Science, Tech & Environment

A Finnish landscape architect tries to connect the broken pieces of Boston's Emerald Necklace

IMG_5747 copy.JPG

Maria Jaakkola at a screening of her video about Boston's Emerald Necklace

Credit:

Jeb Sharp

On a Sunday morning last April, Maria Jaakkola stood on a sidewalk next to a busy road in Boston. She stepped into what looked like a giant neon-green pillowcase, pulled it up over her head and zipped it shut. Then she contemplated the six lanes of traffic before her.

Player utilities

Listen to the Story.

“I can see a little, but not too much. I can’t see people’s faces,” she said.

Jaakkola is a landscape architect from Helsinki, Finland. She was here in Boston on a yearlong fellowship at Harvard’s Graduate School of Design. And on this particular day she was busy shooting scenes for a nine-minute film about Boston’s Emerald Necklace — a system of interconnected city parks designed by the great Frederick Law Olmsted in the late 19th century. She first learned about the Emerald Necklace as a landscape architecture student many years ago.

“It was always this iconic example of a greenway,” Jaakkola told me.

Jaakkola couldn’t wait to get to Boston to see it last year. She thinks about parks a lot in her work as head of the Environmental Office in Helsinki’s City Planning Department. She was eager to compare Boston’s green spaces to Helsinki’s. The cities are similar sizes, they’re both on the ocean, surrounded by forest, and both have much-loved green spaces in their urban centers.

But to her dismay, Boston’s Emerald Necklace was not at all what she imagined.

“It’s really hard to find the beginning,” she said. “And it’s really hard to get from one place to another.”

Disconnected 

Olmsted dreamt up the Emerald Necklace at a time when America was growing rapidly. He believed city dwellers needed places to escape from urban life and find respite in nature. The five-mile long system he designed still exists. Many parts of its parks and ponds and pathways are as beautiful as ever. But Jaakkola expected a triumph of cultural heritage, treasured and cared for. Instead she found a series of disconnected pieces that were difficult to navigate, especially on bike or foot.

So she decided to make a film about it. Which is how she found herself in that bright green costume one day last spring, standing at the edge of a busy road that cuts off one piece of the Emerald Necklace from the next.

Jaakkola's character "Dis" prepares to cross a road that cuts one section of the Emerald Necklace off from the next

Jaakkola's character "Dis" prepares to cross a road that cuts one section of the Emerald Necklace off from the next

Credit:

Jeb Sharp

“There’s no safe way to cross the street so we kind of wanted to make that visible by this creature wandering around and being bewildered and a little scared of the cars and then waiting for someone nice to come and help,” Jaakkola explained to me afterwards.

Eventually a couple did come by, and, with a little urging from Jaakkola's film crew, escorted the creature across the road. 

“It helps if you explain to people we’re doing an art project,” Jaakkola's friend Kolu Zigbi said afterwards. “And that she can only take little steps.”

It was a little terrifying to watch the scene unfold, but the reactions were interesting. Some people stared. Some turned their heads. Some took a wide berth around Jaakkola and her strange garment. Others pretended not to notice. At one point a police officer pulled up and questioned Jaakkola and her colleagues.

“I said we’re trying to show how hard it is to cross the street,” Jaakkola recounted. “And how hard it is to connect parts of the riverway. He said, ‘Will you be quick?’ We said, ‘Yes.’ He said ‘Ok then.’”

The resulting film, “(Dis)connected,” is fun and whimsical and deeply personal. It's also a stinging critique of what has become of a Boston treasure. Jaakkola’s green character, “Dis,” darts about the Emerald Necklace, struggling to make connections with the landscape and its inhabitants.

We see Dis emerge from the towering, invasive phragmites grasses that are choking the Muddy River, the waterway at the heart of Olmsted’s designs.

We see Dis visit a gazebo-like structure called the Round House Shelter near a beautiful stone footbridge over an old bridle path. The shelter feels abandoned, and there’s no floor anymore, so Dis stretches up on tiptoe, jumping up to try to see the view out of the high windows.

In the most poignant scene, Dis forms a human chair under the footbridge and invites strangers to sit on it. A student comes by and sits on Jaakkola’s knee and they chat. Their interaction ends up emphasizing both the alienation, and the potential for connection, that Jaakkola feels in these public spaces.

Jaakkola's "human chair"

Jaakkola's "human chair"

Credit:

Jeb Sharp

Jaakkola screened the film at an art show at Harvard in May. She also showed her watercolor paintings and performed songs by the Finnish composer Jean Sibelius. For her, art, music and landscape architecture are all intertwined. It was all lovely, but the reporter in me still needed a more prosaic explanation of her strong reaction to the Emerald Necklace.

Seeing the Emerald Necklace through European eyes

We return to walk the northern end of the necklace a couple of weeks later. She takes me to a maze of roads at a place called Charlesgate, where Olmsted’s design began. You can find traces of a once-lovely stretch of park, but mostly it’s cars and noise and concrete and graffiti. There’s no historical plaque, nothing at all mentioning the Emerald Necklace.

“You don’t know where you’re supposed to go,” Jaakkola tells me. “You have to look at the map to figure out where the greenway actually starts. It’s a bit of a shock to realize this is what it has transformed into.”

A blighted piece of the Emerald Necklace

A blighted piece of the Emerald Necklace

Credit:

Jeb Sharp

She shows me a little slice of park a bit further south, strewn with trash.

“It’s very unkempt,” Jakkola says. “There’s been some attempt to make a place for people but there are no benches. There is a light but it’s broken. No one is ever here. I’ve been here several times and I’ve never seen anyone.”

She points to a nearby tree. “It looks sad here in the middle of everything and it’s being strangled by the pavement. It’s like one of the emeralds in the necklace is a little stained.”

Her frustration is palpable. It’s clear she feels we Bostonians have neglected our cultural heritage, not understood the beauty of Olmsted’s vision, taken it completely for granted. She wants us to love the Emerald Necklace more. And to show that love with more stewardship, better signs, more amenities.

Boston's Back Bay Fens

Boston's Back Bay Fens

Credit:

Jeb Sharp

We wander through the Back Bay Fens. There are wooded pathways and beautiful stone bridges with graceful arches and overlooks. The famous WWII Fenway Victory Gardens are here, still thriving, as well as playing fields and a rose garden. But there are plenty of rough edges too. At one point we come across a handsome old building, now boarded up.

“You get the notion right away this is not a place to be,” Jaakkola says. “This used to be something, but it’s no longer anything. It doesn’t even have a sign saying ‘Closed for the Season.’”

The Duck House, a disused building on the Emerald Necklace

The Duck House, a disused building on the Emerald Necklace

Credit:

Jeb Sharp

We both agree it’s the perfect setting for a café. Because that’s what we need right now: a cup of coffee and a place to pee.

“That is one of the problems,” Jaakkola says, laughing.

“Why would you even go and walk along the Emerald Necklace if there is no place where you can eat and drink and sit down or go to the restroom?! You kind of panic, ‘Where can I find the next restroom?’ Sometimes I feel like American people have a different bladder than Europeans, because you know in Europe, every hundred meters there’s something. Sometimes it’s even a little over the top.”

When we do spot a sign for the Emerald Necklace, not far from Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, it has a list of “Don’ts” that include No Rollerblading and No Biking.

“Why no rollerblading? Why no biking?” asks Jaakkola. “I’ve violated that rule. The way the park sequence works, if you want to enjoy the whole Emerald Necklace, you need a bike!”

The sign also says the park closes at night.

“How do you close the park?” she asks. “Are you going to be arrested if you come after dark? For me that’s really weird coming from a Nordic, welfare society. Everything should be open for everyone. We make a really big deal about the parks being open for everyone, always.”

To a Finn, our rules make no sense. To Jakkola, closing the park at night keeps out the right mix of people and attracts the wrong crowd instead. That’s made worse by the fact that the greenway isn’t well lit. During her year in Boston she tried to ride a stretch at night once, but it proved too dangerous, even with a bike light.

“I was astonished,” says Jaakkola. “In Helsinki there’s so much darkness during the winter [the pathways] are always lit.”

A reality check

A few months after this outing, I return to my notes about Jaakkola and the Emerald Necklace. I need a reality check, so I go visit Julie Crockford. She’s president of the Emerald Necklace Conservancy, a nonprofit that works with the city of Boston, the neighboring town of Brookline, and the state of Massachusetts to look after Olmsted’s park system.

The Emerald Necklace Visitor Center in the Back Bay Fens

The Emerald Necklace Visitor Center in the Back Bay Fens

Credit:

Jeb Sharp

“We have a lot of work to do,” Crockford tells me. Her office is located in a beautiful restored pump house from the Olmsted era, designed by the famous architect H.H. Richardson. Crockford can stand at her desk in the heart of the city and look out over the river and watch hawks and blue herons. She’s met Jaakkola and seen her film so I ask what she thinks of Jaakkola’s critique.

“It’s really good to have an outsider point out the disconnects in our park,” Crockford says. “Not that we didn’t know about them! We’ve had advocates working on some of those disconnects for decades and I guess I’m just delighted to be able to respond that there are fixes in the works.”

During her time in Boston, our Finnish visitor had zeroed in, almost uncannily, on some of the biggest sore spots among Emerald Necklace advocates. As it turns out, there's no shortage of passionate activists who want to make the park system work better.  Happily there are several capital projects either slated or underway that will improve things, including stretches of river restoration, a crossing for cyclists and pedestrians on that busy road in Jaakkola’s film, and new connections between the pathways of the Emerald Necklace and Boston’s Charles River.

Crockford’s own top priority is the health of the trees in the Emerald Necklace. She wants to make sure the old growth is preserved and that new trees are planted for future generations to enjoy. An extensive inventory and mapping project is underway.

And as a cyclist herself, Crockford knows the paths and signage and lighting all along the Emerald Necklace could be improved. As for more restrooms, they're in the Conservancy's new strategic plan as a goal, but Crockford acknowledges it'll be a tough goal to achieve. Even the Emerald Necklace Visitor Center that houses her office doesn’t have public restrooms.

Postscript

Before Jaakkola returned to Finland in late spring. I asked her what she would say to Olmsted.

"It would be so great to talk to him," she says. "I would like to ask him, 'Is this what you intended? Did you anticipate this?' I think he would be horrified by the speed of everything, the cars."

And what if she could address the Emerald Necklace itself?

Jaakkola thought a while. "I wish you would be appreciated the way you could be, the potential of you, and embraced and considered and not ignored," she muses.

"It's like it's been sleeping for a hundred years," she says.

“I wish you would find your prince who would kiss your lips and bring you alive again,” she laughs.   

“Yes. Bring it back to life with a kiss.”