In the spirit of World Landscape Architecture Month it seems only appropriate I share a post about Frederick Law Olmstead, a towering figure in our field. To expand a bit upon Dima’s post referencing Frederick Law Olmstead’s visionary foresight, I believe he was definitely a visionary designer for his work on Boston’s Back Bay Fens. Known most famously as one of the designers of Central Park, Olmstead was also the landscape architect behind America’s first wetland restoration.
Once a tidal marsh fed by the Charles River, this Boston’s Back Bay Fens was polluted by the locals who dumped waste directly into the fragile ecosystem. At high tide, the wetland would overflow. However, at low tide “offensive exudations arose from the mud”, as Olmstead noted himself.
Understanding the harsh, yet ecologically sensitive and complex environment of this wetland, Olmstead knew that he had to maintain a steady water level, while also prevent refuse from entering the waterway with advanced sewer systems, and carefully selected plant material that could take the bay’s salty conditions.
Olmsted’s 1887 plan for the Fens.
The first step for this wetland restoration was to dredge and reshape the wetland area so that the water traveled in a more sinuous line. Olmstead also worked with the city engineer to manage and maintain the flow from the Charles River, ensuring that the water level variation did not exceed one foot. In addition, he also coordinated a state-of-the-art sewer system to catch refuse before it entered the waterway.
Plants were planned with a long list of salt-tolerant species such as sedges, salt grass, salt cedar, sea buckhorn, and beach plum to see what would survive. Olmstead knew that the abundant plantings and cleaner water would provide habitat for water birds and aquatic wildlife.
The name Back Bay Fens was named by the landscape architect himself. Although the city commissioners were keen on calling the restored wetland, “Back Bay Park”, Olmstead knew this was no park, and referred to his old dictionary, trying out names such as “Sedgeglade” and “The Sea Glades” before settling on the final name of Back Bay Fens. Back then, the word “fen” meant “marsh” or “boggy piece of land.”
Ironically, with the damming of the Charles River years later, this once restored tidal wetland turned into a freshwater wetland. Or more specifically, a fen that receives storm water from the Charles River basin and is still more or less appropriately named to this day.