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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.


Creating a lively space that engages us all

By Ted Landsmark, 3/3/2003

What makes an urban civic space great? Why do diverse crowds come together on the Esplanade, Newbury Street, and the Public Garden, but not on the Commonwealth Avenue Mall or City Hall Plaza? These are crucial questions as we explore designs for the new Rose Kennedy Greenway over the depressed Central Artery.

Professional urban planners improve spaces with tangible spatial design elements such as pedestrian paths, site edges, traffic patterns, lighting fixtures, and grassy areas. Decades ago, a brick plaza with plantings would be representative of Boston open space. Looking into the 21st century, however, we can imagine a greenway utilizing sustainable technologies to harness heat from cars below, and light from adjoining buildings, to create a space that is warm, bright, vibrant, and a magnet that draws visitors at all times.

Great civic spaces like Central Park, Barcelona's Ramblas, or Havana's Prado, are attractive not merely due to tangible benches, pushcarts, and planting. Intangible software, that is, the creation of a sense that the space is a shared, common ground that welcomes all the city's changed demographics, young and old, handicapped, black, brown, yellow and white, middle-class and working class, is also important. What attracts diverse people is a sense of safety, the ability to feel the presence of others like one's self, and the welcoming ambience of the space to a variety of people and uses. Today, a civic space must be equally inviting to young people in East Boston, seniors living on Beacon Hill, or a handicapped tourist.

Boston's most active spaces, such as the Esplanade and Downtown Crossing, can encompass different structures and environments -- one evokes the pastoral as it abuts a residential area and winds along a river with changing views, while the other is a vibrant retail area with little residential activity. Yet both feel safe and inviting for a wide variety of people, day and night. Commonwealth Avenue and City Hall Plaza on the other hand, share a sense that one is isolated from the vital activity that makes urban areas what they are - both are safe, but not particularly inviting as places to linger. A sense of engagement with, or isolation from the ongoing life of the city, is what makes civic spaces like the Esplanade and Downtown Crossing feel vital, while City Hall Plaza feels dead.

Much of the planning for the greenway has already taken place. Art has already been designed for several sites, and a new Horticultural Hall will likely fill a portion of what some still naively hope will be an open park in the downtown, similar in width to Commonwealth Avenue Mall. But if the dream of a unified pastoral spine from Chinatown to the Zakim Bridge is a mirage, it remains possible to create a largely continuous urban community space linking North and South stations. The greenway should be a space where commuters might consider, in the middle of the day, having lunch with people from Dorchester whose children might be welcome there during spring vacation.

The intangible software that creates a sense of connectedness with the diversity of life in Boston is the product of an attitude of engagement and shared ownership on the part of all who plan for, and all who will use this new space. We can still take our planning meetings out to nonabutting neighborhoods to ask what would make the greenway attractive as a destination. If our attitude is inclusive about who will be using this area, our planning will attract more diverse communities to share in the ownership and use of this new civic space.

There's still time to ask young people what they would like to experience in this space in the year 2050. Their views may not reflect Olmsted's 19th century view of what urban parkland should be, but neither will their visions be preordained by urban planning conventions. We are designing a 21st century community space in the middle of downtown. If planning is the exclusive work of a handful of experts planning for us rather than with us, the outcome will be as dead as the 20th century brick plazas that destroy optimism in too many of our neighborhoods.

It is time for common sense to inform our design sense.

Ted Landsmark is president of the Boston Architectural Center.

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