We begin in the West End, on the edge of Storrow Drive, just steps from MGH.

It's a busy afternoon, per usual. So we cross over the many lanes of traffic using the switchback-like pedestrian bridge and land along a bare two-acre section of the Charles River Esplanade.

It's Waterfront Wellness Week, an annual event put on by the Coalition for a Resilient and Inclusive Waterfront. The goal is to engage people with the rivers, Boston Harbor and islands that make up our waterfront, which many folks are doing already.

Sydney Taylor is stopping by to show friends around, but usually comes for just one reason: “To consume bubble tea and walk,” she said.

“That’s all,” she said. “That's all I do. Very relaxing. I like to see the sailboats. And I like that it's shaded and there's some hammock spots that are really good.”

Mark Salem and Kiki Tsang are here for a moment of reflection.

"We lost our dog a couple of days ago, so we're just coming here to grieve and walk a little bit," Salem said. "Some of our first dates were here."

A woman and man posing with their arms around one another; a man posing with his arms behind his back.
Mark Salem and Kiki Tsang (left) and Tony D'Agostino enjoy strolls on the Esplanade.
Paris Alston GBH News

Tony D'Agostino is taking his usual stroll.

“I come about two times a week, walk this side, cross over on Mass. Ave., and then come down on the other side,” he said. “There's always something going on, you always see something interesting."

D'Agostino said he liked when the area is not too crowded.

“I'll tell you, I like it with as few people as there are,” he said. “It's much better that way, I think.

He's just a guy enjoying his peace and quiet. But there is something to be said for the waterfront's location limiting access.

“I love how accessible the park is to bicyclists, families, elders, folks of all ages and backgrounds,” Jen Mergel, the executive director of the Esplanade Association. “But it could be much more accessible.”

The construction of Storrow Drive decades ago separated the city's most vulnerable residents from the waterfront, she said.

“Over time, with the age of the automobile and a lot of other history in Boston — things like redlining, things that have kept people from access to certain spaces in the city — people have forgotten some of the original intentions,” she said. “A lot of the waterfront of the Charles River way back in the 1890s was designed by Frederick Law Olmsted, the same person who did Central Park and the Emerald Necklace Park System here in Boston to be a space for everyone, regardless of means or background.”

Mergel, Alison Badrigian, director of projects and planning at Esplanade Association and Nicole Obi, president and CEO of the Black Economic Council of Massachusetts, are working to get back to some of those intentions by collaborating on a redevelopment project called Charlesbank Landing.

In 2021, the Esplanade Association pledged $20 million for the project — reportedly the largest private donation ever made to the state's park system. If built, it would bring to the space a new athletic field, cafe and visitors center and the Esplanade's first year-round public bathroom.

Additionally, it would revive the unused space left behind by the closure of the Lee Pool in the 90s. The complex went neglected for years before being demolished in 2019.

A black and white aerial photo of a three-lane highway and a pool complex.
Lee Pool, as seen in 1952.
Department of Conservation and Recreation archives

Mergel, who grew up in Dorchester's Uphams Corner, remembers visiting the pool as a child.

“It was one of those outdoor swimming pools, the chlorinated swimming pools in the city, where a kid in the inner city like me could get [to] on the Red Line,” she said. “I would get on at JFK and take the T to Charles T stop and walk over and be able to cool myself off in the summer. We don't have an option or destination like that here yet, but that is something that we're hoping to bring back to the park.”

It's also designed to fulfill the city's 2030 climate resiliency goals by improving air quality, reducing energy use and the impacts of heat islands, and managing stormwater along the river's bank.

The new development would also connect Boston to its past: Almost 33 years ago to the day — on June 23rd, 1990 — Nelson Mandela gave a speech to a crowd of over 200,000 people less than a mile away from here, at the Hatch Shell.

It's those kinds of connections, along with the shiny new amenities, that the coalition believes can entice newcomers.

Mergel and Badrigian say making those newcomers feel welcomed and included is a democratic exercise in itself.

“These open spaces are designed to advance the idea of what democracy is,” Mergel said. “They are shared spaces. We have a lot of work to do when it comes to spatial justice and making sure that everybody can fully express and be themselves in all public spaces, 365 days of the year.”

They also want to make sure the park can be a destination people can linger in.

“If you're coming from a ways away, you don't have to leave the park. You're able to land here and stay here and have a nice experience and a nice day with the rest of the community,” Badrigian said.

Of course, that depends on a functioning transportation system so people can get here in the first place.

A green tarp with the words "Charles River Esplanade" covers part of a walkway.
The Esplanade Association is planning to revamp part of its iconic waterfront path.
Paris Alston GBH News

Driving to the Esplanade means worrying about parking, not to mention reducing the external effects of traffic.

While some might have a hard time justifying a new waterfront development in a more affluent part of the city when there are other priorities, such as affordable housing, that’s a false choice, Obi said.

“While we need housing and we certainly need to fix transportation, we need green space and we need community space, free community space,” Obi said. “We need it all."

She said that green space can help ease health disparities across the city.

A recent set of reports from the Boston Public Health Commission found life expectancy in nearby Back Bay to be 92, while in Roxbury, it's 69 —something partially attributed to the lack of green space further away from the water.

“It's about a mile, just over a mile at some points from here,” Obi said. “But it's a 23 year difference.”

The Esplanade Association is hoping to complete the project in the next few years. It is holding public meetings to gather community input on the proposal.

Correction: A previous version of this story misspelled Frederick Law Olmsted’s last name.