Inventing the Charles River
By Karl Haglund MIT Press in cooperation with the Charles River Conservancy, 2002, 493 pp., $45. This magnificent large-format book, weighing a hefty 4.5 pounds, tells how the edges of the Charles River, including polluted mud flats that used to waft a stench over Boston at low tide, gradually were transformed into the wondrously urbane Back Bay, the wastefully anti-urban Storrow Drive-Route 1 connection, the graceful Cambridge riverfront, and a series of other developments, many of them remarkably pleasing. Haglund, project manager for the New Charles River Basin at the Metropolitan District Commission, writes with authority and insight on the long history of conflicts among highway planners, park advocates, beautifiers, and others over the proper shape and use of the river’s fringes. Here are a few samples of what this lavishly illustrated book has to say: • The federal government’s decision to pay 90 percent of the cost of major highways severely undercut the influence of state and local decisionmakers. It foreclosed the possibility of building the “fine-grained network of arterials” that had been advocated by landscape architect Arthur Shurcliff and traffic consultant Robert Whitten. “Ten-cent federal dollars,” as Haglund calls them, resulted in a system composed of fewer and larger expressways, often unsympathetic to their urban surroundings. • The View from the Road, the influential MIT professor Kevin Lynch’s guide to how urban freeways could reestablish “coherence and order” at a metropolitan scale, was a hypothesis that failed. Though Lynch’s proposals for Boston’s Inner Belt would have given motorists appealing views of the Charles and Boston Harbor, a high price would have been paid by neighborhoods, which would have gotten drab views of elevated expressways. Fortunately, popular protests changed the plans. • The Olmsted approach to park design has remained much-loved despite attacks in recent decades from landscape architects and urban critics who portrayed it as out of sync with modern lifestyles. Some critics contended that pastoral parks have been imposed on “the popular mass by a cultured elite.” A telling verdict came in the 1990s, when residents of Charlestown insisted on getting what they regarded as “a real park” — a fundamentally Olmstedian design, featuring a shaded, oval greensward. Haglund does a superb job of describing and evaluating ideas — including startling concepts that were debated long ago and then largely forgotten, such as the 1850s proposal for forming a lake in the center of the Back Bay, much like the Alster Basin of Hamburg, Germany. Inventing the Charles River is a fascinating account of how a great urban area acquired its current shape. — P.L.