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Charles River Basin Master Plan
Boston, Cambridge, Watertown, MA

Goody, Clancy and Associates, The Halvorson Company, The Metropolitan District Commission

Herb Nolan, ASLA
Senior Landscape Architect, Goody, Clancy & Associates
334 Boylston Street
Boston, MA 02116
Tel. 617-262-2760;
Fax 617-262-9512

Project Purpose

Create the first comprehensive master plan in 60 years to guide the 8.5-mile, 90-year old Basin through the next century and create new layers of advocacy that will help ensure the park's future vitality in a time of diminished public resources. Do this by:

  • Striking a careful balance between preserving the Basin's historic landscape (inspired by the plans of Charles Eliot) and reshaping it to meet modern recreational uses and needs so that it can continue to provide a tranquil oasis for over 20,000 daily users;
  • Making specific recommendations that consider and fully integrate the complex weave of resources in five areas: historic resources, natural resources, the river, parklands, and parkways; and
  • Making the many users the key focus of the plan.

Role of the Landscape Architect

The Master Plan was a truly collaborative effort among (I) a multi-disciplinary team of consultants- lead by a landscape architect with urban design expertise; (2) the regional park authority client; and (3) thousands of volunteers through an intensive public participation program. The core consultant team - including experts in urban design, landscape architecture, preservation, engineering, environmental concerns, and transportation - worked extensively with the public to educate them about the Basin's condition and needed repairs and improvements, and in turn, listened closely to and incorporated the user's needs and aspirations.

Special Factors

The Charles River Basin is the heart of one of the country's pre-eminent urban park systems and an internationally recognized model of regional park planning. It is the defining feature for at least 12 urban neighborhoods, numerous businesses, and some of the leading institutions of higher education in the nation. It encompasses a dizzying array of interwoven historic and natural resources, including 2 dams, 1.500 linear feet of granite seawall, 18 miles of parkways, 17 bridges, 12 smaller parks, 3.5 acres of marshland, more than 32 miles of pathways, 9 public boat landings, 19 boathouses, and 20 recreational facilities, as well as hundreds of different plant and animal species.

Intensive use and decades of limited funding, reduced park staffing, and deferred maintenance have resulted in severely compacted and worn grounds, crumbling historic bridges and landings, dying trees, overcrowded pathways, river views choked off and plant diversity reduced by invasive weeds. Other challenges included:

  • Interjecting a highly public process into a plan that originally was created through "dictatorial" planning methods.
  • Finding ways to reclaim the original plan's pleasure drives, landscapes, and river access that have been overwhelmed by the modern automobile.
  • Reasserting the park's original role of providing a tranquil and natural environment in the midst of urban turmoil for what IS now more than 20,000 daily users.


Two years in the making, the Master Plan's comprehensive guide and action plan are based upon careful multi-disciplinary analysis, from checking river channel depths to analyzing environmental remediation efforts to making intersection traffic counts. The Plan addresses the Basin's multiple functions, including serving as a major metropolitan road system, a major center for regional and local events, a critical system of pathways for commuters and recreational users, and a key water channel requiring carrying capacity for a large variety of commercial and recreational purposes. The Plan's recommendations seek to reconnect the Basin to Its neighborhood context through reopening vistas and pathways to the surrounding neighborhoods and other open spaces and parks. It shows environmental responsibility, recommending water quality improvements for a swimmable and fishable River by 2005, reducing paved surfaces to reduce runoff, restoring wetlands, and taking early action steps to remediate a neighboring superfund site. Intensive public workshops, the use of aerial photography and sophisticated graphics to help visualize necessary changes, and educating the public to view the Basin as a complex living system all represent the Plan's compelling use of landscape architectural techniques to build a constituency for years to come. The Plan, designed and lead by a landscape architect, will guide the management of Boston's most significant open space system for the next 50 years, and through its public participation process and advocacy program, create a virtual public classroom for the importance of landscape planning.

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