Landscape architecture, social reform, and an 1890s vision for public parks: Looking back at The Trustees’ history in Boston


Though The Trustees of Reservations (The Trustees) may be best known for its conserved beaches, historic homesteads, and outdoor recreational sites in rural and suburban areas of the Commonwealth, the 128-year-old nonprofit’s roots lie in the City of Boston.

This connection was recently highlighted in an exhibition at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, which explored the impact of early American landscape architects and photographers on development and social reform in Boston, New York, and Chicago.

On display in the Hostetter Gallery through September 15, 2019, Big Plans: Picturing Social Reform, uses maps, photographs, and archival materials from the late 1800s and early 1900s to illustrate how landscape architecture and the creation of city parks grew out of a response to extreme conditions faced by immigrants such as overcrowding and pollution, with Frederick Law Olmsted and Charles Eliot emerging as two of the founding fathers of the socially progressive movement.

The two men left their mark across the City of Boston with the 1,100-acre chain of parks known today as the Emerald Necklace. Eliot, who worked alongside Olmsted and contributed to the designs of Franklin Park, the Arnold Arboretum, and the Fens, also played a critical role in shaping Boston’s Metropolitan Park system shortly after he founded The Trustees in 1891 out of a concern for dwindling public open space in the city.

“What provision is being made within this metropolitan district for securing those public open spaces which the experience of all great cities has proved to be essential to the welfare of crowded populations?” Eliot wrote to Massachusetts Governor William Russell in December 1890.

One of the exhibition’s maps outlines the lands acquired in response to Eliot’s vision of “preserving the natural beauty of the uplands surrounding Boston, the beaches, and the three major rivers flowing through the district.” The green areas highlighted on the 1898 map show both the local public reservations held by the Metropolitan Park Commission, as well as the significant additions proposed by Eliot – some of which, had they all ultimately been created, could have served as natural buffers to flooding and rising sea levels today.

“The Emerald Necklace shaped public opinion and political appetite for more ambitious programs of civic improvement and metropolitan planning,” the display explains. “In the late 1880s and early 1900s, Charles Eliot emerged as an advocate for the region’s natural beauty. He was instrumental in developing the idea of a metropolitan parks system around Boston. In 1890, Eliot published a letter arguing passionately that the conservation of Boston’s scenic beauty was as important as the conservation of paintings in the Museum of Fine Arts or of books in the Boston Public Library.”

Following publication of this letter, entitled “The Waverly Oaks,” in Garden and Forest, the Metropolitan Parks Commission was formed by the state legislature, with Eliot appointed as landscape architect in 1892. Just one year later Eliot joined Olmsted’s firm, where he worked until his death in 1897. Eliot’s father, president of Harvard University at the time, went on to establish the first academic degree program for landscape architecture in his son’s memory, in 1900.

Beyond the beauty, today the health benefits of open, accessible, green space are widely documented. They not only provide space for physical activity, social interaction, and relaxation, but they also help to filter pollution, produce oxygen, cool urban areas, reduce health inequalities and even aid in the treatment of mental illness, according to the World Health Organization.

As one of the first American cities to understand and prioritize the value of open, green space, Boston remains an advocate and supporter of accessible parks and public land. The “Resilient Boston Harbor” vision released by Mayor Martin J. Walsh includes plans to increase access and open space along the city’s 47-mile shoreline, space that is both resilient and welcoming to the many communities it will serve. One such park opened this summer along the South Boston waterfront; Martin’s Park is now a welcoming piece of green overlooking Fort Point Channel, an area of the city particularly vulnerable to rising sea levels.

The Trustees One Waterfront Initiative continues to work to contribute to this effort, by building and managing a series of resilient and equitable parks along our city’s shores. Not only will these green spaces be an important component of our waterfront city’s resilience in the face of a changing climate, but they will represent a homecoming of sorts for the Trustees, a return to the vision championed by our founder more than a century ago to beautify the city with parks and provide residents access to open space for their health and wellness.

In Eliot’s own words, as outlined in the Waverly Oaks letter, he writes:

“Purely natural scenery supplies an education in the love of beauty, and a means of human enjoyment at least as valuable as that afforded by pictures and casts ; and if, as we are taught, feeling for artistic beauty has its roots in feeling for natural beauty, opportunities of beholding natural beauty will certainly be needed and prized by the successive generations which are to throng the area within ten miles of the State House. As Boston's lovers of art united to found the Art Museum, so her lovers of Nature should now rally to preserve for themselves and all the people as many as possible of these scenes of natural beauty which, by great good fortune, still exist near their doors.”


[Photographs taken at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, Boston]