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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.


Building spaces that weave in urban life

By Jill Ker Conway, 4/29/2002

Think of all the parks you've enjoyed in cities, and then answer the question: What makes them such delightful places to be?
In every case the answer will be because they are so closely knitted into the warp and weave of the adjoining urban life. In Europe, great public areas are the product of aristocratic societies, so the park was a place of recreation and leisure close to great places, with all the urban clustering that accompanied them.

So the Tuileries gardens are right in the middle of busy residential urban life of Paris. And the Piazza Navona in Rome was a site for a city whose aristocrats loved horses and racing them.

So how can we weave the 30 acres of the Central Artery corridor into Boston's life? And what do we want that space to say about us, how we live now, and what we want to leave to future generations?

We owe a lot to the generations that shaped our urban landscape. The aspirations for the city that gave us Trinity Church and the Boston Public Library, Symphony Hall and the Horticultural Society are clear. This was to be a city of high culture that rivaled any European metropolis. And the Emerald Necklace was to give a democratic city the open spaces that commerce alone couldn't provide.

The aspiration for Government Center was grand enough, but its planners misunderstood one important aspect of urban life. They built a place that is dead at night and arid by day, because it has no interaction with the urban space around it and there are no people living there 24 hours a day. Urban life is about people in all their wonderful variety, and great public spaces must always relate to that.

So, it's wonderful that we have, not a moment too soon, the beginning of plans for the governance and financing of the Central Artery Corridor Park system. But so far, although there have been very commendable efforts at consultation, we don't have a civic vision for the area. And we need one quickly.

To get us started, here's what I think the components of the vision should be.

First, it must involve a strong public-private partnership. Governments have tax squeezes and recessions that bring shortages of public goods. So, great parks need a committed civic constituency which cares about them, as was necessary to rescue Central Park from New York's fiscal woes.

Second, it must involve a clear plan of how and for whom we will weave a 24-hour community into the open space. Although the restrictions on 75 percent of the space are clear, how about some islands of high density housing designed for Boston's young population that can't afford to live downtown and for the elderly whose lives would be enlivened by living close to all the riches of the city?

And how about dedicating some of the rental income stream to maintaining the park? High density housing is the wave of the urban future, evidenced in the prize-winning Olympic villages built for Barcelona and Sydney, which have revitalized rundown urban areas and are highly prized by young and old residents alike. Those islands would give the park the couples courting, the children playing, the bustle of coming and going which make it fun to be a "flaneur" in Hyde Park or the Borghese Gardens.

We could make the park speak for our notion of democracy today by making some of those living spaces affordable housing. If we don't think about 24-hour residents, we will have green acres of emptiness to match the cement and stone of Government Center.

Third, we must think creatively about commerce and where it fits along the borders and within the park. Without a plan, we'll find the area swamped with the smells of cooking fat from hot-dog stands and hamburger joints or the ubiquitous food trucks which appear beside construction sites. Some would be great. But we need places to sit and relish the green with good food and drink, summer and winter.

Fourth, we need to plan now for the many ways parks are used for athletics. Why not a series of "parcours" beside jogging tracks, space for summer and winter games, lights to extend the outdoor day in winter, athletic spaces to match the scale and significance of our marathon? Everyone knows it's not safe to jog without people around. It's the grandmothers pushing prams, the school expeditions, the old folks enjoying the sun, the local team practices, the wedding parties being photographed, and the families visiting the equivalent of the Public Garden's ducks that make our parks safer than the best policing can.

Fifth, we must never confuse ourselves about pastoral idylls in the midst of urban life. Parks are works of art, not just so many acres of green space. And they never mix with the suburban ideal of manufactured rural pleasures. We won't serve future generations well, unless we keep this front and center in all our thinking about this priceless opportunity.

If we think about all these things, we'll come close to saying what Boston believes a democratic urban community should look like, and later generations will think we did well.

Jill Ker Conway, former president of Smith College, is an author chairman of Lend Lease Corp.

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