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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 common ground

By Hubie Jones, 5/6/2002

IT WOULD BE a civic tragedy of monumental proportions if planning and decision-making for the afterlife of the construction of the depressed Central Artery is not driven by the wishes of the potential users of the new surface. Unless our neighborhood leaders wake up and vigorously enter the public conversation and the processes shaping decisions, their constituents are doomed to become victims of the actions of ''well-intentioned'' planners and political officials.

Good architects and urban planners believe that form follows function. In other words, the wishes and intentions of the users should determine what is physically built. This fundamental principle could be buried by the babble of voices now expressing narrow self-interests.

I am reminded of the architect designing an elementary school who asked the students what they would want to see built. The students said they most wanted a slide from the second to the first floor, something the architect would have never imagined. We need to discover the metaphoric slides for the Artery surface through a creative process that allows the residents of all the neighborhoods of the city to express their practical dreams.

We must avoid at all costs the creation of an enclave primarily used by out-of-town workers and tourists. Due to the demographic revolution in Boston, we are on the cusp of moving beyond the racial and ethnic enclaves of the past, because substantial diversity now exists in almost every neighborhood. To build on this asset, residents should gain ''ownership'' of these 27 acres by having their wishes heard and adopted. Without such ''ownership,'' use by residents of this space will be minimal.

The current invisibility of people of color in the downtown area and other public spaces beyond the neighborhoods in the city is unacceptable. This new public space should help to change this condition. Above all, the Artery surface is an opportunity to create social space that is common ground for all who live in, work in, and use Boston. This is the compelling vision that must drive this civic work.

Even building the ''right'' environment on the surface is no guarantee that it will be accessible and used by everyone in the city. This precious social space should be programmed with imaginative activities and events to attract a diversity of users.

Therefore, I recommend the establishment of a Common Ground Commission, composed of neighborhood, cultural, and business leaders with the responsibility for programming. Its work would be supported by public and private funding. This commission would work in tandem with the eventual authority that has responsiblity for maintenance and security on the surface.

Think how much poorer the city would be if the Parks Department were not holding attractive events in our parks, particularly during the summer. That work should serve as the operational model for the Common Ground Commission.

Also, in a city where leaders have substantial difficulty getting to yes without great struggle and rancor, a mediation process should be established for the fair hearing of all ideas and recommendations by all stakeholders for creating this public space. Here is a gigantic opportunity to move us toward a culture of collaboration, which is sorely needed. This civic challenge is as much about process as it is about product.

Boston is littered with products that evolved out of contentious battles, only to leave in their wake future recriminations that poisoned the civic life and culture of the city. We do not want to see that old movie this time around. I am afraid that we will not escape this history unless an honorable mediation process is utilized.

Boston still struggles to achieve social integration of racial ethnic groups and social classes. The Artery surface and the build-out of the waterfront in South Boston provide an enormous opportunity to knit the city together. Few cities get such an opportunity through physical development to transform its social fabric. It is an opportunity that we dare not squander.

Hubie Jones is special assistant for urban affairs to the chancellor of the University of Massachusetts at Boston.

Copyright 2002 The New York Times Company
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