Cities crib from each other all the time. New York copied the idea for the High Line from Paris. London is growing upward, like New York. Lately Boston, too, has been absorbing urban innovations from all around the world — food trucks, an idea that gained critical mass in Los Angeles; transportationapps imported from San Francisco; and a bike sharing program modeled after ones in Montreal and Hangzhou, China. What’s next? An informal survey of urban-planning junkies yielded this short list of ideas, both old and new, that are enlivening other cities and could help Boston.
Own your brutal weather. Even Boston’s most ardent boosters find themselves apologizing for a cold January and a gray, endless March. A defiant retort lies an eight-hour drive to the north, at the Winter Carnival in Quebec City. The family-friendly environment features an ice luge and dogsled rides; brightly lit parade floats glide down the street even in the driving snow. Quebec isn’t the only Canadian city that makes a virtue of its bone-chilling weather; Ottawa’s Winterlude does the same.
Use light as art. Public art doesn’t have to be permanent; some of the most innovative can be taken down at the flip of a switch. That’s the lesson of Lux Helsinki, a festival in which prominent buildings in Finland’s capital are reimagined through dramatic exterior lighting. Bonus: The festival is held in January, when the nights are long and Helsinki residents sorely need a mood-enhancer.
Develop real bus rapid transit. The MBTA’s Silver Line was created as cheaper alternative to rail service, but it lacks key benefits of fixed-line bus systems. On Bogota’s Transmilenio, passengers pay in advance at boarding platforms in the middle of major thoroughfares; local and express buses run on the same routes. These systems work most efficiently on wide streets through transit-deprived areas — maybe Blue Hill Avenue in Mattapan? — but can be extended deep into the suburbs.
Build parks over highways. Yes, the Big Dig did this, and not on the cheap. But the Massachusetts Turnpike still cuts a gash through Boston, and developers have struggled to find economically viable ways of building over the highway. When Dallas confronted a similar problem, the solution was Klyde Warren Park, which hid part of an expressway and joined two disconnected parts of downtown. Covering more of the Mass. Pike — for instance, to link the South End with Chinatown and Bay Village — might never be a high priority for public money. But as a legacy project for a public-spirited tycoon, the possibilities are endless.
Create temporary pedestrian malls. Whether closing a street to vehicular traffic enlivens it or cuts it off from commerce is a long-running dispute in urban-planning circles, but the answer may depend on the season. During the summer months, Montreal converts some of its liveliest streets into pedestrian malls but leaves them open to traffic the rest of the year.
Look outside for help on planning. As Marty Walsh ponders an overhaul of the Boston Redevelopment Authority, he might consider how Penn Praxis, an applied-research nonprofit connected to the University of Pennsylvania School of Design, has improved Philadelphia. The group has conducted major planning studies, created a website for development news, and launched an online tool that helps community groups and investors track code violations, demolition, and construction. Amid widespread public suspicion, Philadelphia needed an honest broker on development issues, and Penn Praxis filled that role.