In 2021, the City of Boston sold one of its parking garages for $102 million, with the goal of dedicating those funds to improving Boston’s public spaces and investing in affordable housing. Some of those millions went to an effort to revitalize Boston Common, one of the oldest public parks in the country. And more of those millions went to a plan for improving Franklin Park, a neglected park designed by Frederick Law Olmsted as part of Boston’s famed Emerald Necklace.
A three-year planning process led by landscape architecture firms Reed Hilderbrand, Agency Landscape + Planning, and MASS Design Group has resulted in a comprehensive action plan that is rooted in local community priorities and meant to ensure the long-term sustainability of the 527-acre cultural landscape.
“We heard from the community that they want the city to take better care of the park — to pick up trash, improve the bathrooms, reduce the pressure of invasive plants, and restore the landscape to optimal health in a thoughtful and steady way,” said Kristin Frederickson, ASLA, a principal at Reed Hilderbrand.
What the landscape architecture team created is a bold plan that balances immediate maintenance and restoration needs with steps to achieve a long-term vision of improved access, resilience, and equitable benefits. The 450-page plan will take multiple decades and more than $150 million to complete. “And the plan suggests that the city and community can’t pick and chose between addressing climate change, equity, historic preservation — these are synergistic elements, key principles meant to operate together.”
The revitalization of Franklin Park has been a long time coming. For decades, one of the city’s largest parks received little government investment and was instead left to the Franklin Park Coalition to steward and maintain. “They deserve a lot of credit — they have been holding this park together. There were times when visitors were actually driving through the park lawns,” Frederickson said.
The city’s history of racial inequities factors into this. Franklin Park is bordered by some of Boston’s most historically marginalized communities — Roxbury, Dorchester, Mattapan, and Roslindale — along with Jamaica Plain, a wealthier community.
Boston’s 2030 plan highlighted the need to invest in Franklin Park. “There was a realization that we need to stabilize the park in order to save it,” said John Kett, ASLA, principal in charge at Reed Hilderbrand.
The first step was to build trust with communities that have been promised support in the past, but didn’t see that translate into action. The first community engagement meeting, pre-pandemic, brought out more than 300 community members. “There was a lot of excitement but also skepticism,” Kett said.
These meetings brought up issues of representation. “Three-fourths of the surrounding neighborhoods are historically underserved. Residents from Jamaica Plain were very active and showing up, but we weren’t hearing much from the underserved communities at first.”
The Franklin Park Coalition, which had established community support and connections over decades, was key to increasing the involvement of these communities, particularly during the pandemic when the team relied on Zooms and online surveys. The coalition helped the team get hundreds of survey responses.
To build trust, Reed Hilderbrand, Agency Landscape + Planning, and MASS Design Group also participated in playhouse in the park, a long-running summer series. For years, community members have brought their lawn chairs and coolers to watch free performances.
“We set up a pop-up photography booth with Sahar Coston-Hardy, who was able to print portraits in the park, and put them up on clotheslines. People looked good, so by the end there was a line. It was a trust-building exercise with the community — and for them. They shared their stories about the park with us, too.”
Brie Hensold, Hon. ASLA, co-founder of Agency Landscape + Planning, explained that additional community engagement strategies included walking tours in the park and in-depth conversations with key constituencies — the groups that cared most about improving the golf course or tennis courts, restoring the woodlands, or enhancing the playhouse and its amphitheater. And to overcome the digital divide among community members, “we also went canvassing door to door to gather input.”
The result of this equitable community engagement is a plan that calls for spreading investments throughout the park, so that all the communities bordering the park see both immediate and long-term benefits.
In her announcement of the new plan to revitalize Franklin Park, Boston Mayor Michelle Wu highlighted two priorities.
“She focused on the need to restore the ecosystems in the park and also the need to appoint a dedicated park superintendent,” Kett said.
A slew of Boston and state agencies are involved in the park and its boundary areas. Establishing a leader who can move the plan forward was a key goal for the planning and design team.
The plan explored how the park could support affordable housing protections, and build capacity, create more local jobs, and develop the workforce, particularly through city government contracts to nearby vendors. These efforts will require multi-agency partnerships across the city government, which a superintendent can help facilitate.
“Given that trust with surrounding communities has been broken for decades, rebuilding that trust will be a slow process. We focused on only promising what we could deliver,” Kett said.
“The community wants to see continuous maintenance improvements and capital investments over time,” Hensold said. “Trust is a longer-term project.”
Through their journey with the community, the team learned that Olmsted’s design is still deeply appreciated. Even with a clear lack of maintenance and investment, the park still has a “rough beauty,” Frederickson said.
“People love this park; they just want it to be a better version of itself. At the core, people want the park to be taken care of.”
Olmsted’s design still resonates despite the insertion of a hospital, zoo, golf course, widened circuit road, and a four-lane road that diagonally cuts through the park.
“There is the sense that Olmsted reached a logical conclusion in Franklin Park, which is one of his later parks. He did less here; it’s more about putting the land forward,” Frederickson said.
Inspired by the rock outcroppings of the area, he reinforced the edges with stone walls and slopes, creating an “interior haven.” Today, that means that some of the park boundaries are “not super porous.” The plan focuses on “improving porosity where we can” through new accessible entrances better aligned with well-lit crosswalks and supported by new street improvements, parking, and bicycle infrastructure.
The core design of the park remains though. Olmsted followed the flow of “whale-shaped drumlin fields, lacing circulation through them.” The design team recommended reducing or eliminating vehicle access in parts of that circulation system to ensure the park feels safer for pedestrians and cyclists. “But the plan is not anti-car. We actually increase parking in areas,” Frederickson said.
And restoring the varied ecosystems in the park, including its marshes, meadows, and woodlands, remains a top priority for the community and the landscape architects. “It’s an incredible, moving place to be. Its rough beauty is its power. It just needs support.”
LALH is publishing “Boston’s Franklin Park: Olmsted, Recreation, and the Modern City” by Ethan Carr, with an afterword by Gary Hilderbrand of Reed Hilderbrand. Carr and Hilderbrand both wrote articles about Franklin Park for VIEW 2022, posted on our website, lalh.org.