An Emerald Necklace on a Lilac Sunday

"Lilac Sunday" at the Arnold Arboretum in Boston is an annual celebration of their extensive collection of lilac plants. The lilac is one of my favourite flowers. I find the soft colour beautiful, and the smell intoxicating.

I had never been to a flower festival before and did not know what to expect. The Arboretum's "lilac collection" is basically a small hill covered with dozens of lilac plants of every variety imaginable.

The lilacs' colours included everything from classic pale purple, to white, to ink-blue, to cherry-blossom pink.

The form of the flowers can vary quite a bit as well - from sparse, crisply outlined petals to fluffy, soft clusters.

Hundreds of people at a time wandered up and down the hill to pay homage to the lilacs - smelling them, photographing them, having picnics beneath them.

There were also musical and dance performances from several local folk groups.

The festival was so well-attended, that there were probably more people than lilacs - but we did find a spot on the grass nearby.

Did I mention I love lilacs? It was blissful to see so many in one place.

The roadsters were happy as well, especially as they finally got to cycle along Boston's Emerald Necklace all the way to the Arboretum.

The Emerald Necklace is a series of green spaces throughout greater Boston, connected by routes that are meant to be walkable and cycle-able. It includes the Back Bay Fens, the Jamaica Pond, the Riverway, and other small parklands. The project was designed by Frederick Law Olmsted in the 1800's and is fascinating to read about, especially if you are interested in the history of urban planning and park design.

We had wanted to cycle along the entire Necklace for a while, but never had any cause to go in that direction of Boston until now.

As an urban green sanctuary, the Emerald Necklace is heavenly, with its lush vegetation and delicate bodies of water. As a cycling route... Well, it's frustrating. Throughout much of it, the trails are frequently interrupted by intersections and the crossings range from awkward to dangerous. Motor vehicles just do not yield - not even slowing down as bikes or pedestrians attempt to cross. Even on those intersections where there are lights, the same happens with cars turning: they do not even pause, let alone yield to pedestrians or bicycles.

An additional issue, is that unless you already know the route, it is difficult to find your way from one cluster of green to another; there are no signs or markings. We had a map from the Emerald Necklace Concervancy and still had trouble navigating.

On the way back finding our way got a bit easier and we even discovered some secluded dirt paths that the Roadsters liked better than the paved trails.

Still, I wonder: Is there any way to install better signals, so that the crossings feel less like suicide missions? And some signage for easier navigation? That would make this wonderful green resource infinitely more useful for the people who were meant to enjoy it.


  1. gorgeous... I was at the arboretum some weeks ago when the forsythias were first blooming; now that the lilacs are out (and flourishing -- still, hopefully after this "chill" snap) I hope to return soon...

    ...the emerald necklace is also on my list of "to ride". It looks as wonderful in your pics as I have read about!

  2. I adore lilacs, and am so glad you were able to enjoy them en masse on such a beautiful day. It's not cold enough where I live to grow them, so they are a rare treat for me when I'm travelling in cooler areas. I can 'smell' the scent of them looking at those pics if I try hard enough!

    The Emerald Necklace sounds like a fantastic idea and brilliant forward planning by its creator, but what a shame it's a horror to navigate in traffic areas and so badly signposted. The crossings do sound dreadful for cyclists and pedestrians. I can't believe turning cars don't yield. Oh wait. Yes, I can. I hope your City can encourage use of of the pathway and make it safer for all users - it does look lovely.

  3. I am so jealous, there are so many great places to ride around here but there is nothing at all like this or the other dedicated pedestrian and bike trails you have there. So many cities seem to be moving toward this and coming up with useful, pleasant ways to get out of our cars. The more rural areas like this part of Virginia don't seem to have the right combination of resources, awareness and commitment to make this possible here.
    Maybe I need to add Boston to my list of cycling adventure destinations, a few days exploring that sort of thing might be as nice as a week trying to break my mountainbike in West Virginia...

  4. Lilacs are my favorite flower, which is one of the reasons I so love this time of year. Two reasons why lilacs are my favorite are, of course, the color and the aroma. But I also love that something with such a subtle, almost delicate texture can emerge after the harshness of winter. It seems that the more severe the winter, the more beautiful and fragrant the lilacs are.

    T.S. Eliot evokes the darker side of what I've described in his opening of "The Waste Land:"

    April is the cruellest month, breeding
    Lilacs out of the dead land, mixing
    Memory and desire, stirring
    Dull roots with spring rain.

    You've described one of my pet peeves about bike lanes and greenways: the traffic crossings. One of the worst is the one where the Belt Parkway Bike Path crosses Flatbush Avenue near the Marine Park Bridge in Brooklyn. Most drivers don't realize the bike line crosses there, and on the bike path, cyclists are often lulled into tranquility.

    Still, the Emerald Necklace is, as Carinthia imagines, a great piece of visionary work. The problem is, of course,that Frederick Law Olmstead built it and those other great urban parks and promenades decades before the motorized traffic. He could not have envisioned that some of the thoroughfares that bounded his parks and crossed his lanes would become, in essence, highways.

    Here's a little bit of trivia: Frederick Law Olmstead invented the parkway. He intended it as literally that: a way to the park. The first two he designed were Eastern and Ocean Parkways, both of which originate (or end, depending on how you look at them) in Brooklyn's Prospect Park, another Olmstead creation. He patterned his parkways after the grand boulevards of London, Paris and other European cities, which lead into great squares or plazas. (Think of le Boulevard des Champs-Elysees, which connects la Place de la Concorde with l'Etoile, where l'Arc de Triomphe stands.

  5. oh! I love lilacs, too, and the season for them down here is over, so it was a treat to see your pictures today. Must get up to Boston sometime in the spring!

  6. I love lilacs as well - for the reasons you mentioned, and that they are so ephemeral. They bloom for such a short time, and then they're gone. It's like a single bite of the best chocolate you ever tasted. The memory makes it more beautiful :)

    The Emerald Necklace sounds like a fantastic idea, and was probably much more navigable prior to the introduction of fast-moving automobile traffic.

    I know in a lot of European countries, they prohibit right-hand turns on red lights as a general rule, so it eliminates that problem at signalized intersections.

    In Portland, we have some intersections which have bike boxes, where right-turns are prohibited on red, except for bicycles. It might help if they did something like that at the intersections which coincide with the Emerald Necklace, as well as making each of those intersections signalized, so that a person trying to cross can signal when they need to cross.

    I'm not sure about Boston traffic, but that solution seems to work fairly well in Portland, people seem to generally honor the no-right-turn-on-red.

    We do also have some bicycle-specific signage up around Portland, pointing people to the sort of "advised bicycle routes" to get to different areas of town. You'll see a little sign with arrows pointing "right Hollywood District 1.0 Miles", "left Laurelhurst 0.7 Miles", "straight Irvington 2.0 miles" etc. It seems like, for such a major thing as the Emerald Necklace, a little signage shouldn't be a big problem for the city, if enough people expressed that they wanted it.

  7. Thanks for the details re Olmstead and the parkways, Justine; I need to read up on this some more.

    Because I go back and forth between Boston and Vienna all the time, I am constantly trying to compare the bike infrastructure systems. In Vienna there is a major bike path along the river, just like the Charles River Trail in Boston, and a major bike path through a greenway, just like the Emerald Necklace in Boston. What makes the Vienna paths more useable than the Boston paths, are the better-designed intersections. The breaks for crossings are just as frequent, but there is less confusion and less danger for the cyclist. Makes a huge difference.

    The next time I go to the Arboretum, I will most likely cycle on the roads rather than through the Emerald Necklace trails; I just feel it is safer - the cars are more visible and the rules are clearer. Too bad, because the greenway could be so much more enjoyable.

  8. The photo of your bicycles lying in the grass reminds me of the scene(s?) in Black Beauty describing a horse blissfully rolling about in a green pasture after long years of hard labors. Good to see you reward them well after a nice ride!

  9. Gloriously beautiful, absolutely lovely!

  10. Now I have Jeff Buckley's cover of Lilac Wine running through my head. :)

  11. one of my fav events. I used to live walking distance to the arboretum and we had a pot luck mother's day party every year. I miss it. Biking there would be a lovely idea since the last time I went ( 2 years ago- I drove and the parking is insane and the whole place was PACKED- my first year it was very chilled out and just random people wandering around- they they made it Mother's day and the crowds and morse dancers ( whom I adore) joined.

    I used to walk the emerald necklace a lot. Esp when I was training for the 3-day in 2001. You are right- there are mnay places that you have to do a weird adjustment on foot and I bet even more so on bike. It's still one of my favorite things about the city which isn't a surprise since Central park is my fav about NYC...

    I'm glad you did the bike and lilacs. Someday I'll be able to do that with the fam. Maybe next year on M day I'll do it myself.

  12. I hate the type of stuff you described with the bike path. When and why did we as a nation decide to hand over all our cities to personal motorized vehicles. SIGH.

    Anyway, these pictures make me happy. I love the one of you laying down and Co-H reading in the grass. Blissful, indeed!

  13. Vee - That's right, the Morris dancers were there! Supposedly watching them perform is meant to bring a year of good luck - will see!

    Dottie - I feel bad that I always seem to be critical of things and I really wanted to like cycling the Emerald Necklace. But some of those transitions were so bad that we considered turning around and going home several times. And we hardly saw any other cyclists there, even though it was Sunday - which I interpret as more evidence of the route's lack of functionality. I know that the city spent millions and millions of dollars renovating these parklands several years ago and they do advertise it as a "bike trail". Just a couple of more tweaks would make all the difference.

  14. I ride there a lot. In fact, it was part of my daily commute from JP to Cambridge for a while. I agree, the parts that are not connected are tough to navigate.

    One thing I tried to do for a while was to cut through Brookline until you get to Rt 9, then ride the path from there until Jamaica Pond, then cut into the rotary and ride the rest of the way on the road to the Arboretum. Coming from the Arboretum, it feels safer to me to ride up to Centre St, then cut over to Jamaica Pond on Pond St, and then go back the same way.

    Hope this helps.

  15. Annalisa - Thanks for the advice; will give it a try next time!


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