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Cambridge Common/Flagstaff Park Project

Common path to Mason St

Construction on the Cambridge Common is complete. No further updates to this project page will be made.

The Cambridge Common and Flagstaff Park project goal was to rehabilitate all aspects of the Common as well as improve conditions for all users of these parks and those travelling along this section of Massachusetts Avenue, from Garden Street to Cambridge Street. It also sought to unify the historic landscape of the Common by simplifying the vocabulary of the design. The planning of the project took many years, along with securing funding for the $5.1m project. The project replaced all pathway surfaces on the Common to meet access codes with bituminous paving with a brick edge, replaced and upgraded all benches and trash cans, planted over 100 trees and removed older under-story plantings, improved drainage and turf surfaces, and replaced the lighting system utilizing efficient, LED fixtures and added lighting to pathways where was missing.

Across the street, along the Massachusetts Avenue side of Flagstaff Park, the curbs were moved out and a two-way multi-use path constructed with crossings at each end to create better bicycle and pedestrians connections between Harvard Square and Massachusetts Avenue northbound.


This project has been completed. No further updates to this project page will be made.

Please see the Documents tab to view the brochure for the celebration, as well as before and after posters showcasing some of the improvements made as part of this project.

Construction plans were finalized in 2013 and the Massachusetts Department of Transportation (MassDOT) advertised the project for bid in the fall of 2013. Construction began in June 2014. The project is anticipated to take approximately 18-24 months to complete. Access to the playground as well through the Cambridge Common is expected to be maintained during the period of work, with some pedestrian detours as paths are reconstructed. Most events and sporting activities will need to be relocated during construction.

Tree Walk

The purpose of this meeting was to view and discuss the tree removal plan for the Common in the context of the tree planting plan and overall landscape treatment for the Common as part of a planned rehabilitation project which could start as early as the fall of 2013.

Process Background

After several meetings with interest groups, the public process for the project concluded ti a 25% conceptual design for the rehabilitation of Cambridge Common and the addition of a multi-use path in Flagstaff Park held on June 9th, 2011 at 7:00 P. M. at 13 Appian Way, Longfellow Building at Harvard Education School. See the documents tab for additional graphics and handouts.

Comments on from the hearing were reviewed and design changes made. Currently, final design plans are being developed for bidding.

This project has been completed. No further updates to this project page will be made.

Local, state and federal funds were allocated to this project for construction. State and federal funds were programmed on the Transportation Improvement Program (TIP) for federal Fiscal Year 2013. The project planning was completed and construction plans put out to bid by MassDOT in the Fall of 2013. Construction began in June of 2014 and is now complete.

Cambridge Common is a National Historic Landmark. Its long and colorful history, connecting it with seventeenth century New England settlement, the Revolutionary War, and regional nineteenth and twentieth century events and trends, make it an important place and tourist attraction.

The Common is also one of the city's major parks. It contains a popular tot lot (which was re-built with a $500,000 renovation), youth soccer and other passive activities on its 16 acres. It is a haven for neighborhood people who want a place to relax in the sun or on a bench under a tree. The Common is also significant in that over 10,000 pedestrians and cyclists pass through it on a daily basis.

The Cambridge Common underwent its last significant reconstruction in 1974. At the present time, many elements of the Common need significant work, including broken pathway paving, missing and broken lighting, poor drainage, excess paving, older benches and trash cans, gaps in the tree canopy and older plantings.

A history of changes to the Common was compiled by the city’s Historical Commission and can be seen by going to the documents tab.

Pedestrian and bicycle travel through this area prior to this reconstruction was difficult because of the amount of vehicle traffic and past reconfigurations of the roadway to accommodate an underpass constructed under the Harvard campus at Peabody and Cambridge streets and the MBTA bus tunnel at Flagstaff Park. Peabody Street and Garden Street are too narrow for bicycle lanes, and the volume and nature of how traffic flows around the Common makes it difficult for cyclists. The primary travel routes for pedestrians and cyclists wanting to travel from Harvard Square to Mass. Avenue northbound were through the north yard of the Harvard campus or through the Common but these routes did not best serve people depending on their exact starting and ending points.

Because of the complex travel patterns in the area, the Common's function as a travel corridor was improved through small changes. Minor pathway realignments and other pathway changes were made to reflect actual pedestrian and bicycle travel patterns and to minimize conflict between the two travel modes. In general, pathway widths stayed the same, except where minor widening was done to make paths a consistent width.

Concerns about pedestrian/bicycle conflict on shared-use paths in and around the Common were discussed in depth through several public forums over the years. Representatives of the Pedestrian Committee, the Bicycle Committee, Committee on Public Planting, Historical Commission, Harvard University, Cambridge Office of Tourism, and representatives of the various City departments (including Community Development; Traffic, Parking, and Transportation; Public Works; Police; and the City Manager's Office) reached an agreement several years ago that pedestrians and cyclists should both be accommodated on the Common with this renovation proposal.

As part of the Harvard Square Design Study completed in 2004, the lack of a good bicycle and pedestrian connection through Flagstaff Park was noted as a major impediment to travel between Harvard Square and North Mass. Avenue. The study recommended a multi-use path connection through Flagstaff Park be designed to create a direct and safe connection along the north-eastern edge of Mass. Avenue opposite the Common.

Details on Cambridge Common Tree Plan

As a result of over fifteen years of planning and public process, twenty one trees were removed from the Cambridge Common as part of an overall rehabilitation project which also planted over one hundred new trees. The rehabilitation project included a complete reconstruction of all pathways in the Common, removal of excess paved areas, new lighting, irrigation and correcting all disability access issues. The project also created a simpler, more historical landscape on the Common consisting of trees and grass. As part of this landscape plan, an historic pathway from the DAR gate on Garden Street removed in an earlier renovation of the Common, was restored.

The planning process for the project (see attached) was extensive and on-going in various forms since 1996. The decision to remove these trees was not made hastily or lightly and is based on several factors. The majority of the trees being removed (13) were Norway Maples, planted after army barracks were removed after World War I. These are non native trees which are no longer legal to plant in Massachusetts and are relatively short lived compared to other native trees planned. Many of these trees were not in great condition, and were removed to create a new allee of trees on either side of the restored central path from the gate to the Civil War monument. An additional goal of the project was to improve visibility of the monument and to create an improved growing environment for remaining trees in that area. Five Saphora trees were removed around the monument with several remaining in place. The balance of the trees removed were scattered trees which were not ideally located, a good species choice or not anticipated to be long lived.

These landscaping and tree decisions have evolved over many years and with the input of many groups and individuals including the Historical Commission, Public Planting Committee, City Arborist and neighborhood groups consulted over the years during this extensive public process. 

Below are comments submitted on the project’s Environmental Notification Form by Janet Burns, a member of the Committee on Public Planting and of the Cambridge Plant and Garden Club, which sums up the thinking on these trees:

“I am writing in support of plans for renewal of Cambridge Common. Paths will be rebuilt because of deterioration, to correct drainage problems, to restore a historic path alignment, and to meet ADA standards. Removal of decrepit perimeter shrubs will make way for many new trees which will strengthen the visual framework of grass and tree-lined paths. The plan greatly enhances the overall tree canopy. Existing trees proposed for removal are mainly Norway maples which are approximately 90 years old, past their prime, and the species today is considered a nuisance tree for many reasons. They are part of a very large monoculture planting to replace the previous monoculture of elm. For random reasons, there is now some diversity in tree types on the Common, but still, the preponderance of tree type is Norway maple. The scale of the proposed plan, which involves planting up to 100 new trees along with removals, gives a jump start to and supports the more sustainable, future-oriented idea of deliberately planning and planting for successive generations - which should be comprised of mixed ages and a diversity of tree type.”

ENF Documents

Community Involvement Timeline

ENF Certificate

For more information about the Cambridge Common/Flagstaff Park Project, contact Bill Deignan by email at wdeignan@cambridgema.gov or by telephone at 617/349-4632.