Frederick A. Kramer and Lynn Wolff

Greenway in need of density

By Frederick A. Kramer and Lynn Wolff
June 15, 2009
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AT RECENT public meetings about the Rose Kennedy Greenway, attendees have voiced their concern about the vital importance of new and strategically programmed activity to bring life to the open spaces that stretch from Chinatown to the North End. "There's no food market," one said. "There are few places to sit and have lunch outdoors, and there's a dearth of public shelter from the cold or rain or snow," said another.

The question is, does the Boston Redevelopment Authority, which has hired a consulting team to study and recommend design principles and guidelines for the built environment abutting the Greenway, have a bold plan to achieve activated parks, ones that create opportunity for - and benefits from - cafes, park benches, and a diverse mix of uses for the space that office workers, residents, and visitors will populate day and night?

An analysis of successful and failed open spaces shows that the key to a vibrant park or streetscape is density and the provision of activity along the space's edges - the very thing the Greenway study must embrace. Boston is a city where density belongs, and beautiful open space without density will lead to the type of space where people won't want to be at any time of day or year.

It will, of course, be crucial to encourage density in bold and innovative ways, providing strong and vibrant open space edges that are open to pedestrian and vehicular access and view corridors. We have a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to not only knit the Greenway to adjacent built environments, but to leverage its value to make a vital connection to Boston's waterfront, another valuable and distinctive open space in our city.

Poorly sited density and impenetrable bulk, driven by an overstated concern about shadows and a historical fear of tall buildings, can do more damage than good. A weak-kneed and timid density, often caused by fears about height, shadow, and "canyonization," will undermine the goals of bold architecture and elegant tall buildings. These could not only activate the Greenway's ground plane with dynamic uses but allow sunlight and views to and from the open spaces whose very heartbeat derives from new density and activity.

When well-designed and accessible to a range of transit and an intensity of uses, density creates a synergy with open space, much like the buildings that rim Central Park. The Greenway risks being the type of grand space between buildings that won't see the activity it deserves.

At a time when the growth of our cities through sustainable building practices such as transit-oriented development, live-work districts, and well-conceived development projects is being heralded, a Greenway study that embraces density and partnerships with landowners and visionary development professionals is critical.

The Greenway's return on the public's investment will only be achievable with a carefully crafted relationship between the Greenway study team and the public and private development community. The study, which unfortunately might not emerge until after the mayoral election, should support a rich diversity of abutting uses activated by a thoughtful and bold vision for density and height. While we should congratulate the mayor and the BRA for finally initiating a planning process that looks at the entire area, in this debilitating recession we can only plead for an expeditious process. It should be one that encourages development soon with design guidelines and conclusions that welcome density rather than suppress it.

Frederick A. Kramer is president of a design firm, ADD Inc., and chairman of the Urban Land Institute Boston Council. Lynn Wolff is president of Copley Wolff Design Group, a landscape design firm, and program chairman of the Urban Land Institute Boston Council.

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