EMERALD NETWORK: From Vision To Greenways

The core idea is really simple. The eastern Massachusetts urban metro area is blessed with over 110 miles of long, tree-lined paths along its rivers and harbor, as well as through its parks and water-shed highlands – greenways -- many designed a century ago by Frederick Law Olmsted and his associates. The Charles River’s Dr. Paul Dudley White Bicycle Path. The fabulous Emerald Necklace. The Mystic River paths. The Neponset Trail. The HarborWalk. And more. But, although each piece is much used and loved, it’s all cut up into separate, stand-alone blips. Wouldn’t it be great if they were connected into a network, and extended into as many neighborhoods and areas as possible! We’d have a series of linked greenway corridors crisscrossing and connecting the entire region – improving mobility and access to jobs, reducing congestion and pollution, increasing green and family-friendly play space, and more.

That was, and is, the goal of the four-year-old Emerald Network initiative, a project of LivableStreets. Full disclosure – I’m one of the project founders and am still on the Steering Committee. And, because of that, I’m happy to be able to say that the effort seems to be paying off – over 50 additional miles have been constructed or are in process. Of the eight projects our Greenway Partners have proposed, five have been taken up by the local municipality, moving from community dream to city plans. Of course, we rely on a huge ad hoc alliance of local activists, planning firm volunteers and community experts, government agencies, funders, student project teams, and politicians. But the real pleasure comes from the details.


Greenways have so many benefits that it is sometimes hard to pick the most important one. They will provide safer places for children to play, joggers to run, commuters and exercisers to bicycle. They are linear parks, expanding our tree canopy and increasing access to our open areas. They are catalysts for “place-making” -- an armature on which to hang additional playgrounds, picnic tables, and public art. They boost mobility and improve access to jobs for low-income people without cars or whose shifts end after the subways stop running. They are good for public health, environmental protection, and climate adaption. They make our city even more attractive and inviting to tourists and potential employees, boosting economic development and tax revenues. They may even have a positive effect on motherhood and apple pie. Greenway networks are, in fact, what today’s forward-looking and prosperous cities require.

All this is confirmation of LivableStreets Alliance’s founding insights. First, that transportation must be treated as a whole, not addressed as a series of distinct modes: cars, bikes, feet, trains, trolleys, etc. This is why LivableStreets has a range of programs that all work through broad coalitions -- from overall road design (Complete Streets Coalition) to street safety (Vision Zero Coalition and connections to public health), from bus improvement (BRT and better buses in collaboration with both regional business and equity-promoting groups) to transit and rail (with Transit Matters and via Transportation for Massachusetts). Second, the overall nature of transportation is shaped by the infrastructure – which, in turn, shapes people’s modal choices. Third, changing transportation infrastructure is a high-leverage strategy for improving people’s quality of life – from access to jobs and where people live to personal health and finances, from the nature of neighborhood life to climate resiliency and regional prosperity.

Of course, making it happen isn’t always easy. There isn’t always available open space on which to expand or build gap-closing greenways, and we’re forced to look for good sidewalk and protected bike-lane street-side connectors. Sometimes there isn’t even an obvious on-road route between existing greenway segments. Several of the gaps cross city or city-state or state-agency jurisdictional lines, with resulting bureaucratic confusions. Sections of the existing greenway corridors need serious upgrading. While some expansions and gap-closures can be done easily and cheaply, others are technically difficult or expensive. Some wealthy neighborhoods are fearful that a path might bring in “undesirables”; some poorer neighborhoods are fearful that a path might turn their area into a wealthy neighborhood.


To work through those obstacles, the Emerald Network Initiative follows a strategy of energizing from the middle, reaching out to both the grass roots and key resource-holders. The staff works with community groups around local project ideas, providing technical assistance towards the creation of conceptual designs, giving support for community outreach and mobilization, connecting local advocates with the growing regional network of people working within the Emerald Network vision, and helping them present their ideas to appropriate decision-makers. We also work with government officials, planners, and developers to promote both the overall network vision and the importance of particular priority projects for local and regional growth. Cooperating faculty at Northeastern, Tufts, Boston University, U.Mass, and Harvard have supervised student projects researching and writing technical reports and maps for many of our local partners.

For itself, the Initiative’s three strategic goals are to raise public awareness of the vision, convince decision-makers to include Emerald Network projects in their long-range plans, and move as many specific projects as far forward as possible. We’ve convened a series of Advisory consultations with community and professional leaders to sharpen our messaging, pick the most promising local projects, deal with technical issues, and help with funding.

So far, Boston’s Green Links plan incorporates many Emerald Network elements and key Emerald Network projects have been written into Go Boston 2030 visionary transportation master plan. Everette, Cambridge, Brookline, Newton, and other area cities have included relevant Emerald Network segments in their plans. The Metropolitan Area Planning Council (MAPC) regional non-motorized path and trail plan, the LandLine, fully integrates the Emerald Network routes in its urban sections. And MassDOT’s new statewide Bicycle and Pedestrian Transportation master plans supports greenway designs.


To kick off the effort, Emerald Network staff partnered with the Boston Society of Architects to organize a design contest. Teams from six local Urban Planning and Architecture firms developed creative greenway ideas that expressed the vision. A panel of local leaders from A Better City, Boston Transportation Department, the Barr Foundation’s Green Ribbon Commission, and others judged the submissions. My personal favorite was the Utile Design team’s idea to transform the Charles River locks and the narrow, winding river crossing into a sunbathing pseudo-park. Other ideas included creating a better route through Sullivan Square (an issue now being addressed by city and state planners), connecting BU to the Charles River (an obvious need now incorporated into some of the I-90 Allston plans), reviving Columbia Road and reconnecting it to the Harbor (possibilities being investigated by Boston), making Fort Port Channel more inviting (now related to the completion of the South Bay Harbor Trail), connecting the U.Mass T-station to the Harbor via Morrissey, and finding a good route across Dorchester from Franklin Park to the Neponset (still a hope!).

Since then, we’ve begun a newsletter (sign up <here>), put together a slide show and videos for short or in-depth public presentations (want one for your group? Send me an email!), and integrated greenway-network ideas into LivableStreets’ broader work – many local groups start with specific complaints about safety or noise/pollution or inadequate transit access and slowly realize that addressing those problems also opens the door for even more ambitious improvements. The media has started paying attention.

We’ve also conducted a few more focused charettes, in partnership with MAPC’s LandLine effort, the Mystic River Watershed Association, community activists, and government transportation officials, to identify and prioritize greenway network opportunities north of Sullivan Square into Somerville, East Boston, Chelsea, Revere, and Everett. Coming up is a similar effort for Readville heading south. These events help us develop conceptual designs and local maps as starting points for community outreach and planning discussion.


The Neponset River Greenway is one of the region’s newest water-side paths, and still growing. But a key Mattapan section from the Fairmont T station east to the shopping mall, remains blank. Working with the Southwest Boston CDC, an Emerald Network summer intern Maria de la Luz Lobos Martínez mapped a path through public land (currently administered by the Department of Conservation and Recreation, DCR). Emerald Network staff supported the SWBCDC’s efforts to activate the area by starting with a rebuilding of the dilapidated Doyle Playground in the middle of the route and the painting of a welcoming mural. A grant from the Lawrence and Lillian Solomon Foundation has allowed SWBCDC to keep moving: a river-bank clean-up is scheduled for April 27 in partnership with the Neponset River Watershed Alliance, the Solomon Family Fund, DCR, and the Emerald Network.

Partnering with the Walk-Up Roslindale community group and the Arnold Arboretum in negotiations with the MBTA and City of Boston, Emerald Network staff helped move the Roslindale Gateway Path – connecting Forest Hills T station to the village center from idea to construction. Boston’s new Community Preservation Act funds has granted a half-million dollars to finish the design and the State’s new Environmental Bond Bill allocates “no less than two million dollars for construction. It should be open for use by 2021.

In Watertown, Emerald Network staff worked with the Arsenal Yards developer, Athena Health, the Watertown Bicycle & Pedestrian Committee, and town officials to design a connection between the new Watertown-Cambridge Greenway extension and the Charles River bike paths. Work remains to be done with DCR and MassDOT on the North Beacon Street bridge crossing, but when complete, this creates enormous network effects allowing passage from the western edge of the urban core and the river system all the way to the Minuteman path heading west.

An even larger network effect comes from the Initiative’s support for a whole series of projects looping all the way from the Charles through the Fenway and Roxbury all the way to Fort Channel and the Seaport. The Charlesgate project, championed and initially financed by the Solomon Foundation, connects the Mass Ave bridge over the Charles with the “lost” section of the Emerald Necklace below Kenmore Square. The Charlesgate Alliance is pushing to reclaim that area’s heritage as an Olmsted park. Northeastern University, the Museum of Fine Arts, the Emerald Necklace Conservancy, and other area institutions have signed on to the Rox-to-Fens vision for an off-road path from the Fenway to Ruggles T station, and Boston’s Transportation Department has assigned a Project Manager to push it through. After years of controversy over road width and preserving the existing tree canopy, Boston also seems to be moving forward with the Melnea Cas Boulevard redesign with its multi-use side paths. And that connects to the recently re-energized South Bay Harbor Trail that extends under I-93, along the Fort Point Channel, to the HarborWalk and the Seaport.

Columbia Road was originally envisioned as part of Olmsted’s Emerald Necklace, a tree-lined boulevard from Franklin Park to the Harbor beaches. The 1938 hurricane knocked down the trees, and the changing demographics of the neighborhood – poorer, darker-skinned – led to government neglect. But, at the risk of gentrification, the area has received more public attention in recent years. Emphasizing a bottom-up, community-responsive approach, Emerald Network staff are working with a student team from Tufts to develop a community consultation process. And with a student team from Northeastern to interview residents and assemble a list of “place-making” improvements from benches to crosswalks; the city’s office of New Urban Mechanics will hopefully begin construction this coming summer. LivableStreets also joined the successful push to include Columbia Road as a priority for action through the City’s Go Boston 2030 master plan. Mayor Walsh has repeatedly spoken in support of the effort and has set aside ten million dollars of the Winthrop Garage windfall for work on Columbia Road. People are currently waiting for the city Transportation Department to hire contractors for a community design process using the $100,000 budgeted for FY2019 – there is much concern that if the money isn’t committed by the end of June it will simply disappear.

Emerald Network staff are involved with nearly a dozen other projects, and are always looking for other ways to move the vision one more step towards realization.


Going forward, the Emerald Network – like all open space, recreational, and even infrastructure public projects – needs to convince decision-makers of the social value of the needed investment not only through public pressure but also with understandable numbers. The costs are relatively easy to predict, it’s the benefits that are hard to pin down: increased opportunity for small businesses and low-income workers, easier for big firms to attract professional staff, lower public health and insurance costs, a more resilience to storms and seas, the multiplier effect of creating a network rather than separate segments. Working with MAPC, we’re trying to put together what is known about estimating these indirect pay-offs into a cost-benefit analysis tool for decision-makers.

Another challenge is making the greenway vision accepted enough to influence road design decisions. Some of the connectivity gaps will have to be closed using existing road right-of-way space – are we willing to narrow the lanes or even reduce parking in order to free up room for heat-island-preventing trees and storm-water handling swales, for wider sidewalks, for separated bike paths? City and state planners will take their cue from elected leaders – will they have the political will for such a transformative approach? Boston’s Transportation Department has $100,000 for starting a community design process for Cummins Highway which has just begun. Blue Hill Ave and the American Legion Parkway are all prime candidates for recreation, but progress will require political leadership at both the local and city levels. The state DCR will be at the center of many of these types of discussions – the agency has been hesitant to commit itself to moving in this direction on Morrisey Boulevard. In fact, DCR has been sitting on a new Guidelines for Parkways document for over a year, seemingly unwilling to admit how bad current conditions are on their roads and lacking the budget to realistically improve things.


Fortunately, the winds of change are blowing in the right direction. Congestion is getting worse, as is the negative impact of our growing inequality in both wealth and mobility options. And both are becoming more widely recognized as major inhibitors of everyone’s well-being as well as our region’s survival as our weather changes and the world economy gets more competitive. The Governor’s office has started a new MassTrails program with several million dollars for local grants via the Recreational Trails Program – mostly awarded outside the metro urban core but still an important recognition of the importance of long-distance connections.

It took a generation to create the HarborWalk. Something with a big vision takes a long time. For the Emerald Network, we need to continue pushing for local section after local section until the larger vision becomes so visible and so desirable that there is no excuse not to finish the job. It may not end up being called the Emerald Network, our Initiative may not be seen as the catalyst; no matter: it will exist. I think of the Emerald Network as a legacy for my grandchildren. Perhaps for yours, too.


Thanks to the Emerald Network staff, past and present: Alice Brown, Amber Christoffersen, Nidhi Gulati, and Tony Lechuga – and LSA’s ED, Stacy Thompson. Thanks to the Solomon and Barr Foundations for major support, to Jeff Cook and Pam Kohlberg and the Trustees Collaborative for start-up grants. Thanks to the dozens of people who have attended our Advisory meetings, charettes, and exploratory bike rides – especially David Loutzenheiser and the LandLine coalition that helped lead them.


Related Past Posts:


> GREEN ROUTES TO THE FUTURE: Regional Vision and Urban Transportation

> MORRISSEY BOULEVARD: Wall or Connector?

> STREETS ARE PUBLIC PROPERTY: Reclaiming the Right of Way


> INCREASING IMPACT BY COMBINING VISIONS: Parks, Greenways, Transportation

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