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10 Innovative Ideas Boston Should Embrace

Posted by Alex Pearlman  September 18, 2013 01:41 PM

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In this guest post, urban strategist Scott Burnham presents ten new ideas – inspired by cities around the world – that could revitalize Boston's urban landscape. Tell us what you think: Add your ideas to the comments below, or tweet us with the hashtag #BostonIdeas

By Scott Burnham

The Big Dig has its critics, but few can deny that it was a big, bold idea that made cities everywhere pay attention. What if the next big idea for Boston wasn’t actually that big -- but, instead, was a series of smaller ideas about smart, resourceful ways to use the city's physical assets?

Around the world, cities are finding bold and interesting ways ways to repurpose, re-imagine, and reprogram what they have. With the new mayor on the horizon – and several campaigns touting the importance of innovation – can Boston tap into the new generation of urban creativity?

Here are ten ideas to consider.

Idea: Mini park and seating areas that attach to existing city staircases
City of Origin: Hong Kong
What it can change in Boston: City Hall Plaza


Beating up on City Hall plaza is a recreational sport for Bostonians, but its vast expanse of brick steps could be the home to a futuristic city park – or dozens of them. The Cascade by Edge Design Institute is a self-contained urban park that attaches to public stairways to transform them into attractive spaces for rest and social moments.

Idea: Seats, benches, counter tops and planters that transform scaffolding into social venues
City of Origin: New York, NY
What it can change in Boston: Downtown Crossing


Softwalks, a New York-based company, has transformed scaffolding “sidewalk sheds” into areas for street-side dining and hanging out. Created by designers Bland Hoke and Howard Chambers, its seats, benches, counter tops and planters bolt onto existing scaffolding structures to make them destinations instead of areas to avoid.

Idea: Table units that transform waterfront seating into public picnic areas
City of Origin: Paris, France
What it can change in Boston: Seaport Waterfront


Designer Jean-Baptiste Hardoin created La Grande Cantine, a table that transforms individual waterfront seating areas into picnic areas. Now, people can sit facing one another while eating, talking, or holding outdoor meetings. A picnic on the waterfront sounds like a nice weekend idea; now it could be a suggestion to co-workers at lunchtime.

Idea: Lighting that gives commuters the benefits of natural sunlight during winter months
City of Origin: Umea, Sweden
What it can change in Boston: The T


The far north of Sweden has so little natural light during the winter months that local energy company Umea Energi installed light therapy tubes in some of the city’s bus stops to dose up riders with good light vibes while they wait. The commuter rail already has its Quiet Cars, so why not Light Therapy cars? The special carriage could exist on each T train, as well, for those who need help turning their winter frowns upside down.

Idea: Bamboo nests installed atop billboard structures to clean and cool the air
City of Origin: Los Angeles
What it can change in Boston: I-93 and Mass Pike


The large billboard structures that currently line our roads could be the home of bamboo nests to clean the air. Urban Air is an initiative created by Stephen Glassman to swap the commercial ads for air scrubbers and natural cooling units along urban motorways. Interspersing Boston’s skyline ads with miniature bamboo forests would give stressed Boston drivers some much needed moments of green calm, and cleaner air as well.

Idea: Bags that turn trash day into freecycling opportunities
City of Origin: Amsterdam, Netherlands
What it can change in Boston: Trash day in student areas and elsewhere


Nine months from now, Boston's new students will move out again, leaving huge piles of domestic items and personal possessions along the streets. Dutch design firm Waarmakers has created Goedzak (meaning both “good sack” and “do-gooder” in Dutch): a transparent bag to reduce whatever stigma may exist from curbside recovery temptations. Goedzak invites residents to fill the bag with items that could be of use to someone else. On trash day, the bags are placed outside with the regular refuse, creating a weekly freecycling routine.

Idea: Floor tiles that generate energy from commuter footsteps
City of Origin: London, UK
What it can change in Boston: Energy use in all MBTA stations


The footsteps of the thousands of commuters who move through MBTA stations is an energy source that could be put to use to power the resource-heavy system. UK company Pavegen created a tile that captures the small force exerted by each commuter footstep and turns it into energy. It could give the MBTA the extra boost it needs.

Idea: Parking pay machines that do more than just issue time
City of Origin: Copenhagen, Denmark
What it can change in Boston: Parking Pay Machines


Inside each of Boston's parking pay machines is a networked Wi-Fi system, a computer, a printer, a payment processing system, and location-aware technology, all powered by a solar panel -- and all sell you a chunk of time. Designer Mayo Nissen wants to put the full capabilities of these machines to use. At the Boston Society of Architects BSA Space Gallery, Nissen reprogrammed a Boston parking pay to link with the city’s 311 reporting system for things that need to be fixed. With his City Tickets machine, people can pay for parking, print out a list of reported faults in the area, and hear how the city is dealing with each report. They can also share their own ideas for how nearby area could be improved.

Idea: Sidewalks and paving stones that serve as data connection points
City of Origin: Madrid, Spain
What it can change in Boston: Public Internet access


Madrid’s Via Inteligente invented iPavement technology, which embeds Wi-Fi connectivity and data apps into the city’s pavement slabs. With each extension of a hard surface in the city comes the ability to extend data connections, as well. The next time Boston looks to fix its sidewalks, it could also upgrade its online social and economic capabilities.

Idea: Lamp posts that double as public umbrellas
City of Origin: St. Petersburg, Russia
What it can change in Boston: Street life on rainy days


Designed by Mikhail Belyaev of St. Petersburg, the Lampbrella is a street lamp fitted with an umbrella top that remains closed when not needed. When it begins to rain, a sensor expands the umbrella to provide shelter for those in need.

All these ideas, and more information and images of each, are on display at the Boston Society of Architects BSA Space Gallery until September 29.

Scott Burnham is an urban strategist and design director who has created and directed initiatives in 11 cities worldwide. He most recently created the Made of Jesolo design initiative for the City of Jesolo, Italy and the Reprogramming the City exhibition for the Boston Society of Architects’ BSA Space Gallery, Boston, MA.

This blog is not written or edited by or the Boston Globe.
The author is solely responsible for the content.

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weiss.jpegBoston.comment is an exchange for ideas about Boston and beyond, brought to you by the Boston Globe editorial page and edited by Globe columnist Joanna Weiss. We're the sponsor of's #LabDebates and the creator of the Choose Your Own Adventure mayoral game.

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