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The sun has not yet risen when Kara Brennan’s alarm goes off at 6.30am. It’s -23F (-30C) outside on a January morning in polar-vortex-stricken Boston. Brennan puts on some fleece pants over a pair of leggings, four shirts underneath a heavy sweatshirt, two hats, two pairs of gloves, thick socks and sneakers. She then steps out into the shocking wind and just starts running. Her motivation: the Charles River Esplanade.
Brennan is a runner for Team Esplanade. She and 14 other runners train on this stretch of trees and paths along the sides of the Charles River to raise money and awareness for the park. The group is part of the Esplanade Association, a non-profit organization that helps fund and maintain the public park by hosting events such as guided tours, day camps for children who might not otherwise get access to green spaces and this running team.
“You’re running, and it’s 14F [-10C] outside and there’s snow, no one’s down there and you’re all alone in the dark. It was huge to have that space,” Brennan recounts of many winter mornings. “You would feel so much more invested in your runs knowing that you’re raising money for this park.” This thought will help sustain Brennan all the way until the Boston Marathon. Though in January the paths on the Charles River Esplanade are covered in treacherously frozen footprints, like sunken, icy ankle traps, Brennan is running for a later time of year: a time when the city of Boston wakes up, buds propel outward from the branches above, warmth beats down on sunbathers along the docks and sailboats lull on the shallow waters of the bank.
Boston may be a city with grueling winters, but its many parks help transform the city scenery each season, pushing foliage up through the gaps between brownstones and Victorian houses in an overflowing array. “I lived in New York and Chicago, and I’m from outside Philly, but it feels like there’s so much green space in Boston,” says Brennan. “When I moved here, I remember feeling like it was so different and special – that you could always go somewhere to go be in nature and walk around. Obviously New York has the big parks, but Boston’s feel more spread out, like every neighborhood has this green space, which is so lucky for being in a big city.”
The oldest and largest parks in Boston are the Emerald Necklace – a chain of nine parks linked together – and the Esplanade. “Something that Boston’s always envisioned is to have this ribbon of green that runs through the city,” explains Michael Nichols, the Esplanade Association’s executive director, of the historical creation of the parks. “I think it’s kind of neat that most of our major parks – with the exception of the Common and Public Garden – are these long, linear parks. It’s almost like they come find you as opposed to you having to go to them.”
The nine parks that form the Emerald Necklace are the Boston Common, Boston Public Garden, Commonwealth Avenue Mall, the Back Bay Fens, the Riverway, Olmsted Park, Jamaica Pond, Arnold Arboretum and Franklin Park. Frederick Law Olmsted, the landscape architect who created Central Park in New York City in 1857, designed the Emerald Necklace in the 1870s. He connected the different ‘jewel’ parks of the Necklace by turning old carriage paths into leafy parkways, converting boggy areas into salt marshes and redirecting sewage to make way for land. This was part of the city’s project to relevel and expand Boston, taking land from high hills (such as in the neighborhood of Beacon Hill) to fill in swamps and bays of water elsewhere throughout the harbor-surrounded area.
Today, the parks still serve a crucial role in preventing flooding in the city. Olmsted used local plant life and globular bedrock native to the area called Roxbury puddingstone to create an authentic wilderness in the middle of the urban concrete that feels as though it’s been there for millennia.
“The parks are very much Boston in that way,” says Evan Bradley, marketing and communications director at the Emerald Necklace Conservancy, “trees here and rocks and structures here that feel intrinsically Bostonian in a very natural way.”
The creation of the Esplanade also began in the late 1800s, and landscape architect Arthur A Shurcliff completed the design in the 1930s. This three-mile (five-kilometer) park stretches down the side of the Charles River from the Museum of Science to the Boston University Bridge. The views from the Esplanade and nearby bridges grant wide vistas of the river and the Cambridge and Boston skylines hugging each side. From the paths, it’s easy to see brownstones peeking through leaves that then give way to an abundance of green trees before opening to views of the sparkling river beyond, sprinkled with quaint boathouses and pedestrian-friendly docks on the water. The Esplanade brims with energy, as runners, cyclists and walkers move along the paths; yoga practitioners flow on the grassy fields; fitness classes bounce in unison; and kayakers paddle in the river. In the evenings, outdoor concerts and movie screenings illuminate the Hatch Shell amphitheater, string lights glow above wooden tables in the Owl’s Nest beer garden and colorful street murals near the Harvard Bridge capture the attention of passersby.
The mural on the Esplanade near Massachusetts Avenue and Kenmore Square was the first of its kind in the parks. Titled Patterned Behavior, it depicts bright and colorful geometric shapes and feel-good waves. The Esplanade Association commissioned Silvia López Chavez to paint this art along a once gray and dull bypass. López Chavez transformed the space she describes as previously “utilitarian” by painting it with bold colors to make the area more welcoming: “Part of what I wanted to do and the artwork I created there was to help people slow down a little bit,” explains López Chavez. “This particular mural is in a place that’s very close to my heart, because I’ve loved spending time on the Esplanade since I moved to Boston [from the Dominican Republic].” Inspired by the people who use the space and the location itself, she incorporated motifs of the water, clouds, boats, birds and the sun. López Chavez tells us that this spot allows viewers to see both the sunrise and sunset at different times of day.
The Esplanade Association was able to use money raised at other fundraising events they host to support this local art and help beautify the city. “Boston is just beginning to see [how public art] really resonates with people and how impactful it is,” says López Chavez. As a Latina in the field, López Chavez can proudly say, “We’re breaking barriers as we do one mural at a time.”
The different park organizations have more projects on the horizon, with plans to connect this section of the Esplanade to the Emerald Necklace by 2023. The two will join via the old Muddy River channel that moves water from the Fens to the Charles and will be restored as the park space it was intended to be when Olmsted designed the chain. As Nichols of the Esplanade Association explains, “In a city as old and historic as Boston, we don’t get to reclaim parkland very often, so we think this is going to be a pretty big thing for Boston years from now.”
Boston provides a shining example of cohabitation between urban bustle and peaceful nature oasis. The chain of parks of the Emerald Necklace and the Esplanade together connect over 12 neighborhoods throughout the city. “It’s a commute, it’s a connector to culture, it’s a connector to each other and other neighborhoods,” says Bradley of the Emerald Necklace Conservancy. “It’s a link for the whole city.”