Scarboro Pond, Franklin Park, Boston. Photo by Arborway Matters.

Thanks to Frederick Law Olmsted, public parks are one of America’s defining democratic achievements. As places open to all, they benefit communities and families in numerous ways. Tens of millions of Americans have relied on parks as gathering, recreation and restoration sites since the pandemic. And that has never been truer than in Boston’s Emerald Necklace. 

Right now, in Boston, public agencies are rushing through a massive multi-million-dollar project to rehabilitate White Stadium in Franklin Park. Franklin Park is the last great “rural” park designed by famed social reformer and landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted and designated a Boston Landmark in 1980. It has been called “the jewel of the Emerald Necklace” and provided city dwellers with the restorative benefits of a “country park” landscape for decades. 

That is why the Emerald Necklace Conservancy’s decision to sue the City is timely and appropriate, seeking to slow down the process so that parties can assess options – deliberately – before valuable public space is handed to the highest bidder. That’s also why Judge Sarah Ellis’ decision to deny the motion for injunctive relief is so distressing. The lawsuit offers an opportunity for the City to pay attention to the consequences of its actions, before it’s too late.

Everyone agrees that White Stadium needs to be rehabilitated. But the failure of the city to restore this space for decades should not give it the ability, now, to fast-track significant decisions with minimal public review. The environmental justice communities which abut the Stadium have had little say when it comes to next steps, making the city’s plans to expand and privatize White Stadium, as one plaintiff noted— look like a new form of top-down paternalism:  We know what is good for you. 

In an essay called The Spoils of the Park, Olmsted railed at politicians and public officials who regarded parks as building sites. Olmsted wasn’t talking in a legal sense, but he understood that misguided park development would inevitably result in irrevocable harm. Once public park land is lost, it is lost forever. That is what the Emerald Necklace Conservancy understands as well. 

If current plans proceed, Franklin Park will look more like a cityscape of bright lights, idling buses, shops, and crowds. The intrusive plans promise radically to transform this landscape by breaking up historic connections between the Overlook area and the Playstead. They will add to the growing list of visual and physical damage done to the park— the addition of the stadium and the zoo, and more recently plans to build a massive new social services building where Shattuck Hospital now stands. Today 40% or 200 acres of Franklin Park cannot be accessed freely by the general public.  

It would be bad enough if it were happening in Boston alone. But the privatization of public parks is happening everywhere— in Boston, Louisville, Chicago, and Milwaukee. The modus operandi is always the same. City leaders find a powerful party, generally with big pockets, and turn over public space on a fast track in the name of urban renewal.  

In time past, Boston officials understood the importance and power of public parks. They appreciated the public’s need for open space and understood that access to green space for all was a critical issue of equity and social justice. Olmsted himself noted with admiration the vision and courage of Boston city leaders who worked hard to grow and expand the public parks. 

Now it seems that times have changed. The Mayor apparently views protecting public spaces as frivolous. And the Judge seems equally misguided, assuming the time to question development is AFTER the damage is done, rather than before. She bases her decision on a fundamentally erroneous assumption: that the stadium plans neither expand the footprint nor extend into the park. 

This is really a massive new structure and building envelope— with professional locker rooms, corporate suites, commercial kitchens and more— which will irrevocably undermine Olmsted’s design and public access to it.  

The Emerald Necklace Conservancy is right to raise the alarm since privatization of our public spaces is a real and present danger. Plans for the White Stadium will result in new and higher fees and closures to the students and the public. As Olmsted understood, parks are not luxuries to serve as playgrounds for the powerful and well-connected. They are critical infrastructure and should forever be FOR ALL PEOPLE. 

Anne “Dede” Neal Petri has served as the Olmsted’s Network’s president and CEO since 2020.