Commentary: Preserving Olmsted’s intent should be central to Franklin Park, stadium review

Plans to expand the White Stadium complex in Boston’s Frederick Law Olmsted, Sr.-designed Franklin Park are moving quickly. In fact, one might conclude from recent public engagement meetings that proposed changes to the park would not have considerable visible impacts on one of Olmsted’s four great “Country Parks,” the largest park in the world’s first urban greenway, and a potential World Heritage Site: Olmsted’s Emerald Necklace. However, some essential work has yet to be done.

Given Franklin Park’s undeniable importance, an analysis of the stadium project’s impacts should be informed by the Secretary of the Interior’s Guidelines for Treatment of Cultural Landscapes, the federal level guidance that provides comprehensive tools for assessing sites like Franklin Park that are listed in the National Register of Historic Places. Critically, the most significant organizational characteristic of a historic designed landscape like Franklin Park is its inherent visual and spatial arrangement, like the rooms of a house.

An understanding of these relationships is foundational to evaluating all planning efforts, otherwise one is assessing proposed structures (e.g., new buildings) and other features (e.g. height of the new scoreboard) in a vacuum. It is essential when applying the standards to any new project in a significant historic designed landscape that the stewards should aim to avoid, minimize, and mitigate any negative impacts or “adverse effects” created by the new work, with priority given to avoidance.

For example, visual impacts to the park’s immediate surrounds and longer viewsheds are created by the scoreboard, whether in use or not, expanded rooflines to the stadium, light fixtures, new buildings in “The Grove,” etc. These elements are visible from multiple vantage points, including the Overlook and through the puddingstone arches, and disrupt the historic character, design intent, and feeling of being in a park – a cornerstone principle of providing nature in the city for those that don’t have the ability or resources to travel.  

Integral to this visual analysis, additional attention should be given to understanding the impact of night lighting into the greater park landscape, including the visibility of the night sky. Just as the visual impacts of proposed built features are studied, the extent of “light trespass” into the greater park landscape should be assessed. Olmsted intended to bring nature into the city and those adverse effects created with this new construction – during the day and night – would diminish the visitor’s experience for park users.

Speaking of park users, a complementary guidepost should be the recent award-winning Franklin Park Action Plan, which includes numerous design principles, observations, and recommendations that should be foundational to the stadium proposals. The Action Plan, as Mayor Michelle Wu says in her introductory letter in the document (p. 7), “is the result of a community-based effort coordinated by the Boston Parks and Recreation Department in partnership with the Franklin Park Coalition and a design team led by Reed Hilderbrand in collaboration with Agency Landscape + Planning and MASS Design Group.”  

Wu’s letter includes important guidelines:

• The park must first and foremost adhere to its founding ideals as realized by Frederick Law Olmsted, which were to connect people with the landscape and to foster experiences of natural phenomena, open space, and outdoor recreation in the belief that doing so elevates daily life, promotes public health, and strengthens civic dialogue. 

• The Action Plan does not aim to alter the park’s purpose, character, or design. Instead, it offers suggestions for the renewed care and ongoing development. The Action Plan (pp.86-87) also includes important observations about Franklin Park concerning its rural character (an Olmsted imperative), as well as long views, and appropriateness of materials and built elements:

• Rural vistas within and beyond the park were essential to its purpose - “an illusion of unlimited space” and “unbroken countryside”;
• Olmsted took a strict attitude toward built elements in the park. All park architecture, walls, bridges, furnishings, and steps deferred to the power of picturesque scenery, and felt as if they had emerged from the landscape itself.

The stadium proposals for Franklin Park are on a fast track, which is problematic given the absence of the most foundational analysis for assessing this significant landscape. We strongly urge Mayor Wu, along with the Boston Parks and Recreation Commission, and other agencies with jurisdiction over this project, to require the critical visual and spatial analysis that would help inform current design proposals thus ensuring that any adverse effects to Olmsted’s masterwork are avoided, minimized, and mitigated.

Charles A. Birnbaum, FASLA, FAAR, is founder, president, and CEO of The Cultural Landscape Foundation, a national, Washington, D.C.-based education and advocacy non-profit. The author also worked on the Emerald Necklace Masterplan in the 1980s.

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