If you don't build it, they won't come

Greenway needs to be an urban center

By Robert Campbell
Globe Correspondent / May 15, 2011

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Last Sunday, for the third year, I took my annual walk down the Rose Fitzgerald Kennedy Greenway, an event that has become a kind of rite of spring. Each year, with the optimism of the season, I hope to find a wonderful urban park filled with delighted people.

The good news is that the Greenway is getting more beautiful. The bad news is that almost nobody is using it.

The Greenway is desolate, surrounded on all sides by crowds enjoying more interesting places.

My walk began at the North End, where the Greenway consists of two big green lawns overlooked by a sort of grandstand. There were three people and two dogs on the lawns, and a total of 26 people sitting at the lengthy row of tables and benches of the grandstand. There were four walkers. It was like a scene from a surrealist film. With so few people, so spaced out, the place felt emptier than if there’d been no one at all.

I don’t know why there’s a grandstand, which offers no protection from sun or rain. Are people supposed to use it to watch a soccer game, or maybe some ultimate Frisbee? But the lawns are too carved up by barriers and level changes to make good sports fields.

Blame the weather? The day was party cloudy and the breeze was a little blustery. But on Hanover Street nearby, there were often three or four people abreast on the sidewalks. The wide-open, unprotected spaces of the Greenway, by contrast, seemed to welcome the wind.

The next big section is called the Wharf District Parks. At its center stands a group of hideous tall metal pylons, arranged in a rectangle. The pylons are supposed to frame the Greenway’s heart. On my Sunday springtime visit, not a single soul was to be seen anywhere in the pylon area, which is three blocks long.

The only folks in evidence were crossing at the street corners, on their way to somewhere else.

The Faneuil Hall Marketplace was mobbed. So was the Aquarium. So was the Blackstone Block. So was the waterfront. People wanted to be outdoors everywhere, it seemed, except on the Greenway.

There was one exception. The Children’s Carousel was full of delighted kids and parents. The lesson is obvious: People want something to do in a park, not just something to look at.

The Greenway, as noted, is becoming more beautiful. Trees are taller and new ones have been planted. But green is a background, not a foreground. A park is a setting for experiences. It is not an experience in itself.

The Greenway is much too small to function like the famous 19th-century parks of Frederick Law Olmsted, each of which was conceived as a rural refuge from the city. You can’t take a long lovers’ stroll on the Greenway. It’s part of the city. It needs to be thought of as a center of urban activity.

The Greenway would have been better if some of the proposed structures had been built on it. There were to be two museums, a glass garden for horticulture, and a YMCA. Instead we will have only the Boston Islands Harbor Pavilion, now under construction, which will offer boat tickets and info on the islands. It’s welcome, but it’s tiny.

I’m not saying, as some readers have claimed, that I want to turn the Greenway into a commercial extravaganza. I’m just arguing that we stop thinking of it as a quiet green oasis in the city, as an essentially anti-urban place, and instead start thinking of it as the city park that it is.

A good model is Millennium Park in Chicago. Everyone goes there, in almost every season, because there’s great stuff to do. Magical artworks, a delightful café, theaters, an outdoor concert venue, a world-class art museum next door, a miniature golf course, inventive gardens, an ever-changing pool for wading and running, a bike rental pavilion — the list of delights seems endless, all packed into an area much smaller than the Greenway. And it’s a great place for people-watching because, unlike the Greenway, it’s full of people.

Besides more stuff like that, what the Greenway needs is more people living nearby. Harvard Professor Edward Glaeser has written a book that’s relevant here: “Triumph of the City: How Our Greatest Invention Makes Us Richer, Smarter, Greener, Healthier, and Happier.’’

Glaeser argues that if a city stops building new housing, as Greater Boston more or less has done, and if demand for housing remains strong, the result will be rising prices. The city will become unaffordable to exactly the kind of young, creative people it needs for its future greatness.

Glaeser praises the long frontage of glass towers that face out to Lake Michigan in Chicago, arguing that although they’re not for the poor, they relieve pressure on prices at the lower levels of the housing market. I’m not sure we need that kind of giantism, but if the Greenway is going to work as a park, it’s going to need to be surrounded by a living neighborhood.

The underfunded Greenway Conservancy, which runs the park, understands the issues perfectly well and does what it can. There are to be a dozen food vendors by Memorial Day, ranging from American barbecue to Indian “street food.’’

And there are programmed activities, such as a “Fitness Walking’’ group, a “Sunrise Yoga’’ class, the odd concert, even a “Falun Dafa Day’’ for Chinese meditation. They’re welcome, but they’re occasional events that could be happening anywhere.

Maybe, though, that’s going to be the path of the Greenway. It will be the eventual product of many small populist initiatives over a long time, rather than the product of government or corporate planning. It will perhaps be reminiscent of Boston’s Friends of the Public Garden, the group that has gradually transformed another dreary park into a modest urban miracle.

I’m reminded of Deng Xiaoping’s famous description of Chinese reform: “Fording the river by feeling for the stones.’’ That’s the kind of gradual progress, step by carefully tested step, that the Greenway is making. Perhaps that will turn out to be a good way to proceed. Let’s just hope we live long enough to see the results.

Robert Campbell, the Globe’s architecture critic, can be reached at