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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 public space for the ages

By Whitney Hatch, 5/24/2002

BOSTON gave America its first city park in 1634. The Common -- 48 acres set aside forever from development -- was an innovation in conservation.

The Central Artery corridor -- 27 acres recovered from an outdated elevated expressway -- promises to be the latest innovation in restoring the fabric of urban life. What old I-93 ripped apart, the Rose Kennedy Greenway hopes to stitch back together.

Boston is not the first city to put a park on top of a buried interstate. In Washington, D.C., a portion of the National Mall lies over eight lanes of speeding traffic. Seattle has Freeway Park over I-5, and Phoenix built Hance Park over I-10.

But the Rose Kennedy Greenway will take these efforts at restoring urban fabric to a new level. Much has been said about how the Greenway should be designed. Good design does not happen in a vacuum. It requires an engaging and creative public process.

As an organization with a 30-year history of acquiring land for more than 500 parks in cities across the United States, including East Boston's newest bike path, the Trust for Public Land believes that a strong commitment to public process offers the best chance of producing the vibrant band of green that Bostonians are hoping for.

Recognizing the remarkable amount of effort that has been dedicated by hundreds of residents, volunteers, advocates, and officials already, we offer the following recommendations for planning and implementing the Rose Kennedy Greenway:

Be straightforward about what is on the table.

We have heard and read repeatedly that 75 percent of the 27-acre Central Artery corridor is going to be open space. Most people, quite naturally, think this means trees and grass. But there is a semantics game at work here. This 75 percent of "open space" actually includes streets, ramps, sidewalks, and traffic islands in addition to green space.

In fact, according to the master plan, the Greenway will include approximately 5.5 acres of publicly accessible parkland. When added to the roughly 3 acres slated for development as gardens and related facilities by the Massachusetts Horticultural Society, that's about 8.5 acres, or 31 percent of the entire corridor.

Stand by the public commitments that have been made.

Five and a half acres of parkland is the minimum that Bostonians should accept. There is some talk circulating about developing more of the parcels to avoid large swaths of empty land (critics cite underutilized City Hall Plaza as an example). This is a red herring. Far from including large swaths of open space, the Greenway is slated to create a ribbon of parkland no more than 200 feet wide.

If we back off the commitments made when the Central Artery Project started and instead pave over much of the parkland promised to Boston residents, we will forfeit a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to transform the heart of our city with a world-class public space.

Keep the public engaged.

Boston's residents and businesses are paying for the Greenway, and they have an important role to play in its design. The good news is that, as part of the recent master planning process, more than 1,000 people gave up their Saturdays, evenings, and weekdays to participate in public meetings.

But this is only the first step. Within the framework laid out in the master plan, each parcel will be designed individually. As these sites move forward, widespread public involvement will be essential to creating beautiful and vibrant community spaces.

Involve the broader community in ownership, financing, and management.

It now seems likely that the Greenway will be owned and managed by a nonprofit board of trustees. Some have criticized this plan, maintaining that public space should be owned and run only by a public agency. This is not necessarily so. Indeed, creating a nonprofit entity to manage the Greenway may be the best way of resolving the tricky jurisdictional and finance issues involved.

For such an entity to succeed, however, the broader community of advocates, businesses, and residents needs a formal role in shaping it. This isn't the time to craft something behind closed doors and present it as a fait accompli.

It is not surprising that the long-simmering debate about the future of the Greenway is now moving to the front burner as we begin to finalize the questions of design, ownership, and financing. This is when it gets tough and when early public pledges are all too often discarded for short-term gain. But with a commitment to promises and a combination of openness and pragmatism, we can build a public space for the ages.

Whitney Hatch is New England director of the Trust for Public Land.

A Beyond the Big Dig public forum on Thursday will be televised live by WCVB-TV (Channel 5) from Faneuil Hall. The public is invited, and must be in place by 7 p.m.

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