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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.


An open mind on open space

By Paul S. Grogan, 4/8/2002

''CONVENTIONALLY, neighborhood parks or park-like open spaces are considered boons conferred on the deprived populations of cities. Let us turn this thought around, and consider city parks deprived places that need the boon of life and appreciation conferred on them. This is more nearly in accord with reality, for people do confer use on parks and make them successes - or else withhold use and doom parks to rejection and failure.''

- Jane Jacobs, ''The Death and Life of Great American Cities''

Jane Jacobs's remarkable insights about urban parks - never improved upon in the 40 years since her book first appeared - should be raising cautionary flags for those imagining the future of the land located above the depressed Central Artery.

The question of open space - and how to optimize its value - has once again emerged as an issue in Boston. The majority of the land currently occupied by the Central Artery, which is slated to come down in 2005, is supposed to become ''public open space.'' According to the master plan for the Artery surface, 75 percent of the 28 acres, or 21 acres, has been set aside as open space.

So what are we going to do with this gift of land? What the urban visionary Jacobs taught, confirmed by decades of experience in Boston and in cities around the world, is that parks are not automatically anything. Parks can be delightful features of cities and economic assets to their surroundings, but they can also be desolate badlands, little used and unloved. One need only think of Boston's City Hall Plaza to understand that open space in a city should almost never be an end in itself.

A well-planned park, on the other hand, can attract joggers in the morning, neighbors walking to the office, midday crowds of mothers and young children, lunchtime urban workers, shoppers and museum-goers, strollers and tourists.

Some would argue that the space can be ''programmed.'' That might help, but the best ''programming'' for urban open space occurs in the natural comings and goings of city dwellers, workers, and visitors. The quality and quantity of this ''programming'' is essentially a function of adjacent uses. The problem may be that the properties next door, in most cases created before the Big Dig was conceived, may not be up to the job. If that is so, the choice is either to lessen the open space requirement outright, or at a minimum to interpret the requirement flexibly enough so that the new land can generate more of the required activity itself.

We must be willing to ask the unthinkable question: Have we hamstrung ourselves with an unworkable open space requirement? Let's not be so intimidated by the iconic veneration of open space that we rule out development that attracts people, such as housing, shops, and cultural facilities - not to mention open-air markets, skating rinks, wading pools, playgrounds, or sculpture gardens.

Along these lines, there has been a great deal of discussion focused on what, exactly, the open space requirement means. Does it mean no buildings? Or does it mean that the land must remain in the public realm? I would argue that the ''no buildings'' interpretation of the open space requirement is too rigid and would unnecessarily restrict the very development that would ultimately make this space an active and vital addition to Boston's Emerald Necklace.

The Boston Foundation has long supported the groups that have fought for quality parks and open space, and we will continue to do so. But in a complex city, no interest is so overriding that it should not be reconciled with other compelling interests.

We hope to contribute to the dialogue today by sponsoring a series of ''community conversations'' about the new Artery parks, ensuring that voices from every neighborhood have a chance to share their knowledge and insights and help shape this valuable new resource to the city. It is only through this kind of dialogue, where no cows are sacred and everything is on the table, that we will achieve a vision that works for all of Boston's residents and indeed for the entire region.

Paul S. Grogan is president of the Boston Foundation and author of ''Comeback Cities: A Blueprint for Urban Neighborhood Revival.''

Copyright 2002 The New York Times Company
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