The building of parks in or near American cities has been cyclical over the years. During the second half of the 19th century Frederick Law Olmsted designed and built parks still in great use, from Boston and New York to Washington and Stanford, Calif. Early this century there was another spate of park-building.
In the 1970s, buoyed by public pressure, renewed interest surfaced in several cities about building urban and surrounding greenbelts, an idea pioneered by Olmsted. Sacramento, Salt Lake City, and other communities worked on the concept. Several moved to make long parklands of riverbanks; national seashores on Cape Cod and Cape Hatteras functioned as greenbelt parks not far from metropolitan areas.
Now a new-old plan has surfaced, this time in Boston. Fittingly, it was in the Hub that Olmsted laid out the original greenbelt, often called an emerald necklace: It runs from the downtown Boston Common and Public Garden to the city's outskirts. The current plan, in the very early stages of being carried out, would link numerous existing parklands in several far suburbs: Some of the land is already protected, owned by state or local government or by private organizations. Gaps would be filled by purchasing other undeveloped land.
The aim is to preserve open lands from development, for the enjoyment of future generations. Although the principle is contemporary, the essence of the plan is not: First proposed in 1929, it was debated off and on for 27 years, then shelved. Regeneration came from local planners: Establishment of new urban and suburban parks generally stems from such local activism.
There's an important difference between the type of greenbelt today's Boston program envisions and the kind proposed half a century ago, when its progenitor was being discussed. Then greenbelt areas were often selected arbitrarily, as rings around developing areas. Now greenbelts, including Boston's, are thought of as undeveloped land of many kinds - wetlands, riverways, coasts - that are near cities and deserve permanent protection from development. Their shape or precise distance from metropolitan areas is not important.
Similar greenbelt ideas ought to be considered and practiced by every city. The approach deserves steady support, rather than the hot-and-cold reaction it has had over the years. Cities with parks in good condition, such as Seattle, find them well used, and a major attraction.
Olmsted would be pleased to learn that Boston's emerald necklace will be adding a suburban strand. But he would be happier still if many other American cities crafted similar jewels.