The most powerful tool for making Boston livelier, economically healthier, and more inclusive is a new master plan for the city.
Crafting a master plan might sound like a natural first step for any just-elected mayor, but in Boston it would be a radical departure. Not for decades have we had a cohesive program for growth and development.
The city’s most recent moment of sweeping reinvention occurred in the 1960s, when Boston pulled itself out of economic stagnation and political stalemates to create what was dubbed the “New Boston.” The Boston Redevelopment Authority last created a master plan for the core city’s housing, commerce, institutions, and transportation in 1965, and it hasn’t been updated since 1975.
This big-picture approach was discredited in part as a reaction against the early excesses of urban renewal—especially the savage demolition of the West End in the late 1950s. But today the pendulum has swung too far: Development is piecemeal, and city agencies focus almost exclusively on smaller neighborhood-based negotiations and private developments. Bold initiatives are nearly unthinkable. Decisions are in the hands of self-interested parties, including change-resistant communities and developers whose primary agenda is to maximize profit. Boston lacks an objective voice that speaks for the needs of the city as a whole, including the people who are yet to live, work, and build here.
The new mayor can do two crucial things. One is to split the jobs of planning and development, which are presently combined under the BRA’s purview. The second is to charge the planning agency with writing a new, comprehensive master plan, one that refocuses the attention of residents and developers on opportunities for the whole city’s advancement.
Only planning at this scale can help the city face our collective challenges: skyrocketing housing costs, economic inequality, environmental crises, and the urgency of improving our school system. A new master plan would use more inclusive and flexible methods than the authoritative, singular visions of earlier eras. It could be a conduit for envisioning a regionally connected, denser core city with a higher tax base, all of which would lead to increased services and infrastructure, better parks, stronger civic institutions, and expanded commercial vitality.
Boston has a heritage and physical qualities that demand respect. But we can—and should—foster bigger aspirations for our hometown. A comprehensive master plan would offer a road map to make them a reality.
Mark Pasnik, Michael Kubo, and Chris Grimley are collaborators in the design firm over,under and directors of pinkcomma gallery. They have produced a series of exhibitions on Boston’s architecture and urbanism from the 1960s to the present.