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A view of a daylit Muddy River and the recovered historic Fens Pond Bridge. (Visualization: Landing Studio.)

Imagine taking a walk in Boston circa 1880. Starting from Roxbury, you could stroll through Franklin Park, up to Jamaica Pond, and along the Muddy River, all connected by Frederick Law Olmsted’s innovative new park system, the “Emerald Necklace.” Reaching the end of the Fens, you could continue up Commonwealth Avenue to the Public Garden and Beacon Hill, or make your way over to the Charles River Esplanade and keep walking all the way to Watertown.  

But since the 1960s, anyone who tries to walk this route would have to stop and get in a car (or be hit by one). Because as part of urban renewal and the Federal Highway Act, Storrow Drive was placed where the Emerald Necklace, Esplanade and Commonwealth Avenue intersect, in an area called Charlesgate Park. Now, the highway is in need of repair, reaching its natural “end of life” as infrastructure.  

“It was this moment of ecological thinking in the 1880s that got broken in the 1960s,” says Dan Adams, director of the School of Architecture and co-founder, with architecture professor Marie Law Adams, of Landing Studio. The urban design practice is working with state and conservancy organizations to restore the natural flow of the Muddy River through the area and redesign the highway elements to be sensitive to the park system.  

Doing so won’t just make it easier for humans to walk. Restoring the waterway to be one contiguous aquatic system will allow for better stormwater management and drainage, as well as reconnecting the ecological habitat between Jamaica Pond and the Charles River. “Migrating herring will once again make their way from the Charles River to Jamaica Pond,” says Adams.  

That kind of integration and connection between habitats is the inspiration for the Charlesgate restoration project, which will begin in 2024. The Massachusetts Department of Transportation allocated $160 million to realize the two largest portions of the restoration, which is part of the department’s five-year Capital Investment Plan. Landing Studio was also recognized by the Holcim Foundation with the North American Bronze Award for Sustainability for the project. 

If it’s designed and positioned well, the Adamses believe, an urban tree can be more than decoration. If can uptake water and help reduce contaminants in the river. It can provide shade to the city to reduce urban heat island effect. It can help promote habitat connectivity if its canopy connects to other tree canopies.  

“This is the green infrastructure movement” says Adams. “Not just how we can use mechanical systems to cool down a city, but how we can design a tree to be infrastructure: to cool the city, to provide cleaner water, to help reduce flooding.” 

Infrastructure design doesn’t usually take this approach. “It’s this kind of oxymoron,” says Adams. “On the one hand, our highway system is designed to move people around as a service, and on the other hand it degrades the quality of life locally.” Landing Studio is focused on better reconciling the needs of infrastructure with the needs of communities and environments, through design.  

Understanding the relationship between infrastructure, cities, habitats, and the people who live there is most of the work, he says. “What we do is not so much even designing an object or a landscape — but really redesigning those relationships.”