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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.


What good public places need

By M. David Lee, 4/22/2002

    Beyond Big Dig

Creative Community Conversations
On April 14, some 230 people took part in the first of two public forums about the future of the Central Artery land. They were divided into small groups and asked to dream about what the parks could be.

  • See what participants came up with
  • News story from the Globe
  • Forum credits
  • A recent Saturday morning more than 200 citizens and Boston-area design professionals gathered together in a pleasant, sun-filled room at Rowes Wharf, overlooking the Harbor. It was the first of two planned "community conversations" jointly convened by the Globe and MIT in association with Channel 5.

    I think of these as urban design town meetings and that session and the one to follow are part of a continuum of conversations on the future of the land that will be reclaimed when the Artery comes down.

    Dialogue about that future began in earnest a decade ago and will likely continue for decades to come, which brings me to my first point.

    What is the rush? Everyone seems to be hell bent on figuring it all out right now. How much open space? How much building? What constitutes "public" space? Who will own it? Who will manage and maintain it? How will every parcel and remnant be used for all eternity? These are all important issues to be addressed, but must we resolve them all today, or even 20 years from now? The great public spaces throughout the world so frequently referenced as potential models for the Artery parcels, evolved over decades, even centuries.

    We should approach this opportunity with boldness and creativity, of course, but also with deliberation and perspective. Rather than lock ourselves into rigid numerical percentages for public and /or private space, I believe we should define the initial development of the parcels in terms of interim versus permanent uses. And interim should be defined liberally, perhaps as many as 20 years.

    Thinking about the parcels in a more flexible time frame would allow for more risks and creativity. This will also allow us to get on with it! Plato, I believe, said "to begin is more than half the whole." There must be room in the process to allow the form and uses of these parcels to evolve more naturally rather than all at once.

    A second point. It is misleading to characterize the Corridor as a 30-acre opportunity. When roadways, ramps, and other infrastructure elements are factored in, the remaining acreage is substantially less. Correspondingly, I believe that the graphic representation of the project and perhaps our thinking to date, is both figuratively and literally too linear!

    Even if it evolves as some sort of linear open space system (an idea I am not convinced of) that system at the very least, should be planned within the context of the city's broader open space system, including but not limited to, the Common and the Public Garden, the Esplanade and the Back Bay Fens, the Southwest Corridor Park, the proposed Harbor Trail and the emerging Fort Point Channel and South Boston Waterfront public spaces.

    The most important gift to the city and the region is the ability of this project to reconnect us to the Harbor. There should be more emphasis on "cross" connections rather than the "linear" linkages in my opinion. I don't believe we have collectively invested this much time, money and energy to make connections between Chinatown and the Fleet Center.

    Finally, this is a project whose cost and impacts have affected positively and negatively the entire New England region. It should ultimately emerge as an extraordinary, primarily public, place that gives back to all of the diverse populations in the region. This is no time to be narrow or provincial. We should learn from the past, but this is also an opportunity to create the first great public space of the new century.

    I was once asked to offer David Letterman-style, my top ten list of the qualities that good public places must have. I think those principles might be a useful guide for thinking about the future of the Big Dig parcels.

    10. A great place is not anyone's turf.

    9. Music, dance, art, poetry, and speeches should happen there anytime of the year.

    8. A great public place must include or be directly linked to a public purpose . . . people must need to go there.

    7. The architecture must symbolically reinforce the purpose of the space, whether that purpose is formal or informal.

    6. A great public place should be clean but not "tidy."

    5. Sunlight should be found there sometime everyday.

    4. It should not cost a lot of money to get there.

    3.A great public place should be memorable enough that you would want to have your picture taken there.

    2. It should be a place that you couldn't wait until you were old enough to go to without your parents.

    1. A great public place must have enough visual drama and/or activity that you can send out of town guests there to amuse themselves while you try to get some work done.

    M. David Lee is a partner at Stull and Lee Architects and adjunct professor in the Department of Urban Planning and Design at Harvard Graduate School of Design.

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