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Beyond The Big Dig
About this project

What happens to the ribbon of land being created by the depression of the Central Artery may be the most important development decision to face Boston in a generation.


Commonwealth Avenue, Boston


Commonwealth Ave. Mall Commonwealth Avenue Mall is more than eight acres in area. (Globe Staff Photo / David L. Ryan)


* Piers Park: Successful in large part because of the designer's sensitivity to the requests of the East Boston community.
* Post Office Square: A lovely oasis in the heart of the city's Financial District that's a good example of public-private partnership.
* South Boston Marine Park: This not-yet-completed park recognizes that open space alone is not enough to attract people.

* Parc de Clot: Interesting reuse of an old industrial site on a scale similar to many Central Artery parcels.
* Porta Vell: A mostly successful project that reconnected a port city with its waterfront.
* The Ramblas: An outstanding example of a main thoroughfare with a people-friendly scale.

* Parc Andre Citroen: Reuse of a huge industrial complex to create a park that is an urban work of art.
* Viaduc des Arts/Promenade Plantee: Innovative reuse of an old elevated railroad viaduc to create a much-needed urban park.

San Francisco
* Crissy Field: An obsolete military base was redeveloped into a vast and successful public open space.
* Ferry Building Plaza: A not-altogether-successful attempt to redevelop the land formerly occupied by an elevated downtown expressway.
* Rincon Park: Public-private partnership use to build and maintain a waterfront public park.
* Yerba Buena: This combination of park and civic space is a testimonial to the power of careful urban planning and careful event planning.

Commonwealth Avenue boulevard is the main thoroughfare in the Boston's Back Bay, the preeminent Victorian residential neighborhood in America. The boulevard is bordered by three- to five-story residential buildings whose facades are made up mostly of brick and whose boundaries vary the further they are from the city center, becoming smaller in size and denser in occupancy. Commonwealth Avenue has an overall width of approximately 200 feet from building face to building face. It features a 100-foot-wide pedestrian mall for strolling, art, and appreciation of the tree canopy that provides nearly 100 percent shade protection in the summer. The long, linear pedestrian mall totals 8.7 acres in size and is lined along its length with trees that are spaced at intervals of 45 to 65 feet. Its total area is equal to that of the proposed new Rose Kennedy Greenway parks, less the highway ramp parcels and the three blocks set aside for construction of Massachusetts Horticultural Society's four-acre "Garden Under Glass."


Commonwealth Avenue is testimony to a bygone Victorian era in which public open space was conceived as a decorative boulevard that enhanced the townhouses of the gentry, and served as a promenade for fine ladies and gentlemen. Formal in design, Commonwealth Avenue today serves as a protected area to enjoy a canopy of trees in the city, or walk your dog. Strollers can be inspired by inscriptions emblazoned on the statues that adorn the mall, commemorating the famous, and reminding us of important events in the history of the city. A paved sidewalk runs the entire length of the mall, bordered by London plane trees spaced evenly to define the park's edges.


Commonwealth Avenue is big, but it is built to a human scale.

  • Statuary and public memorials are located along the mall.
  • The mall is protected by along its edges by traditional Boston-style, foot-high wrought iron fences.
  • The trees are wrapped in small-bulb white lights during the Christmas season, creating a visual wonderland.


The flexibility and adaptability of this type of boulevard can be an important lesson for an urban development of a multiway boulevard street form.

These case studies were researched and written by Zhan Guo and Alex-Ricardo Jimenez of MIT, under the direction of Thomas J. Piper of the Department of Urban Studies and Planning. They examine a series of urban open space projects with particular lessons for Boston as it decides the future of the land freed up when the Central Artery moves underground.

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