The Friends is one of the oldest public-private partnerships in the nation. By the late 1960s many people were deeply concerned about the conditions of Boston’s parks, perhaps the worst point in their history. A group gathered in the spring of 1970 to address the deplorable conditions of the Public Garden, which suffered from insufficient funding from the City, low expectations by residents, neglect, and vandalism. The Beacon Hill Civic Association and the Neighborhood Association of the Back Bay decided that a separate organization was needed to protect and restore the Garden. Henry Lee was chosen as the volunteer president and served with distinction for forty-one years. He remains a guiding force in the organization.
The Battle Against Park Plaza
The Friends focused initially on the Garden, but attention soon turned to the Boston Common and Commonwealth Avenue Mall. They also suffered from crime, vandalism, and misuse and were ravaged by the effects of Dutch elm disease, killing 40 trees a year. The battle against the Park Plaza Urban Renewal Plan, however, posed the biggest threat to the parks, and consumed the Friends throughout the 1970s. The plan for six million square feet of development in five to six towers 450’-650’ high along Boylston Street would have created untenable levels of shade and wind on the Garden and Common. The successful fight against the plan gave the Friends broad visibility and brought widespread attention to the condition of the parks.
Advocacy and Partnership
Ever since that victory, the Friends has expanded its capacity to care for the parks with funding and expertise, always working closely with the Parks Department. At the same time, when necessary, we have spoken out against misuse or overuse, and have continued to be a strong voice in protecting these parks against encroachment, particularly from damaging shadows caused by new development.
Chronology of the Friends
Thirty people gather at the home of Henry Lee and found an organization to find solutions for the deteriorating condition of the Public Garden.
The Friends officially organizes and its membership grows to 500 with dues of $2 per person. Park Plaza, a massive skyscraper development proposed along Boylston Street, emerges as a major threat to the parks.
Membership tops 1,000, and the Friends forms a Common Committee.
After the Park Plaza plan is defeated, the Friends begins to advocate for a “shadow bill” that would limit the height of buildings that throw shadows on the Common and Garden. The bill finally becomes law 15 years later. The Friends succeeds in having the three parks designated as Boston Landmarks.
The Friends establishes a Commonwealth Avenue Mall Committee. The perimeter fence and gates around the Public Garden are completed, enclosing the Garden for the first time in 60 years.
The Friends marks its 10th anniversary by spearheading a citywide effort to restore the Shaw/54th Regiment Memorial.
In response to deep cuts in the Parks Department budget, the Friends continues fundraising initiatives for tree planting and maintenance and for care of the statues. The Friends helps fund the Park Rangers.
The Friends installs the “Make Way for Ducklings” sculpture by Nancy Schön. Beloved by children and adults alike, these ducklings became an icon for both visitors and residents.
The Rose Brigade, a volunteer initiative of the Friends, is formed to care for the roses in the Public Garden.
The Parks Department, working with the Friends, completes the Boston Common Management Plan, a blueprint for care of the park.
The first season of skating at the Frog Pond draws over 90,000 skaters.
The Friends launches its first capital fund drive, raising $6.5 million for tree care, sculpture maintenance, the Frog Pond, and support for its own administration.
The Friends hires its first paid executive director and adds several new volunteer committees.
The Friends marks its 40th year with a year-long celebration, and the organization strengthens its volunteer structure to deal with future challenges.