “He formed the organization to preserve access to open space for those that live and work in Boston, and we have always believed that imperative would one day extend to places within the city limits.”

Some of Eliot’s earliest endeavors, involved working with Boston’s park commissions and committees to help them better understand how few open spaces Boston offered its residents, particularly in comparison to other major world cities, as well as how little public access there was to nearby rivers, lakes, and beaches. The result was the creation of the Metropolitan Park Commission, the first regional park system in the U.S., which within a mere twelve years of its establishment had protected nearly 10,000 acres of open space and 26 miles of public parkway around Boston.

Boston & Beyond

For the next several decades, The Trustees acquired a broad range of properties largely outside of Boston, mainly because that is where opportunities arose, but became involved with Boston again in 1968 when it hosted a Parkland Conference to share the results of an open space and recreation study of Boston Harbor and the city’s three major rivers. One of the most important results of the conference was the establishment of the Governor’s Advisory Commission on Open Space and Outdoor Recreation, whose members included many affiliated with The Trustees, and whose mission was to review the Commonwealth’s open space and recreation needs and make recommendations to the Governor. The review yielded many landmark recommendations, including public ownership and control of the 34 islands of Boston Harbor. In the 1970s, the islands then became Boston Harbor Island State Park and in 1996 were designated as a National Park unit, managed by a partnership of member organizations including The Trustees.

The organization became active in Boston again through an affiliation with the Boston Natural Areas Network, which was founded in 1977 to help communities preserve and improve urban spaces through the development of Wilds, Greenways, and community gardens. It was just the kind of work that aligned with The Trustees’ ongoing preservation efforts in urban areas outside Boston. The two organizations merged in 2014, and Trustees now manages 56 community gardens across eight Boston neighborhoods. Then, when the concept of Boston Public Market—a 100-percent locally-sourced food market (and the only one in the country)—became a reality in 2015, The Trustees jumped at the opportunity to become a founding partner and the lead programming partner, as a way to serve the city and foster community engagement.

The Waterfront Challenge

Concurrent with that effort, The Trustees recognized the immense development throughout Boston’s waterfront area was happening without consideration of the need for open space and began to look for land preservation opportunities. The organization has long been involved in protecting vulnerable coastal areas and became concerned with the impact of sea level rise and storm impacts on Boston’s waterfront. “The way we see it,” says Nick Black, Managing Director of The Trustees’ Boston Waterfront Initiative, “Boston’s waterfront is a critically important place to be focusing our energy as a conservation organization. Its health impacts the largest population in New England and the time for action is now, before the opportunity to preserve open space is lost forever.”

The Trustees has been using four guiding principles to determine what part of the Boston waterfront it wants to help preserve. “First, we want the site to include a world-class design element, as a draw for residents and visitors alike,” says Black. “Next, we are focused on elements of inclusion and equality, making the site ‘a place for all.’ It’s also important to improve sustainability and resiliency, helping protect the low-lying, once tide-filled city. Finally, there is the financial feasibility of developing such a place as this. If the space in Boston doesn’t already exist, we have to create it and be able to maintain it in perpetuity.”

To date, the organization has found several regions of interest around Boston’s harborfront, including sites in East Boston and the South Boston waterfront. And, it is not working alone. Several nonprofits are supporting its efforts, including the Barr Foundation, which along with many generous donors has supported The Trustees’ exploration with a series of planning grants. The City of Boston also supports The Trustees’ efforts; in 2016, Mayor Walsh released Climate Ready Boston, a report outlining the city’s ongoing initiative to address climate change.

“Right now, we’re focused on securing a site that will become a designed and activated space,” says Black, who notes the scope and splash of the project is intended to be along the lines of Chicago’s Millennium Park, New York’s Brooklyn Bridge Park, and Waterfront Toronto. “Once the site is secured, we’re going to engage with communities to determine the best use of the space, with an eye towards recreational, educational, and historical programs and activities.” Even though none of its 117 reservations are within the city itself, The Trustees has been closely linked to Boston, and concerned for the wellbeing of its people, throughout the organization’s 127-year history. As the current development boom overwhelms the waterfront, it seems only fitting that The Trustees—the state’s largest conservation and preservation organization—is at the forefront of the effort to protect critically needed future open space in the state’s largest and most populous city. “Our work on this Initiative is a critical and actionable solution that extends the mission for which we were founded,” says Erickson, “and given the impacts of sea level rise and more frequent flooding from destructive storms, it is one we can no longer afford to ignore.”