Oliver Wendell Holmes, one of Boston's earliest cheerleaders, nicknamed his home "The Hub," as in "The Hub of the Universe." This moniker left the city with a lot to live up to. While Boston remains an important axis of culture and commerce on the Eastern Seaboard, it's best-known for its Yankee-Doodle-Dandy brand of historical tourism.
Is there room for a green scene in the history-steeped capital of Brahmins, burial grounds and brownstones? There sure is. Thanks to an abundance of natural resources, a progressive political landscape, a booming biotech industry, a jewel of a park system and a handful of institutes of higher learning — more than 100 to be exact — the Hub is anything but puritanical when it comes to environmental concerns.
Boston is a compact and flat city with an efficient subway — the oldest in the country — and commuter rail system, so go ahead and "pack ya cah in Havud Yad" and explore by foot. Due to a dearth of urban planning in its infancy, downtown Boston's streets are labyrinthine. But getting lost in the "Walking City" is a rite of passage; with every wrong turn you'll discover something new.
Boston is a town of "olds" — oldest this in the country, oldest that in the country. The Boston Common, a swath of green used as grazing ground for cattle in colonial times, is America's oldest park. The Common also marks the start of the Emerald Necklace, a 1,000-acre-plus linear system of parks and parkways designed by Frederick Law Olmsted. Many "links" in the necklace, like Jamaica Pond and the Public Garden (swan boats!), are popular outdoor recreation spots, while others are densely wooded, ecologically vital areas that support wildlife and keep the city's air quality in check.
Further afield in Concord, Mass., is Walden Pond. During the summer months, the pond is a popular swimming spot, but those looking to channel the spirit of Thoreau and commune with some wicked beautiful nature in the surrounding woods will appreciate this lit landmark's year-round appeal.
Green in design
The streets in much of Boston may be helter-skelter and a majority of buildings may be antediluvian, but recent building projects are modern and designed with Mother Nature in mind.
The Diller Scofidio + Renfro-designed Institute of Contemporary Art was a breath of fresh architectural air for Boston when it opened in 2004. Located on the Boston Harbor, the ICA's striking design takes full advantage of natural lighting through giant walls of glass and an expansive, adjustable system of skylights. Nearby the ICA is the LEED-certification-seeking Macallan Building, Boston's first green residential building project.
On the opposite side of the Fort Point Channel is the South End, America's largest Victorian residential district. This perennially hip area is home to several pocket parks, community gardens and the SoWa (South of Washington Street) art-and-design enclave where galleries, studios and boutiques have moved into once-derelict mill buildings. The SoWa Open Market, an artisan outdoor market held weekends during the summer, is a shopping paradise for those hunting for handcrafted goods, art and local food.
And since Bostonians appreciate their nature, the George Robert White Environmental Conservation Center at the Boston Nature Center and Wildlife Sanctuary is the greenest building in town.
A kind-of-newbie on Boston's green hotel scene is the 300-room Liberty Hotel, an architectural marvel at the foot of tony Beacon Hill. The Liberty is one of the country's most impressive cases of building reuse: The heart of the hotel is housed in what used to be the Charles Street Jail, a structure completed in 1851. If you're not in luxury lock-up at the Liberty, just stop by to admire the painstaking preserved granite edifice and grab dinner in the vestige of an original jail cell at CLINK, where the menu is ripe with seasonal, regional and artisanal offerings.
For those who prefer gangplanks over catwalks, the harbor-side Seaport Hotel boasts stunning views and impressive eco-credentials. The hotel, a member of Boston Green Tourism, purchases green energy credits, uses the innovative Bio-EZ organic waste elimination system, launders using an ozone system and uses electrolyzed water to produce cleaning fluids.
Baked beans, brown bread and "chowda" have long defined New England cuisine, but there's a cornucopia of restaurants in Beantown that are sure to please eco-epicureans. In fact, Boston is the Green Restaurant Association's most active city behind New York.
Mediocre red-sauced eateries are a dime a dozen in the North End, Boston's Italian district. Plough your way through the cannoli-chomping scrum on Hanover Street, the neighborhood's main thoroughfare, and get an LED-candle-lit table at Taranta. This exceptional South Italian-Peruvian fusion joint has won green dining accolades, composts and serves petti di pollo — a pan-roasted, organic chicken breast stuffed with Fontina cheese and spinach — that will make you a regular.
Across the Charles River in Cambridge, UpStairs on the Square is a culinary destination with two unique dining rooms, the Monday Bar Club and the Soiree Dining Room. Both serve locally sourced goodies like Wellfleet oysters, Nantucket scallops and fresh greens from regional farms. Given that UpStairs is in the heart of Harvard Square you may be overcome with a feeling of collegiate nostalgia. If you must, the dining services program at both Harvard and Boston University are serious about sustainability.
And if there's any dining must-do in Boston, it's a pilgrimage to the Union Oyster House, the country's oldest continually operating restaurant, for a taste of the finest Cape Cod clam chowder in town.
Rich in history with an eye toward the future
The phrase "old school" is often thrown at Boston. It's fitting. The city embraces its storied past like no other American city. But Boston also has a firm grip on the future and continually strives to identify itself as an environmentally progressive metropolis.
Even though modern Bostonians move at a breakneck pace, patience is key in Beantown (especially for baseball fans). The seemingly never-ending Big Dig, America's most expensive highway project, was a messy, controversial and environmentally risky eyesore that the city's residents coped with for several years too many. The Dec. 31, 2007, completion of the Big Dig was worth the wait: Parks have replaced highways, mass transit has increased and traffic congestion has been alleviated (although some environmental-impact mitigation projects remain unfunded).
The complete greening of Boston won't take place overnight. But in a city defined by revolution, the Hub will always remain ahead of the curve.
Tease photo: monkeyatlarge/flickr