Wednesday, May 21, 2014

From Parks to Highways and Back

After another brutal winter, Boston has finally thawed and the Esplanade is once again abuzz with bikers, runners and walkers. Picnickers relax in the shade of willow trees and the Charles is packed with sailboats and rowers.

The Charles River Esplanade in the 1920's.
Photo from the Boston Public Library
The Esplanade has been a popular spot since it was first developed early in the 20th Century. Yet for all its amenities and sweeping views of the Charles River Basin, it is hardly a portrait of urban tranquility.

Along the pathways that border Storrow Drive, the sound of high-speed traffic can be nearly deafening. Even out along the shoreline, the din is inescapable, making the park feel more like a highway rest stop than a natural area. The six-lane highway equally compromises pedestrian access to the Esplanade; a series of circuitous overpasses are the only connection to nearby neighborhoods.

This wasn’t always the case.

Until the 1950s, a slow two-lane street called Embankment Road was all that separated the Esplanade from downtown Boston. The construction of Storrow Drive dramatically altered the mood and character of the park.
The Charles River Esplanade in the 1920's.
 Photo from the Boston Public Library

Only a handful of Bostonians can still remember what the Esplanade was like before, but archival photographs hint at the calm that could have been.

Some 3,000 miles across the globe, in the center of Spain, a city is reaping the rewards of an ambitious effort to reclaim its urban riverfronts.

In 2004 Madrid embarked on one of the biggest European public works projects in recent memory. Over the course of seven years, four miles of M-30, a heavily used eight-lane highway that cuts through the city’s urban core and abuts the Manzanares River, were moved underground. In its place, 370 acres of parks and public spaces were constructed. The project was completed in April of 2011.

Park space in Rio Madrid
The transformation has been nothing short of astounding. With the burial of M-30, the public has come flocking back to the previously inaccessible shorelines of Manzanres. The park, known as Madrid Río, has become a hub of recreation, popular with tourists and citizens alike. Pedestrians and cyclists crowd the pathways that run alongside the river connecting sports fields, athletic courts, 17 different playgrounds, a BMX skate park and a climbing wall.

In the adjacent neighborhoods, which had been cutoff from the river by M-30, property values have soared. In total, the project cost around $550 million US.

The Big Dig has probably spoiled Boston’s appetite for large-scale tunneling projects—the rerouting and burial of Interstate 93 famously went more than $10 billion over budget and took five years more than originally projected. But the project has been a boon to public spaces, resulting in the creation of the 1.5-mile Rose Kennedy Greenway, North Point Park and Paul Revere Park.

The Esplanade Association’s Esplanade 2020 plan calls for the reclamation of the parklands that were lost during the expansion of Storrow Drive and returning the road to a calmed parkway. So far, there has been little evidence that the political will exists to undertake such a drastic project. But Spain’s Madrid Río offers a tantalizing glimpse of what might be possible.

Monday, March 10, 2014

High School Volunteerism with the CRC

My favorite aspect of the Conservancy Volunteers (CV) program is how many different people I meet each year.  The CV program attracts so many people that are willing to give back to the parklands, allowing me to work with approximately 2,000 volunteers annually.  We have volunteers who are young and old, individuals and groups, including volunteers from the corporate and nonprofit sectors.  I think though, that the most interesting group that I work with are high school students. Thanks to a grant that we received from National Grid, we are able to work with about 10 high school volunteer groups a year.
Asiatic bittersweet vines growing on trees.

For example, Ms. Matani’s AP Biology class from Cambridge Rindge and Latin high school is always very enthusiastic about removing Asiatic Bittersweet vines from along Memorial Drive.  This particular invasive species is especially tenacious and will kill a healthy, vibrant tree.  Unfortunately, I’ve seen Asiatic bittersweet grow thicker than a half dollar in diameter, which will steadily girdle and choke a tree.  It will also rapidly leaf out above the canopy of the tree that it’s growing on, preventing the tree underneath from photosynthesizing. 

Ms. Matani’s class always asks more questions, and gets more excited about bittersweet removal.  During our conversations about the ecology of invasive species in the parklands ecosystem, students routinely try to come up with ways to eradicate it, remove it, or turn back time and imagine what the parklands would be without it.  I appreciate their suggestions and questions because it continuously makes me think about management of invasive species on a broad level. 

I appreciate working with them because they are creative problem solvers, and I think for such a large-scale problem it’s important to have the next generation’s buy-in to help address these types of ecological challenges.  So, to all high school students who participate in our CV program, keep asking the important questions!

To see a little bit more about our high school volunteering program, please view the following YouTube clips of high school volunteers:

About the author: Danielle Stehlik is the Volunteer and Outreach Coordinator for the CRC.  More photos of the volunteer events are on our Facebook page

Tuesday, February 25, 2014

From Pavement to Snow

Photo credit from the web: ESPN XGames

It’s hard not to be inspired by the athletes of the 2014 Winter Olympics—each with their own extraordinary athletic ability and personal story of dedication and sacrifice. The amazing performances by these athletes that we witnessed in Sochi, likely began as a dream in their own backyard or in a neighborhood park. And for slopestyle and halfpipe athletes, perhaps even in a skate park.

As the Charles River Conservancy (CRC) works in partnership with DCR and MassDOT to move the Charles River skate park project into the construction phase this spring, we are reminded that the realization of this much needed skating venue in the Boston region could well be a training ground for future Winter Olympians. For “boardsport” athletes, moving from pavement to snow—from skateboarding to snowboarding—is not uncommon.  After all, the tricks and courses (such as the halfpipe) of snowboarding were born by skaters on city streets and in skate parks.  These two action sports are undoubtedly connected by athletic skill as well as style and culture.

Venice Skate Park Halfpipe, CA
North Star Halfpipe, Lake Tahoe, CA

While skateboarding is not an Olympic sport, with current advocacy for its inclusion, a debut at the 2020 Tokyo Summer Games is a real possibility.  In most places, unlike snowboarding, skateboarding can be a year-round sport and one that is accessible to all, not requiring a hefty investment in expensive gear and lift tickets as well as the necessity of the obvious natural elements of snow and geography.  With this more equitable “playing field,” the realization of an Olympic dream via skateboarding could be available to anyone willing to give it a go.

Watching the slopestyle and halfpipe athletes over the last two weeks at the Sochi Games as well as contemplating the prospect of skateboarding as an Olympic sport, got me thinking about the national importance of the future skate park at North Point in Cambridge.  After more than a decade of efforts by CRC and so many others, this local skate park—what will be called the Lynch Family Skate Park and become part of the Massachusetts State Parks system—could be a place where Olympic dreams are born and Olympic athletes are made. It’s an inspiring thought.  And too, for those of us who are dedicated to creating and improving public space, it’s a humbling and motivating reminder that building a park is about much more than developing a new venue for respite or recreation, it is about investing in the aspirations of a new generation.

Author: Janet Curtis is director of development and communications at the Charles River Conservancy.

Monday, January 13, 2014

Sylvester Baxter and Early Efforts in Parklands PR

It is doubtful that anyone’s words have done more to advance the development of the Charles River Parklands and the preservation of Boston-area open spaces than those of Sylvester Baxter. As a journalist and the first secretary of the Metropolitan Parks Commission—an organization that he helped Charles Eliot found—Baxter placed the need for parks into the public consciousness and helped turn the political gears needed to make his vision of a “Greater Boston” a reality.

Photo Credit: "The Southwest in the American
Imagination: The Writing Sylvester Baxter"
edited by Curtis M. Hinsley and David R. Wilcox
Like Eliot, Baxter benefited early in his career from the guidance of Frederick Law Olmsted. Though he had no formal training in landscape architecture, Baxter had wasted little time in becoming involved in the burgeoning movement to create publicly owned parklands in and around Boston.

One of Baxter’s first focuses as a journalist was the effort to preserve the land that is now the Middlesex Fells Reservation. Baxter, who suggested the name, published an article advocating protection of the land in the Boston Herald that gained widespread attention.

Baxter then wrote to Olmsted, who was not yet living in Boston, to solicit advice on how best to design the park. As plans for the park progressed, Eliot became involved and it was in this project that their paths first crossed.

Baxter and Eliot both saw the need for a centralized organization to protect and develop public lands in Boston. While Eliot had formal training and expertise as a planner and landscape architect, it was Baxter’s position as a newsman that enabled the pair to inject their ideas into the public realm and achieve significant progress with great speed.

In 1891 Baxter published a series of articles in the Herald laying out his vision of a “Greater Boston” with a regional network of parks, including the shorelines of the Charles River, as its unifying feature. Shortly after the pieces were published, Baxter and Eliot joined forces to work towards this goal. Together they organized the Trustees of Public Reservations, which ultimately led the state legislature to create the Metropolitan Park Commission (now the Department of Conservation and Recreation) in 1892.

Eliot was the Commission’s landscape architect and Baxter served as its secretary. To build support for their envisioned park system, the pair organized “open space tours” of the lands that the Commission would soon promote to be developed as parks including Middlesex Fells, Blue Hills and the Charles River shorelines. Baxter would later describe these tours as “voyages of discovery about home.”

Historic view of the Charles River and
surrounding parklands in 1892 and 1902.
Credit: Wikimedia
He kept close notes on the outings, and his account of the Charles River trip, the final tour led by the Commission, was especially detailed. He emphasized the poor health of the river and pinned the blame primarily on the numerous industrial factories that were dumping wastewater directly into the river.

Six months after forming, the Commission released its first written report. Baxter and Eliot were its primary authors. In the report, they laid out their argument for transforming Boston into an “Emerald Metropolis.” While Eliot’s sections were mostly concerned with the technical details of land acquisition and park building, Baxter kept with his tradition of writing for laypeople and used more general terms to build his case. He drew on Olmsted’s successes in improving sanitation through his work in the Back Bay Fens to advocate the reclamation of land along the Charles River.
The report was a complete success and was well received by the public and the state government. The legislature enacted nearly all of its recommendations and by the turn of the century over 9,000 acres of Boston parklands had been reserved including most of the shorelines of the Charles.

See also:
·       Boston Park Guide – a book that Baxter published in 1898 with descriptions and photographs of just about every Boston-area park that had been developed by that point including the Arnold Arboretum, the Fens, Jamaica Pond, and the Charles River Parklands.
·   Inventing the Charles by Karl Haglund features a detailed account of Baxter and Eliot’s work to create the Boston parks system.

About the author: Sam Wotipka is an intern who joined the Conservancy in September 2013.  He is a graduate student at MIT and is pursuing a MS in Science Writing.

Wednesday, October 16, 2013

PARK(ing) Day!

PARK(ing) Day is an annual worldwide event where artists, designers and citizens transform metered parking spots into temporary public parks.

At the Charles River Conservancy, we built a park!  Well, we asked the city for permission to borrow a metered parking space, so that we could roll out some fake grass and beach chairs and have a seat. And we didn’t come up with this idea ourselves.  We had a little help from ReBar, a design firm in San Francisco.

ReBar has spent years testing what it means for a space to be “publicly owned”.  I won’t go into their numerous projects, but instead introduce you to their idea that went viral: PARK(ing) Day.  It’s a straightforward concept that anyone could do: Step 1 - you choose a metered parking space; Step 2 - you pay the meter; Step 3 - you use the space, for whatever you’d like (in the time the meter allows).  This idea has been so widely popular, that it has become a yearly, internationally organized event; this year, it was on September 20th.

You might’ve seen us in Harvard Square, along with the local startup, City Compost, and the voter registration booth.  Maybe you played mini-golf with the Central Square Business Association; or maybe you were out of town and saw Architecture for Humanity’s design lab spaces in Chicago or Detroit, or any one of the 25 spaces created by local businesses in Munich, Germany.

No matter where you were, I hope you were able to utilize some reclaimed space.  One woman who sat down in our park told me how relaxed she felt as soon as she sat down – It didn’t matter that cars were on one side, pedestrians on the other (all of them looking at us and wondering what on earth we were doing); she had stopped to sit in the sun and finish up a phone call, and knew she had picked the right place.

For a lengthier article on the idea of reclaiming space, I encourage you to read aeon magazine’s “Cities belong to us”.  For more information on PARK(ing) Day, visit their website at

About the author: Theresa Doherty is an intern who joined the Conservancy staff in July 2013.  She is a fifth-year student at Northeastern University and anticipates graduating in 2014 with a BS in Environmental Science and a minor in Architectural History. 

Tuesday, October 1, 2013

Revels 10 Year Anniversary

On September 22, the Cambridge community gathered along the banks of the Charles River to celebrate the arrival of the Autumnal Equinox. A crowd of well over one thousand people joined the Revels RiverSing Chorus for an evening of music and festivities. They sang and danced as the sun sank over the Anderson Memorial Bridge to the west.

It started with a parade.

Beginning at Winthrop Park in Harvard Square, a lively procession of dancers and acrobats (from Moonship Productions), puppeteers (from Puppeteers Cooperative) and musicians (the Second Line Social Aid and Pleasure Society Brass Band) marched down John F. Kennedy Street to the Weeks Footbridge, as a crowd of onlookers filed in behind them.

The celebration began with a resolution from the City of Cambridge presented by Vice Mayor Denise Simmons, recognizing the ongoing success and value of the annual event. She was followed by Cambridge Poet Populist Lo Galluccio, who recited a poem, which she wrote for the occasion; “Dear World You Are Courted to Death.”

And with that the chorus broke into the evening’s first song: Woody Guthrie’s folk anthem “This Land Is Your Land” led by special guest Noel Paul Stookey of the band Peter, Paul and Mary. 

The RiverSing Children’s Chorus followed with a rendition of “Michael, Row the Boat Ashore.”  Along with other guest artists including singer and saxophone player Stan Strickland, the chorus led the crowd through a diverse selection of gospel, soul, and folk songs linked by themes of renewal, celebration, and of course, rivers.   

This year marked the tenth anniversary of RiverSing, which began in 2004 as a partnership between Revels and the Charles River Conservancy through the efforts of CRC Founder and President Renata von Tscharner.

This year’s celebration included a new original song by local composer and Revels song leader, David Coffin. Since there are few songs written about the Charles River, he told the audience, he decided to compose one especially for the occasion. The final line of “Rowing Down the River” included a special nod to the CRC: “The Charles River Conservancy, keeping it clean for you and me.”

Author Sam Wotipka is an intern at the Charles River Conservancy.  He is pursuing a masters program in Science writing at MIT.

Monday, August 12, 2013

The Twin Triangles of the Zakim Bridge

Standing on the Longfellow Bridge on a breezy summer evening, one’s eyes traverse the Charles River and sweep from right to left across the Boston skyline. Past the blocky dorms of BU and the thrilling white lights of Fenway on a game night, one pauses briefly to watch the CITGO sign complete a full cycle then skips onward onto the up down up down sequence of the Prudential Center and the Hancock Tower. The jagged edges of the Financial District now shout for attention, but what’s past them grabs the gaze better: the twin triangles of the Zakim Bridge.

My goal in life is to be Washington Roebling (minus the decompression sickness), so it’s not surprising that this bridge is my favorite piece of Boston infrastructure. It’s just so pretty: the swoop of the concrete across the river, the obelisks evoking the nearby Bunker Hill monument, the clear lines of the steel cables tangling into lyrical asterisks with a change in viewpoint. The Leonard P. Zakim Bunker Hill Memorial Bridge, designed by Miguel Rosales, concept by Christian Menn, is Boston’s answer to San Francisco’s Industrial Orange arches or New York’s double-stacked exposed steel.

Leonard P. Zakim Bunker Hill Memorial Bridge

For all that it looms large on the current list of Boston landmarks, the Zakim Bridge is not even ten years old. It was completed in 2002 as part of the Big Dig project and opened to traffic in December of 2003. It replaced the Charlestown High Bridge, a steel truss bridge that by the time it was replaced was so worn-out that motorists were experiencing frequent tire blowouts. Due to the nature of the project, namely the need to maintain traffic flow during the construction, the bridge was built in the relatively small space between the High Bridge, the old raised highway of Boston’s Central Artery, and the Leverett Circle Connector Bridge. At one point the edge of the Zakim Bridge was a mere two feet from the raised roadway. 

Beginning construction on the Zakim Bridge. The Leverett Circle Connector Bridge is already completed.

Zakim Bridge in the end stages of construction, before the old Central Artery (green) was removed. Note the lack of significant space between the top left corner of the bridge and the active highway.

Completed Zakim Bridge, shown within the context of the construction site.

In a compromise between the City of Boston and various groups of community activists, the bridge was named in commemoration of both the soldiers who fought in the Revolutionary War battle of Bunker Hill and Boston civil leader and civil rights activist Leonard P. Zakim. After its completion, the structure underwent a very unusual (and old-fashioned) stress test: fourteen elephants crossed the bridge to prove that it could support 112,000 pounds!

Add  Elephants from the Ringling Bros. and Barnum and Bailey circus cross the Zakim Bridge, replicating structural integrity tests of the 1800s, on October 14, 2002
The Zakim Bridge is a cable-stay bridge. This is a style popular in Europe but still innovative for an American bridge. A cable-stay bridge is supported by steel cords running directly between the roadway and the towers.  This differs from a suspension bridge, in which cables are draped between the towers, and the roadway is then supported by “hangers” spanning the vertical distance between the cables and the road.

Cable-stay bridge structure and forces

Suspension bridge structure and forces

The Zakim Bridge has a main span of 795 feet and a total span of 1457 feet. (The main span refers to the longest unsupported section of a bridge, generally in the middle, while the total span represents the entire length of a bridge that is off of the ground.) The bridge has an asymmetrical 183-foot wide roadway—the widest in the country for a cable-stay bridge! This asymmetry comes from the way its ten lanes are arranged: four in each direction on either side of the central line of the supports, plus two additional north-bound lanes which are cantilevered out from the eastern side.

Zakim Bridge
Can you guess which bridge was the first hybrid cable-stay bridge in America? Yep—the Zakim Bridge! “Hybrid” means that it’s composed of more than one building material, in this case concrete and steel. The main span (middle) of the bridge is composed of steel girders and frames, while the portions to the north and south of the towers are made of post-tensioned concrete. (Post-tensioning is a method of strengthening concrete by embedding steel bars into it; this type of concrete does not deflect as easily as non-post-tensioned concrete and is common in large infrastructure projects.)

Large slabs of post-tensioned concrete wait to be lifted into place as part of the ramp up to the bridge    

Concrete is significantly stronger in compression than in tension, so compression members such as the towers do not need to be post-tensioned. In fact, the towers on the Zakim Bridge are hollow, with walls only one to four inches thick! They were cast in place and supported by steel shafts eight feet in diameter and driven into bedrock. These shafts had to be placed carefully to avoid the MBTA Orange Line tunnel below the bridge, which is why the legs of the towers are angled inward at the base.  The roadway is attached to the towers using a network of 116 cable stays. Despite their perhaps delicate appearance, the cables and the bridge structure as a whole can withstand winds of greater than four hundred miles per hour and earthquakes of up to 7.9 magnitudes.

South tower under construction.
The impressive infrastructure atop the bridge notwithstanding, my favorite location from which to appreciate the design is from below. As one crosses the roller-coaster-esque North Point Pedestrian Bridge, it’s possible to get a real sense of the scale of the bridge and an unparalleled look at the clean, matching arches of the Zakim and Leverett Circle Connector bridges. It’s not a pretty spot, per se, but it is impressive. I was surprised when I learned that this was the location for the Charles River Conservancy’s proposed skate park, but the more I thought about it the more it made sense. The skate park, by combining a world-class athletic facility with elements of skating’s urban roots, strikes a balance between function and aesthetics. What better location for this project than below a bridge that not only efficiently carries I-93 traffic across the river but does so via an elegant design? After all, they are tied together already; Boston skaters, in a Boston skate park, below the Boston bridge.


"Barletta Engineering and Heavy Division." Barletta Engineering and Heavy Division. Barletta Engineering, n.d. Web. 09 Aug. 2013.
"Leonard P Zakim-Bunker Hill Memorial Bridge (I-93 and US 1)." Leonard P Zakim-Bunker Hill Memorial Bridge (I-93 and US 1). Eastern Roads, n.d. Web. 09 Aug. 2013.
"What Is Post-Tensioning?" DSI Canada. Post-Tensioning Institute, Dec. 2000. Web. 9 Aug. 2013.

Photo Credits

About the Author:
Phoebe Whitwell is a current MIT intern and has been working with the Charles River Conservancy for the summer of 2013.