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Department of Conservation and Recreation
251 Causeway Street
Boston, MA 02114
617-626-1250

 

 

Division of Urban Parks and Recreation History
On June 3, 1893 , the Metropolitan Park Commission (renamed the Metropolitan District Commission in 1919) was established by the Massachusetts state legislature to oversee and maintain the Metropolitan Park System. Some of metropolitan Boston 's most scenic and historic sites are part of the Metropolitan Park System, including the Charles River Esplanade and the Blue Hills Reservation.

This system was the first regional organization of public open space in the United States and is internationally recognized as a model for multi-jurisdictional park systems designed to encourage public appreciation of open space. As a whole, the Metropolitan Park System is currently eligible for listing on the National Register of Historic Places.

Charles Eliot: of Cambridge .
Consultant Landscape Architect,
Temporary Board,
Metropolitan
Park Commission, ca. 1892

The creation of the parks system in 1893 resulted from the efforts of Charles Eliot, son of a Harvard University president, and Sylvester Baxter, a Malden resident who wrote for the Boston Daily Advertiser. Baxter and Eliot based their design on the influences and planning theories of America 's first generation of landscape architects, including Frederick Law Olmsted, H.W.S. Cleveland and Robert Morris Copeland. It was Copeland who envisioned a circular boulevard following the ring of hills surrounding Boston . Bridges and ferries to the Harbor Islands would complete the loop. In fact, the first parcel of land acquired as part of the Metropolitan Park System was Beaver Brook in Waltham , very close to where Copeland lived for 15 years.

Charles Eliot, an agriculture/horticulture student at Harvard's Bussey Institution, began working for renowned landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted in 1883. After two years, Eliot left Boston for Europe and became fascinated with the layout of European public parks, botanical gardens, and city streets. Having studied the ideals and practice of open space preservation in England and Germany , he returned to Boston in 1886 with a broad knowledge of landscape construction, philosophies and design styles. As the primary founder and architect of the Metropolitan Park System, Eliot directed the selection, acquisition and development of thousands of acres from 1893 until his death in 1897.

Sylvester Baxter of Malden,
Secretary, Temporary Board,
Metropolitan Park Commission,
ca. 1892.

Sylvester Baxter was a man of many interests, not the least of which was city planning. As a Malden resident, he was very active in efforts to preserve the Middlesex Fells. Baxter attended universities in Leipzig and Berlin from 1875 to 1877 and became a student of German municipal administration. Interestingly, a 1910 report of international competition for the planning of greater Berlin included a full page map of the Metropolitan Park System with photographs of the Blue Hills Reservation and Revere Beach .

Eliot and Baxter sought to shape the region by reserving as open space large tracts of territory on the verge of development; the shores of rivers and beaches, marshes and hills. Once preserved as public property, these natural features would establish the framework for responsible urban development and would prevent the "haphazard assemblage of streets, lots, railroads, and streetcar lines."

The system was envisioned to include three large wooded reservations connected by three rivers (Neponset, Charles, and Mystic) which connect the woods to the ocean. The entire park system falls within a 15-mile radius of the Massachusetts State House and is bounded by a steeply rising range of hills forming a semi-circle from Quincy in the south; to Waltham in the west; to Lynn in the north.

The first report for the Boston Metropolitan Parks Commission was published by Baxter and Eliot in 1893. Most of the acreage for the Blue Hills, Middlesex Fells and Stony Brook Reservations was acquired, along with the Beaver Brook/Waverly Oaks property, by 1895. Initial purchases were made for reservations along Revere Beach and the Charles River by 1897 followed by takings of the Mystic and Neponset Rivers . The cost of these acquisitions, totaling more than 7,000 acres, was $10 million (including interest) to be paid through 1900.

Carson Beach ca. 1935

A growing public demand for more recreational facilities surfaced following the end of World War II and shifted the MDC's focus more toward construction than land acquisition. The building of pools, skating rinks and playgrounds by the MDC went into high gear in metropolitan Boston through the following decades. These elements have been an important part of the parks system because they attract people into the parks and often provide inherent recreational opportunities which are no longer available (eg. the swimming pool at Magazine Beach on the Charles River in Cambridge ).

A renewed commitment to conserve and protect natural resources emerged in Massachusetts and across the country, beginning in the early 1970's. Again, the MDC's focus experienced a shift and returned toward its original mission, open-space preservation, improvement and acquisition. Acreage in Revere , West Roxbury , Dover , Dedham , Cambridge , Hingham , Quincy and Needham has since been acquired and restored.

Back to the Beaches '96

Today, the Division of Urban Parks and Recreation extends from King's Beach and Breakheart Reservation on the north to the Blue Hills Reservation in the south; from the Boston Harbor Islands in the east to the Elm Bank Reservation in Dover to the west. Almost 20,000 acres of woodlands, wetlands, and urban parklands comprise this system. Among the natural and recreational resources of the Metropolitan Parks System are:

  • 18 salt water beaches
  • 3 freshwater beaches
  • 23 skating rinks
  • 25 tennis courts
  • 19 swimming pools
  • 27 athletic fields
  • 6 bicycle/jogging paths
  • 52 playgrounds
  • 14 bandstands and music shells (including the Hatch Memorial Shell on the Charles River Esplanade)
  • 7 historic sites and museums
  • 7 woodland reservations
  • 3 river reservations
  • 2 golf courses
  • 1 downhill ski area
  • 4 harbor islands
  • 162 miles of parkways linking the parks and reservations

 

Division of State Parks
and Recreation

Division of Urban Parks
and Recreation

Division of Water Supply
Protection