Walking the Rose Kennedy Greenway: Landscape Design in the Heart of the City

By September 1, 2009November 22nd, 2011One Comment
by Julie Moir Messervy
greenway_1stimage2Plantings soften the cityscape in Boston’s Rose Kennedy Greenway.
Photos: Julie Moir Messervy

On August 18th, one of the hottest and muggiest days of the year, I decided to walk the full 15-acre length of Boston’s new Rose Kennedy Greenway in order to take a look at how it all turned out. Set on the land that previously housed an elevated highway and now covers over the famously expensive Big Dig tunnels, the four parks that make up the Greenway were the subject of a long and drawn out design process. Now, with the parks finally open, I wanted to see how people used and enjoyed this long finger of land linking the North End to Chinatown. After such a painstaking planning process, just how successful are the parks as they stand today? My take-away grades: Chinatown: A; the North End: B, the Wharf District: C.

It’s a true delight to be able to walk through Boston, close to, but not on the water, from one end of the city to the other. I was thrilled to be able to look up into the sky, out to the Harbor, and into the surrounding streets; to be both inside the urban fabric while an observer of it at the same time. In this sense alone, the arduous process was well worth the effort. Yet because of the plethora of cross streets, the need to constantly push crosswalk buttons and wait for lights to change every few hundred yards takes away a lot of the magic.

North End ParksCooling off in the North End Park’s ‘Canal.’ The North End Park’s ‘Front Porch.’
Photos: Julie Moir Messervy

North End Parks
I started out at the North End Parks. The ‘front porch’ is a clean seating area of bistro chairs underneath a high pergola structure (too high for shade, but it should provide screening from the street when the vines grow to cover it). A handsome raised waterway, called ‘the canal,’ brings movement and vitality to this stately green space. It is set at just the right height for cooling your feet or watching children run through the water. One criticism is the lawn beyond the canal could use more trees—a lone specimen couldn’t provide the shade necessary to bear the heat of the day. The whole feels pared down and spare—a big contrast with the delightful rabbit warren of streets, cafes, and street life of the North End nearby.

greenway_wharfdistScenes from the Wharf District Park: Noise boxes, children at play in the Rings Fountain, and Lighting Structures on the ‘Great Room.’
Photos: Julie Moir Messervy

Wharf District Park
I’ll admit it, I was an early detractor of the Wharf District Park’s planning process so I may be a bit overly critical of this section of the Greenway. Designed to be an active civic space, this park sits at the nexus between Quincy Market, the Waterfront Park, the Aquarium, and Rowe’s Wharf. A host of different “events”—a carousel, two spray fountains, lighting structures, grassy hillocks, and quarried stone with metal noise boxes–feel a bit disjointed and generic, as though they could have been placed in any city in the world. However, the Wharf District Park is an important draw for families and children, providing them with cooling jets of water to run through and a colorful carousel to ride, and serving as a useful link between Quincy Market and the Aquarium. But despite the utility of the Wharf District’s features, I felt, and do still feel, that what Boston needs is a space as urbane as Barcelona’s Las Ramblas, as unique as Toronto’s Music Garden (disclosure: my design), and as celebratory as Providence’s Waterfire. Perhaps it’s not too late! Check out my 2001 design for the Wharf District: The Parade. With the opening of New York’s High Line, perhaps my idea for creating an elevated walkway above the parks might just work after all.

Chinatown ParkTwo red bamboo structures frame the Chinatown Gate. A stony riverscape cools the air and brings white noise to the Chinatown Parks.
Photos: Julie Moir Messervy

Chinatown Park
I am impressed with the overall design as well as the carefully crafted details of the Chinatown Park. The soft billows of ornamental grasses beckon the pedestrian forward to pass under a contemporary red gate into a watery world made up of a stony waterfall and riverscape softened by bamboos. As you walk along the curving path, you spy your destination ahead: the traditional Chinatown Gate. From reading Boston Globe architectural critic Robert Campbell’s 2007 review of the Greenway, Carol R. Johnson Associates designed this space. Strangely enough, they are not credited on the Greenway website. Great work, whoever did it.

I’ll be visiting the Greenway again in order to experience it throughout the seasons and at different times of day and night. I can only imagine how wonderful it must be for an urban dweller to enjoy an evening stroll along this ribbon of green that unwinds amidst the tall stately buildings of downtown Boston.

Join the discussion One Comment

  • Steph says:

    I’ve taken three trips to Boston in the last two weeks simply to enjoy the Greenway. With all its budget problems and critics, I never expected what I wonderful time, I had, as well as my husband and 4-year old.

    Perhaps because I worked in Quincy Market in college and remember how dreadful the area was prior, I had low expectations, but I think it was a success (especially for the 4-year old) — who absolutely loved all the water features and carousel.

    Boston has become a truly livable city — maybe it could have been better, but I would take what they did any day over what was existing prior.