Date of Award
Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)
Anne E. Mosher
Boston, Ecological restoration, Frederick Law Olmsted, Historic preservation, Landscape, Urban parks
Social and Behavioral Sciences
This dissertation examines the nineteenth-century production, the twentieth-century deterioration, and the twenty-first century restoration of Boston's Emerald Necklace, a 1,100-acre series of parks and parkways designed by Frederick Law Olmsted, Sr. (1822-1903). Originally built to meet a particular set of aesthetic landscape tastes, over time this park system changed to meet the recreational needs of visitors. Throughout, the Emerald Necklace has served the interests of Boston's urban elite. It is, therefore, an appropriate case for examining the historical relationship between power and landscape. The parks of the Emerald Necklace did more than provide pretty views and space for play; they advanced the upper-class economic and cultural agendas of boosterism, real-estate speculation, and cultural assimilation.
When we look at the nineteenth-century political economic context in which Olmsted worked and compare it to the late-twentieth/early-twenty-first century political economic context associated with park restoration, an intriguing historical-geographical parallelism becomes apparent. In both moments, the Emerald Necklace operated as part a specific "spatial fix" to a variety of environmental, economic, and social problems associated with major crises of production within U.S. capitalism.
I trace the development of Olmsted's naturalistic design philosophy, beginning with his work in New York City's Central Park through to his involvement with the Emerald Necklace. His naturalistic landscape parks helped improve sanitation in Boston, and shaped the further development and growth of the city.
By the 1970s, the parks had been modernized. The original Olmsted design had been substantially modified and economic austerity measures led to neglect due to deferred maintenance. By the 1980s, they had become derelict havens of crime with degraded ecosystems in need of restoration.
Efforts to restore the parks of the Emerald Necklace represent a new park typology: the Conservancy Park. This typology reflects the work of private park conservancies and not-for-profits as they seek to translate the entrepreneurial dimensions of neoliberal urbanism into the urban fabric. These conservancies, along with city and state officials, have relied upon the ghost of Olmsted to guide the restoration process. As part of an "urban sustainability fix," the restoration of this park system is based less on scientific or technical criteria than on aesthetics and the economic fetishizing of the original Olmsted vision. Park restoration, therefore, reflects a symbolic economy associated with the redevelopment and gentrification of post-industrial neoliberal cities.
This dissertation reframes the discussion about parks and urban sustainability to focus more on a progressive (future-oriented) restoration of urban parks. To date, park restoration in the Emerald Necklace, is past-oriented, conservative, and unsustainable. Instead, parks are a process, and not just as a thing. Twenty-first century American cities should focus on ecological function, rather than simply on the reification and recomposition of historic landscapes.
Birge-Liberman, Phil, "The Ghost of Olmsted: Nature, History & Urban Park Restoration in Boston's Emerald Necklace" (2014). Dissertations - ALL. 123.