A wetlands restoration project in Boston is a cautionary tale about making bad decisions in the first place.

While enlightened businesses want transit so badly they commission studies to build it faster and more cheaply, according to The Washington Post, others are still old-school. The computer storage giant EMC in Hopkinton, Massachussetts, recently sought a zoning change to build a 900-space parking lot near corporate headquarters off Interstate 495. The unspoken threat here is that the company couldn’t possibly continue to call Hopkinton home without accommodating employees who drive to work. But the asphalt would go down on environmentally sensitive land – a little bit of paradise paved to put up a parking lot.

The tension in the town that is the start of the Boston Marathon every spring recalls another similar episode more than 80 years ago in Boston. The then-burgeoning retail store Sears, located a few blocks from Fenway Park in a stately building now known as Landmark Center, complained to city leaders that it couldn’t possibly stay in town without more parking for a warehouse, distribution, and the equivalent of an outlet store for its catalog. Boston wasn’t about to lose Sears, so the parking went in. The minor detail was that it went on a segment of Frederick Law Olmsted’s Emerald Necklace. The Muddy River was covered, and the continuous greensward got itself a car-filled interruption, between the Back Bay Fens section and the Riverway.

The old Sears building. Courtesy: Anthony Flint

Today, the original landscape is being restored. The Muddy River Project is a case study in repairing the mistakes of the past, when decisions were made on the basis of economic development without respect for well-planned landscaping and the urban fabric. The $92 million fix is a cautionary tale about making bad decisions in the first place.

Olmsted and engineer Alexis French created the world-famous linear park in the late 19th century, to provide a place, in Olmsted’s words, where "people may easily go after their day's work is done, where they may stroll for an hour, seeing, hearing, and feeling nothing of the bustle and jar of the streets." Less known is the fact that the creation of much of the Emerald Necklace was a major public works, sanitation, and flood control project at the same time.

The entrance to The Riverway. Courtesy: Anthony Flint

The wisdom of blending natural systems with the parks was evident in 1996, when heavy rain flooded MBTA stations, hospitals, schools, businesses, and homes. The Muddy River was to blame – but because it had been shackled in undersized culverts and pumped full of runoff and sediment from pavement, such as the Sears parking lot. The Commonwealth of Massachusetts, Boston, and Brookline worked with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to make things right again.

Some of the work in the Muddy River Flood Control, Water Quality, Habitat Enhancement and Historic Preservation initiative has already been completed, but the most visible transformation will start with the daylighting of the Muddy River in front of the old Sears building. The waterway will be dredged and restored to the flood-absorbing wetlands it once was, with historic vegetation and wildlife-friendly habitat. The parks piece will have a light touch, with granite headwalls and biking and walking pathways. A jug-handle roadway blasting through an adjacent section of the park will be removed. It will soon be possible to walk or bike from Boston Common through the Riverway to Olmsted Park, Jamaica Pond, and beyond.

The Emerald Necklace isn’t actually a full necklace, because plans to continue the park from Franklin Park along Columbia Road to South Boston were never executed. But the dangling, zig-zagging landscape through the busy city is cherished, and soon a missing link will be replaced.

So many cities are engaged in this exercise – going back in and retrofitting interventions we wish we hadn’t made. Elsewhere in Boston, and in cities around the country, that ongoing repair is undoing the city-building of the urban renewal era. It’s almost always expensive, and an urban design challenge. Today places like Hopkinton might take note: the handiwork of Mother Nature and pre-World War II planners is remarkably smart and well-functioning, just the way it is.

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