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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.


From New York City, a lesson for Boston

By Gene Corbin, 8/3/2002

With the horrific sounds of crumbling buildings still a memory, approximately 5,000 citizens of New York City came together on July 20 for conversations regarding the redevelopment of the World Trade Center site. This democratic innovation offers a model Boston would do well to consider in redeveloping the Central Artery.

Using a process developed by the organization America Speaks, registration was open to the public augmented by recruitment efforts to ensure that discussion at each table of 10 citizens reflected the city's diversity. Computers enabled each table to share common themes, and each participant used an electronic keypad to register votes.

America Speaks aims to harness technology to revive a more participatory form of democracy for large-scale public decisions in modern times. The ancient Greeks, who gave birth to democracy, viewed a citizen as one who participated in public decision making at the Assembly. Mass society led to the onset of representative democracy whereby public decisions are left to elected officials and burgeoning administrative bodies.

What has been lost is the opportunity for citizens to develop civic virtues in considering the concerns of others and participating in public life.

Some people are more comfortable leaving decisions in the hands of "experts" and express a pejorative attitude toward citizen engagement in public decision-making. Such views are often influenced by experiences with interest groups whereby like-minded citizens advocate competing and frequently self-interested demands to public officials - typically through lobbyist or adversarial public hearings.

The landmark event in New York City represents another important form of civic engagement in which citizens from different walks of life examine issues together along with the critical condition of policy makers committed to listening. Proponents maintain that through such a process, ordinary citizens are more capable than is commonly thought and provide important public input. The results provide fodder for their argument.

Toward the end of the event, participants were asked if their views had changed as a result of their deliberations. Almost every hand in the room rose. Pete Hamill expressed amazement in his New York Daily News column that in a city of frequently fractious politics, "I" had been transformed into "We."

Previous to this event, citizens had little voice in the redevelopment of their neighborhood, skyline, and in many cases the burial ground of loved ones. The appointed members of the governing Port Authority felt rushed to obtain six different design plans for redevelopment, all of which primarily represent economic interests in designating the vast majority of space to offices in order to maintain a pre-existing World Trade Center lease.

Citizens questioned the logic of overcrowding the available land with office buildings since the World Trade Center was never fully occupied and the space has obviously taken a new meaning following Sept. 11. Participants also sought to honor lost lives by stressing that planning should begin with a memorial, but there was little support for preserving all of the available property. Policy makers recognized the rationality of the resulting input: Consider more inclusive concerns and proceed more carefully to derive an imaginative mixed-use plan.

This public deliberation example is important for democracy and good policy for at least three reasons.

First, there is much bemoaning about the declining participation in American political life. This innovation offers a solution in providing everyday citizens with the opportunity to engage in public life.

Second, citizens frequently possess local knowledge crucial for good policy that officials sometimes lack.

Finally, when citizens have a voice in decision-making, they possess the necessary "buy in" to ensure the success of resulting policies.

There is a startling lack of cohesion about how to use the 30 acres of Central Artery land crossing through Boston. Important beginnings to this conversation have occurred through a pair of "Creative Community Conversations" among residents along with the recent "Beyond the Big Dig" Town Forum.

It remains unsettled, however, what decision making body will oversee development. The Legislature postponed consideration of a bill to create the proposed Massachusetts Millennium Greenway Trust, with five members appointed by the governor and two by the mayor, until the January session. In addition to legal questions, critics argued that the Greenway Trust would be unrepresentative of many stakeholders.

Such a decision-making body would be more palatable if it were dovetailed with a commitment to public input through a large deliberative event such as occurred in New York City.

Perhaps it's also time to make the birthplace of American Democracy more democratic.

Gene Corbin is a research associate at the Harvard University John F. Kennedy School of Government.

Copyright 2002 The New York Times Company
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