Skip to content

Olmsted Now Committee of Neighborhoods: How it Began

| 19 min read

Check out the Committee of Neighborhoods’ latest work here.

In July 2020, Emerald Necklace Conservancy President Karen Mauney-Brodek commissioned Stephen Gray of Grayscale Collaborative to assess the planning for Olmsted Now through an equity lens and to recommend inclusive structures and partnerships for the Boston-area bicentennial to achieve the greatest impacts. By late 2020, the Grayscale team had analyzed the Conservancy leadership and advisors as a case study. Their findings pointed to a chronic structural racial imbalance between those historically making parks decisions (white Bostonians) and those who could benefit the most: youth and elderly who identify as BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, and People of Color). So, how could Olmsted Now test new models for more equitably “shared power” in parks and public spaces?

To break old cycles, Grayscale proposed the concept of a “Committee of Neighborhoods.” This group of trusted BIPOC leaders across neighborhood associations and councils would have direct relationships and insights on their communities and could solicit, select, and allocate funds raised by the Conservancy for programming that they determined could be most positive for their neighbors. Committee members would be compensated for their expertise in networking and decision-making over the course of their work for the bicentennial. Olmsted Now coalition members unanimously agreed to pursue this recommendation as an equity model to learn from.

How could Olmsted Now test new models for more equitably “shared power” in parks and public spaces?

By early 2021, Grayscale sought a trusted partner to envision and guide this Committee. Jay Lee, a board member of Franklin Park Coalition (FPC) who is familiar with Grayscale’s and the Conservancy’s work for the Franklin Park Action Plan, agreed to co-organize the Committee. In spring, invitations to an information session were sent to prospective members, with Committee meetings beginning in summer 2021. The following is a conversation between Gray, Lee, and Mauney-Brodek about the development of the Committee of Neighborhoods that was organized by Jen Mergel, the coordinating lead for Olmsted Now. She edited and annotated the text for clarity.

Jen Mergel: Can you each introduce your relationship to parks and public space in Boston?

Stephen Gray: I am an urban designer. In my practice, Grayscale Collaborative, what we really look at is the public realm. This is the space between the buildings and the people that fill those spaces, activate them, and make them a part of a collective urban experience and city life. At Harvard Graduate School of Design (GSD), I teach urban design, which is thinking about how the fabric of the buildings, the ecologies, and nature all assemble to make places for people.

So, my general relationship with parks is really a love and appreciation and focus on the importance of public space. And a lot of my research has focused on Boston. For example, with the Harvard Mellon Urban Initiative at the GSD, I worked with Alex Krieger and Caroline Smith to look at Boston as one of four urban case studies for a 2018 exhibition. We focused on the realities of Boston, which is a majority-minority city where most of the non-white population lives in only particular neighborhoods—the South End, Roxbury, Dorchester, Mattapan, Roslindale, and East Boston—that make up a slice down the center of the city. To consider why, we unpacked the city’s history through the lens of infrastructure. The physical infrastructures really molded the social infrastructures, for good or for bad, in Boston’s history. One of the areas of focus was on Olmsted parks and the Parks Planning Movement.

Jen: Yes, I reached out to meet you after seeing that exhibition!  And Jay, you wear many hats, can you describe your work?

Jay Lee: So, I’ve always had an interest in the Picturesque Movement, which was Olmsted’s period, and I’ve loved the parks that he designed. I’ve been interested in the parks in Roxbury for a long time, ever since I was in grad school at the GSD. I now live up the street from Franklin Park. I use the parks in the city a lot. I like to bike and skate, but I usually go into town. Volunteering with the Franklin Park Coalition Board over the last several years gave me a chance to learn more about the various parts of Franklin Park and engage with a beautiful park that is so close and easy to get to.

In my day job, I work for the City of Boston’s Department of Neighborhood Development as the Assistant Director for Design, Construction and Open Space. We are an affordable housing agency, but we also do other types of neighborhood development that includes open spaces and commercial properties or whatever the community would like to see in their neighborhood. And for a long time, I managed the Department’s Grassroots Program and staff. (The program helps fund non-profits to develop community gardens, urban farming, and other passive use. It is currently managed by Shani Fletcher—she’s great).

So, I have helped plan several open spaces in the city. One I always think about is a tiny community garden in Mattapan on Woolson Street. Normally we come out to meet with the community and ask: “What would you like to see here?” And there really wasn’t a neighborhood association to talk to. But there were people who’ve been living there for a long time, who’d dealt with crime and violence in that particular neighborhood. In this case, it was through the community process to create the garden that the residents came together. It was exciting to see people come out and meet with their neighbors, work on planning and becoming more engaged in their neighborhood. Now, there’s a farm up the street, the Fowler Clark Epstein Farm (managed by Urban Farming Institute), and Mattapan Food & Fitness is booming with lots of events. So, in the last seven or eight years, starting from a little community garden, the whole discussion of food access and exercise in Mattapan has become really big.

Jen: That’s fantastic! And Karen, can you tell us about your local connection to parks and public space?

Karen Mauney-Brodek: I came to parks through the practice of design and architecture in college. Now, after almost 20 years in park planning, development, and community engagement in the New York City and San Francisco Parks Departments, and now here in Boston since 2016, I really feel like the power of spaces is so embedded in what Jay just talked about: creating community and building something between people. You have to have a shared space to do that in.

It was exciting to see people come out and meet with their neighbors, work on planning and becoming more engaged in their neighborhood.

My practice in open space has been so often the nuts and bolts: making sure that there’s a restroom accessible, that the trees survive, that the park is improved, and that all this is done in collaboration with community input. But I think the real power of what open spaces can give us—and what we can give to them—extends beyond the physical. And I am really pleased to be able to do that in Boston, where people can come together in parks and along rivers and waterways, but also use them, as they commute and go through their patterns as part of their daily life.

I think we’ve seen that throughout history, and in the last year in particular, when certain political movements have formed around parks (and in parks) where people can come together, that it’s not a coincidence. Olmsted thought about and talked about this “coming together.” And Boston has a unique landscape that can be leveraged in that way because of the linear nature of its parks. Many other cities’ park systems are fractured and don’t link, and don’t really provide passage or corridors with the ability to connect communities one to the next. But here, it’s pretty incredible that both the Emerald Necklace system and the Southwest Corridor parks can make those connections. The Southwest Corridor was actually born through community members demanding better.

Jen: Community members demanding better is key. Stephen, the Conservancy engaged your team to do an equity analysis to ground bicentennial planning and do better. Can you explain how you developed this analysis as a tool, and how we can use the data?

Stephen: Yeah, the impetus for the work was Olmsted’s bicentennial birthday in 2022. While different Olmsted Park organizations across the country have been planning celebrations of history, to Karen’s credit, she was thinking about using this moment to build upon Olmsted’s legacy and philosophies and apply them to a 21st century context. And it’s a powerful idea, to use the occasion to actually advance equity and justice, which in some ways Olmsted was a radical proponent of in his day. He was thinking about the integration of urbanity and ecology and how those two systems needed to work together. He knew that, within urban contexts, people would need relief through access to nature, so he was thinking about the health implications, both physical and mental. Olmsted was thinking about parks as a response to a rapidly industrializing country, which was also attracting a large number of immigrants to take part in that expansion. And so with that influx of difference in backgrounds and classes, Olmsted saw parks as a space for democratic exchange.

So, how do you take Olmsted’s foundational philosophies and translate those into today’s context of environmental justice and spatial justice? The principles that the Olmsted Now group decided to focus on are “shared use, shared health, and shared power in parks and public spaces.” And when we talk about power, we need to account for the very real differences in power dynamics and in agency within the existing political infrastructure of this country. Equity is a way to adjust those power dynamics with intentionality and deliberativeness, to find ways to readjust the scales. Our initiative with Olmsted Now has really been focusing on what it means to adjust the scales in decisions for parks and open space, and actually shift who is making decisions. We need to hear from the right voices.

Jen: And there are many different approaches you could have used for your analysis, and you chose to visually map who had and had not been participating in decisions historically. Your maps concretely visualized gaps of participation and point to where invitations should be made to rebalance the scales. Karen, can you talk about why it was valuable for the Conservancy to commission this equity analysis and what you’ve learned from it?

How do you take Olmsted’s foundational philosophies and translate those into today’s context of environmental justice and spatial justice?

At left, a map of Boston with current demographic data of populations of BIPOC Youth and Elderly in proximity to parks. At right, the location of the Conservancy’s Park Advisors (as of October 2020) located mostly near the Fens.

Karen: While we were familiar with the demographic data of who had been participating in our prior park planning—our organization’s leadership, volunteers, community members—we hadn’t mapped it so that we could really see how this work actually represents the neighborhoods around the Emerald Necklace, and how we have gaps. We knew anecdotally, for example, that we don’t have a member of our board of advisors from the Mission Hill Neighborhood, but it was important to be able to show that visually.

It can be really important to see things concretely, and I think a lot of people need that form of information to really understand the issues, the need for change at hand. That’s the value of this work: to make a focal point, to take time to reflect on it, and to act. Since Stephen shared the analysis, so much has already happened: so many more conversations with more organizations in and around the Necklace have taken place because we know we need to be more deliberate than we had in the past about making new kinds of connections and collaborations that are really partnerships.

That’s the value of this work: to make a focal point, to take time to reflect on it, and to act.

Jen: I think this conversation and commitment to close work with Stephen and Jay is an example of that kind of deeper partnership. It’s an opportunity to think in terms of shared power. While Franklin Park Coalition has been part of the Conservancy Park Advisors for a long time, it’s new to co-lead and co-organize a substantive shared initiative like the Olmsted Now Committee of Neighborhoods. Jay, can you share your thoughts on this? Beyond the Conservancy, what can the City learn from an equity analysis like this?

As of October 2020, Conservancy decision makers did not proportionally represent parks with the most acreage accessible to BIPOC youth and elderly.

Jay: Well, the data of Stephen’s analysis is really obvious. I think white people know that, yes, there are power dynamics, but they are rarely presented with how clear the divisions are. The analysis shows that the Conservancy works in particular areas where they already know people. And the reason that the map shows that they’re not working in certain areas is because they don’t know the people there. So, anytime that Franklin Park Coalition is approached by groups outside the neighborhood, there is always a question from the board: Why would we work on this? What does it have to do with the people around Franklin Park specifically?

But I think Olmsted Now is an opportunity. I think bringing people together around open space, like Stephen was saying, is a great way to also do other things: to build community and to build relationships. Boston is definitely a city of neighborhoods, and when I say “neighborhoods,” I don’t mean the handful on the official city map. I mean street-by-street neighborhoods, where, if you don’t know the right people, it’s hard to get anything done. So, for one thing, for Franklin Park Coalition, I think this project will allow us to build even stronger strategic relationships with people across these neighborhoods around the Park, to better represent them. And then there are other groups in other parts of the city, like Fenway Alliance, that this initiative could connect us to. There’s no reason why some activities happening in the Fenway part of the park system can’t be paired with another activity happening in Walnut Park or Franklin Park in Roxbury or another part in the city at the same time. So there might be some new opportunities for collaboration or simultaneous activity citywide.

Jen: Collaboration, coalition, and cohorts at this street-by-street level is what the Committee of Neighborhoods model could allow. Stephen, can you talk more about your idea of how this hyper-local form of governance can break cycles of “top-down” decision-making?

Stephen: Yeah, this idea came out of Grayscale’s work over the last two years with the High Line Network, which includes more than 25 organizations across the country that reuse infrastructure for public space, like the High Line in New York, but also build safeguards to protect against gentrification-induced displacement that comes from successfully developing these sites with place-making. The peer network accounts for issues of inequality to ensure the value they’re creating is for the local people they’re intending to serve. This type of public space organization work moves away from “colorblindness” into an explicitly anti-racist approach. This idea is not new, but it may be newer to organizations that already have a lot of power and agency in cities. It’s a collaborative infrastructure that’s not just about “more inclusive engagement,” but actually having those people that you might traditionally design inclusive engagement around be the people who do the designing. They are the ones deciding what the project is going to be, what’s going to get funded, and what an engagement should look like. They are central, not peripheral.

So we’re in an evolving moment of change and realignment for those forward-thinking organizations. I’m really privileged to be able to work with people who are thinking in this way and actually have the agency to make that change. As a consultant I can advise, and as an academic, I can hypothesize and theorize. But to actually take all of those ideas and work with people who are willing to try something new, that’s what has been really rewarding for me.

This type of public space organization work moves away from “colorblindness” into an explicitly anti-racist approach.

The Committee of Neighborhoods would be central to decision-making for Olmsted Now, bringing direct insight on neighborhood impacts to guide those with organizational or professional input.

Jen: And Jay, “neighborhood” and “coalition” name the City Department and non-profit you work within. What do you think about the potential of this Committee of Neighborhood structure?

Jay: I agree with everything Stephen said. In my work for city-owned land, that’s our approach. We work with the neighborhood to determine what’s going to happen for each project. So the goal is always to work through a bottom-up process with real involvement. What’s notable here is that most neighborhoods that I worked with, their normal mode is defense. They assume anything coming in is going to be harmful. What Stephen has outlined tells neighborhood members: “Hey, we want to actually engage you, give you resources to make decisions, and figure out how you’re going to implement those things.”  I think a lot of people are going to be very interested in this, versus someone coming in and saying, “I have money, I want to do this for you.” I think Stephen’s research points out the obvious but makes it more apparent: there’s a real imbalance in capital resources. So this effort by the Emerald Necklace Conservancy can help balance out those capital resources. It’s easier to do things if you have the resources. So, if you want the city to be more balanced, this is a great way to start to do it.

Leaders of these respected neighborhoods organizations have expressed enthusiasm to begin the work of rebalancing representation for Olmsted Now.

if you want the city to be more balanced, this is a great way to start to do it.

Jen: So Karen, as the head of a non-profit organization with agency, like Stephen described, that’s modeling this new thinking around engagement, what do you think?

Karen: It’s true this is different than how many Boston non-profits work, and there is a newness and, dare I say, risk in this. But I’ve been convinced, not just from Stephen, Jay and others, but also from working with park users for a long time, that people know what they want to do. They don’t need to be told what to do. So I’m excited about being able to say: “We’re going to raise and provide the needed resources and we trust you to decide.” And we trust that there are foundations that want to support this neighborhood-decided work. Many times organizations feel bound by required goals and benchmarks that someone in a boardroom somewhere thinks are the precise things that should happen. They don’t get funds or support unless outcomes are predetermined and already decided. So I’m really glad that my board has been open to exploring and allowing this more open, trust-based approach. Because I think it’s one that really can build something we believe in, which is the agency of Boston’s communities.

Jen: To close, what are you hoping may come from this model during 2022 and into the future?

Stephen: Well Karen, I think it was best framed by Jeff Cook, head of governance on your board, when he called Olmsted Now “a practice field,” a space for trying something new in kind of a buffered zone, that would allow us to reflect on and share lessons learned. I agree with his idea that this can be a way toward changing, or at least chipping away at, the more permanent or rigid infrastructure of decision-making. He’s open to change for the Conservancy’s governance and Park Advisors. And it could also apply to public agencies across the city and neighboring cities. This is really a space for us to think about things differently and then apply those lessons forward.

Jay: This is a good framework for groups within my world who don’t necessarily talk to each other. It can make Franklin Park Coalition a kind of hub for neighborhood members to come together to work on a project. And maybe this concept of the Coalition as a hub continues on in the future for other types of visioning projects. So I think it’s a model that hopefully will pay dividends in the future.

Our cities, our communities are what we make them. What we invest in is what grows.

Karen: Yes, well I agree with Stephen and Jay. Our cities, our communities are what we make them. What we invest in is what grows. It’s pretty exciting to invest in communities, nurture their decisions, and see what transpires. And to truly know that it is what the community members themselves intended. I think all of these ripples do things in the future that you cannot plan for. And that’s the point.

Banner image: Screenshot of Zoom call with Jen Mergel, Jay Lee, Stephen Gray and Karen Mauney-Brodek

Pataje istwa-w