New Research

Urban Archipelago: An Environmental History of the Boston Harbor Islands – Dr. Pavla Šimková

By Dr. Pavla Šimková

What comes to your mind when I say “Boston”? The Boston Tea Party? Brick townhouses? The hub of culture on the American East Coast? The Red Sox? The odds are that whatever your choice is, you don’t think about Boston as a harbor city. Or as a city that includes islands – thirty-four of them, to be precise. The Boston Harbor Islands are a group of small islands dotting Boston’s historic harbor; they are also an incorporated part of the city. And they seem to defy every notion of what an island is supposed to be like.

When we think of islands, we tend to think of faraway places. Thousands and thousands of miles of water lie between them and the nearest mainland. They are treasure islands, guarding chests of pirate gold, tropical paradises offering a refuge from the everyday, or else grim prisons from which there is no redemption. They are universes contained in themselves, exceptional, mysterious, isolated. They are the opposites of our dense, connected world.

Except when they’re not. Even though today the Boston Harbor Islands look like the embodiment of the remote-island imaginary, green hills rising out of the water that seem to offer tranquility and a respite from the city’s bustle, historically they are a decidedly urban archipelago. First brought under Boston’s jurisdiction only a few years after the town was founded in 1630, they have over the centuries become Boston’s appendages, tied to it physically by bridges, causeways, fill, or at least regular boat service, and functionally by serving the city’s changing needs. The islands supplied the colonial town’s demand for timber, building stone, and pastureland. They functioned as “dumping grounds” of the sanitary city of the nineteenth century, receiving materials – and people – that Boston’s city administration was eager to push out of the city proper: they became the sites of landfills and sewage-treatment plants, but also of prisons, quarantine hospitals, and poorhouses. In the mid-twentieth century, the ailing central city attempted to regenerate itself by planning a new community in the harbor and on the harbor islands. Today, they form a national park – but even this incarnation grew out of the metropolitan-area inhabitants’ desire for recreation. Every use that the Boston Harbor Islands have been put to over the past four hundred years could be, in one way or another, traced back to “their” city.

The centuries the islands have spent as Boston’s marine suburb, catering to the city’s demands, have left very real traces in their environment, even in their shape. The wood and gravel harvesting of the colonial period left the islands exposed to erosion and reduced several of them to mere shoals. Later, their incorporation into the city’s infrastructure made them into working landscapes, governed by institutional and in some cases even industrial uses. One of the islands, the site of a landfill, was covered in a sheet of garbage seventy feet thick in places. The late-twentieth-century demand for recreation turned them into natural-looking landscapes: but even this natural aspect is a result of the changing demands Bostonians have placed on their urban archipelago.

Despite being seemingly unrelated to the “true” islands – the remote, oceanic ones – the Boston Harbor Islands have cousins all along the coasts of North America, and indeed the world. Everywhere, coastal cities have appropriated nearby islands and turned them into trash heaps, quarantines, and pleasure spots, as it suited their current demands – and have woven them tightly into their urban fabrics in the process. Urban Archipelago tells a story that is larger than Boston: the story of how a coastal city has taken the adjacent islands, a part of its environment that seemed attached and detached at the same time, and made them its own.

Pavla Šimková is postdoctoral research fellow at the Rachel Carson Center for Environment and Society at LMU Munich, Germany. Her research interests include American and Central European environmental history and the history of islands. Urban Archipelago: An Environmental History of the Boston Harbor Islands is available now at UMass Press: