Construction cranes crowd the sky and Olympic dreams (and worries) fill front pages as Boston pursues an unprecedented series of transformations. Often lost in the heated discussions of particular parcels is the bigger question of what kind of a city we want to be. The current boom is the perfect time to reconsider our planning and design process so that the benefits are shared as broadly as possible. Property owners, neighborhoods, government, and design professionals all need to work together if we want to leave a legacy of innovation for future generations.
There are no easy answers to the enduring questions of how we will allocate our society’s resources, and who will pay for and benefit from the decisions being made. But as the ongoing audit of the Boston Redevelopment Authority and Mayor Walsh’s critique of recent Boston building both suggest, the city can make improvements in the way it plans. Raising the quality of design, increasing protection for neighborhoods, supporting economic development, and creating a visionary image for the city must be parallel rather than opposing objectives.
The Walsh administration’s announcement that that the city will begin the first comprehensive plan in 50 years is a welcome recognition that development issues need to be considered within the context of broader goals for growth, and opens up the opportunity for spirited debates about the kinds of places we want to make for ourselves. There are concrete steps we can take to improve the process and make Boston a model for how older cities can renew themselves in constructive ways. Some of these include:
1. Using the comprehensive plan to identify appropriate areas for development. There are important commercial corridors and underutilized industrial areas that would benefit from new housing, businesses, and medical or college expansion. And there are wonderful smaller scaled neighborhoods whose character should be protected. A new comprehensive plan and rewritten zoning should clearly identify areas where development will help meet our needs for today and tomorrow while protecting yesterday’s treasures from the bulldozers. Growth vs. preservation battles should not have to be fought on a parcel by parcel basis.
2. Rethinking governance, and its relationship to development and design. The BRA, Boston Civic Design Commission, and other regulatory organizations are filled with smart and talented people dedicated to improving the built environment. But expectations and procedures need to be recalibrated to support development while ensuring that it meets the highest standards. Defining a predictable pathway to approval based on a commitment to excellence can lower construction costs while delivering the high quality housing, office spaces and laboratories the city needs to meet the challenges of the 21st century.
3. Emphasizing innovation throughout the city. Developers complain about costs and constraints that may dis-incentivize more ambitious design. Neighbors concerned about accelerating changes may fight for the familiar rather than embracing the new. And regulatory agencies and architects get caught in the cross-fire. The city should make a concerted effort to define where and how design innovation should be accomplished, study models from around the world where it has been achieved, and make changes in its expectations to prioritize the very best building possible.
4. Opening up design opportunities. The region is filled with talented firms who can contribute to Boston’s culture of innovation, but often feel locked out of the decision-making network. Design competitions are common throughout Europe and often lead to higher quality urban environments. Many cities sponsor design partnerships that allow small but innovative studios to partner with large established firms to provide an extra edge to buildings and public spaces. Boston should provide incentives to developers and institutions to foster a new generation of design talent.
5. Broadening the design discussion. The Boston area has some of the world’s leading universities, professional associations, and civic organizations, whose research, programs, and advocacy help to define life in the 21st century. They can provide a kind of brain trust for developers and governmental organizations in setting the agenda for responsible growth. Partnerships among the private sector, the non-profit sector, and the public sector can help energize design discussions while setting evidence-based directions forward.
6. Emphasizing sustainability. Boston’s waterfront is both its greatest asset and its greatest danger as rising sea levels threaten large sections of the city. The harbor and regional riverfronts will remain a focus for development, so it is critical that we set standards for sustainable planning and provide incentives for reducing the use of energy and other resources.
Cities throughout the world are facing similar challenges and provide a variety of examples of how to meet them. Now is the time for Boston and surrounding municipalities to bring various constituencies together to look at options, define goals, set standards, and implement changes in the design process. Done correctly this will broaden the benefits of the current — and future — construction booms, making our built environment better for everyone.
David Eisen is vice president for communications at the Boston Society of Architects and a principal at Abacus Architects + Planners.