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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.


A challenge and opportunity to 'get it right'

By Elizabeth Barlow Rogers, 5/20/2002

LIKE DOWNTOWN New York, Downtown Boston has a major planning opportunity and challenge born of change and disaster. Both cities have experienced a changed character as their economic function as ports is no longer paramount and their waterfronts are converted to new uses, primarily recreational ones.

Both cities are engaged in replanning transportation infrastructures and creating new public spaces in their downtowns. The magnitude of these endeavors is often likened to their respective great 19th-century public works projects: the creation of Central Park and the Emerald Necklace.

In terms of scope, scale, and capital expenditure this is certainly true, but with regard to the nature of the task at hand both Boston and New York planners have a different, if no less noble, mission than the one that guided their great forebear, Frederick Law Olmsted. Theirs is not the task of building a green armature for metropolitan growth but rather one of remediation as they diagnose problems, perform radical surgery, and provide therapeutic regimens for the urban organism.

To view the mission of the Central Artery/Tunnel project essentially as one of burying a roadbed and building parks in the footprint of the old elevated highway would have been simplistic.

The Boston Central Artery Corridor Master Plan sponsored by the Massachusetts Turnpike Authority is a thoughtful document that seeks to incorporate American planners' belated recognition of the failure of the urban renewal era to provide livable cities. It aligns its vision with the lessons of Kevin Lynch and Jane Jacobs, two great urbanists who early saw that planning should not become the purview primarily of transportation engineers.

The question now is how to turn its prescriptions for a better Boston into reality.

It is presumptuous for a New Yorker to attempt to speak to Bostonians when so much intelligent, thoughtful work is already underway, but these are generic reminders that hold true for planners in both cities where there now exists the opportunity and challenge to ''get it right'':

The whole should be more than the sum of its parts. Urban space is experiential. People move through space, and the way in which the streets, plazas, and parks appear and function in relation to the buildings that surround them and the way that the buildings appear and function in relation to these public spaces is vitally important.

Some of the best things that will happen in the reborn Central Artery/Tunnel area cannot even be anticipated, but view corridors that delight our eyes and good visual cues for navigating urban space must be considered now. Reciprocity between building design and public space design, especially with respect to circulation, is essential.

Remember that ''God is in the details.'' A good vocabulary of public space design - street lights and furniture, environmental graphics, paving and landscaping - is not the result of public agencies simply shopping in manufacturers' catalogs. It comes about when professionally trained architects, lighting specialists, landscape architects, and environmental graphic designers are commissioned to work as a team to design distinctive and beautiful new products that unobtrusively give character and a sense of good management to streets and parks.

Like New York, Boston now has the chance not to choose off-the-shelf, copy-cat ''historic'' lights, uncoordinated signage, and ugly litter receptacles but to enrich its vocabulary of public space design by getting its best design professionals to collaboratively develop new streetscape and parkscape components during the next phase of the Central Artery/Tunnel planning process.

Start with management. The business improvement district, now a common model of public-private partnership for cities everywhere, is an effective one. The principal districts within the Boston Central Artery Plan form the geographically defined zones for such management districts where citizen leadership, contractually empowered and supported by government, will ensure the real ''proprietors'' of the public spaces - those who use and benefit from them most - staff and run operations that ensure good daily maintenance, concessionaire oversight, and events programming. It is critically important that before substantial capital investment in the creation of new public spaces is made that sound public-private partnerships with adequate sources of revenue, clear missions, and agreed upon management measurements be in place.

Good cities are the products of the good ideas of many people over time. Two great American cities that have been influential urban leaders throughout the nation's history now have the opportunity and challenge to reshape urban space in ways that will critically affect their own destinies and influence other place-makers for years to come. It will be interesting to see how well each succeeds in capturing the moment.

Elizabeth Barlow Rogers is director of garden history and landscape studies at the Bard Graduate Center in New York City, chairman of Cityscape Institute, and the author of ''Landscape Design: A Cultural and Landscape History.''

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