Boston’s Physical Landscape: The Decisions That Shaped It


Boston's physical landscape: the decisions that shaped it

Many moves have shaped the shape of Boston, starting long before anyone decided to make a go of it on the Shawmut Peninsula. Nature’s role aside, here are four of the biggest man-made moves during the past 150 years or so that have affected the physical makeup of Boston.

The decision: to fill in the back bay

Boston was no stranger to reclamation by the time the state, the city, and various landowners reached an agreement in the late 1850s to begin filling in the brackish tidal basin colloquially known as the back bay. During the first two decades of the century, Beacon Hill’s original summit had been used to fill in a pond that became the Haymarket Square area. Various other smaller parts of the once-hilly, unmistakably peninsular city had been reclaimed in similar ways throughout the early 1800s.

But the more than 600-acre infill of what became the Back Bay neighborhood was truly epic for the time. No U.S. municipality had attempted a reclamation project on that scale. The decision to do so had its skeptics, and the project seemed to take forever (sound familiar?).

Commenced in 1857 with gravel from Needham, the infill was not finished until 1882.

The net effect: a vastly expanded Boston, including the new neighborhood, which developers, government entities, and private organizations would pepper with posh homes and major institutions […]