When Marty Walsh takes office in January, the change will mark more than an ordinary political turnover: He will be the first new leader Boston has had in 20 years. Countless residents of today’s city have only ever known one mayor and one vision for Boston.
Walsh will be inheriting a vastly different Boston than Thomas M. Menino did: safer, more diverse, more prosperous, and more ambitious. Today, Boston is both the capital of the region and a key player in the global economy of ideas.
That leaves Walsh with big shoes to fill. But it also gives him something more important: an unusual opportunity to reimagine how things are done here, and to think big about the kind of Boston we want to live in. With that in mind, we asked a variety of forward-thinking civic figures: What would transform the city? What plans could a new mayor support to ensure Boston is great in 50 years, or 100?
Their ideas ranged from the hyperlocal—like seeding business innovation in the city’s far-flung neighborhoods—to the epochal, like a “necklace” of environmental barriers to protect the city from rising oceans. As the next administration shapes its agenda, we offer the new mayor this portfolio of bright visions for the future.
A fresh master plan
By Mark Pasnik, Michael Kubo and Chris Grimley
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.
By Didi Emmons
When I teach people how to cook healthfully in Roxbury, the biggest problem is that they need food to cook. Access to decent produce in the city is poor; you need a car to get to it, or a steel will and big biceps to carry your bags home through the streets. Packaged food is convenient, close, and unhealthy: I know people who live alone in Roxbury and do their food shopping at Walgreens. Inner-city teens eat about 70 percent of their calories from vending machines, convenience stores, and fast food outlets.
The usual solution is to decry “food deserts” and hope that somehow more stores open in poorer neighborhoods. But there’s another way: Start growing our own. Food thinkers have started to reimagine our whole system for feeding ourselves, and Boston is long overdue to become part of the solution. Let’s call it Boston Grows.
The city can start with compost—and lots of it. Half of our trash is compostable and can be converted to soil with a more farsighted waste-management policy. Then it’s time to start urban farming. The city could start small, by expanding the number of community gardens and creating cooperatives that train interested residents in the latest techniques for small-scale farming. The Kellogg Foundation has successfully trained Southeast Asian residents of Holyoke, and our own City Growers in Boston have begun to train growers here as well.
Next, we can turn to the 800 available acres of abandoned, city-owned land in Boston. Fill it with the city’s new compost, and a network of people, farmers, and business owners can begin to collaborate on producing food in an entrepreneurial way. These plots can become beautiful spaces to rival Boston Garden, with fields of collards, tomatoes, basil, and sunflowers.
What could help offset the obesity epidemic better than physical activity and vegetables? “If kids grow kale, they’ll eat kale,” says Los Angeles urban-farm entrepreneur Ron Finley. And they’ll learn to feed themselves from their own kitchens—a change that will bring better health benefits than most things you can get from a doctor.
Didi Emmons is a Boston chef, author, and consultant.
A museum at City Hall
By Michael Williams
Much has been written about Boston City Hall, with its neglected condition and Brutalist architecture—it’s ugly, outdated, demolish it! But City Hall, far from being beyond salvation, is loaded with opportunities.
Here’s one: For years, Bostonians have bemoaned the lack of a civic museum—a single place to celebrate the city’s extraordinary history for visitors and residents alike. Efforts to build one, perhaps on the Rose Fitzgerald Kennedy Greenway, have foundered in part over the prohibitively expensive cost of construction.
It just so happens that there is a big enough space right in City Hall—one that has been vacant since the building opened. It has terrific visibility, is located in the heart of historic Boston, and is accessible by all four subway lines.
Officially it’s the fourth floor—the open-air atrium courtyard and terraces that make up the middle of City Hall, above the brick base and below the stepped upper floors that give the building its distinctive look. Exposed to the elements, it’s responsible for much of the heat loss that makes the building so difficult to keep warm.
Why not put it to use? Glass in the fourth floor, and create a home for a new public celebration of Boston. Call it Boston 360. It can be something between a museum, with a range of exhibits, and a visitors center showcasing all the city has to offer: museums, Freedom Trail attractions, parks, hidden treasures, fun facts, and trivia. It can include an awesome multimedia show that tells the story of Boston—its history, culture, and unique identity. Lest you doubt the potential, keep in mind that the multimedia exhibition “Where’s Boston?,” created nearly 40 years ago for the Bicentennial and located at the Prudential Center, drew over 1.5 million visitors during its run.
Boston 360 is a readily achievable addition to the planning mix for City Hall. Once the city does the basic construction work, the project could be privately run and self-funding; there is no shortage of private interests in Boston that would contribute if asked. The results would be truly transformative—not least for City Hall itself, a building whose public potential has never been fully realized. It might be one of the easiest decisions a new mayor can make.
Michael Williams is an architect who for 23 years oversaw the planning of public building projects in Massachusetts. He teaches at Boston Architectural College and is working to advance the idea of Boston 360 in City Hall.
A ‘necklace’ of sea walls
By David Dixon
In dense harbor cities like Boston, planners are only now coming to grips with the scale of the changes that will be required to cope with rising sea levels. As “100-year” storms become far more frequent and surges top 15 feet, the journal Environment@Harvard has predicted that the changing climate will likely “make most of Boston briefly part of the Atlantic Ocean” at least once by 2050 and suggested the damage would cost more than $400 billion in today’s dollars.
Plans to protect big cities from the sea usually focus on offshore infrastructure like the floodgates that protect London and Rotterdam, which cost billions of dollars. But a truly smart agenda would direct that investment into the city itself, inaugurating a new era of urban
resilience that protects Boston while also making it more livable and competitive.
Along the roughly five miles of shoreline from Moon Island to Pleasure Bay, we could build a “Blue Necklace” of wetlands, expanded beaches, biking trails, and boardwalks—some extending hundreds of feet into the sea. A 21st-century partner to the Emerald Necklace, this natural levee would diminish the force of onrushing waves, while also strengthening our connection to the sea as a place for learning and recreation.
Rounding Castle Island we find a landscape with very different demands. The Boston Marine Industrial Park will need a new generation of cruise ship terminals, dry-docks, cargo bays, and other facilities to withstand rising seas and better serve the port. Further west, we could build a denser, more amenity-rich Seaport. Innovative buildings and public spaces on piers could form sea walls that would protect this growing neighborhood from flooding.
Boston is not an island; opportunities like these extend to the North and South shores. We have a relatively short window of time in which to act. Yet we also have the chance, through a new plan that advances our city toward urban resilience, to create a legacy worthy of any mayor and of this generation of Bostonians.
David Dixon, FAIA, leads Goody Clancy’s planning and urban design practice and is the coauthor of “Urban Design for an Urban Century : Shaping More Livable, Equitable, and Resilient Cities” (Wiley, March 2014).
A home for artists and musicians
By Jason Turgeon
In our global economy, the arts world has become crucial for cities — a wellspring for ideas, a magnet for residents and tourists, and a key indicator of the quality of life that helps employers attract and keep young talent.
How does Boston stack up? Not well. We’ve suffocated our street arts scene and allowed once-vibrant artists’ enclaves, like Fort Point Channel and the studios that begat “SoWa,” to be nearly extinguished by gentrification. While Boston carefully preserves its museums and concert halls, cities with less depth in the arts have launched major festivals, such as Austin’s South by Southwest, the Sundance Film Festival, and Art Basel Miami.
Boston’s new mayor has an opportunity to reverse decades of indifference to the arts with the stroke of a pen. You could call it the stART Boston platform: a low-cost program that addresses four key areas that are holding Boston artists back.
Housing: Mayor Thomas M. Menino has called for adding 30,000 units of new housing, and the incoming mayor should follow his lead. At least 10 percent of that housing should be designated as live/work space for artists and designed with their needs in mind.
Public art: Street installations are where art touches the lives of everyday citizens, but artists who want to create public works are often stymied. An entire organization, the Boston Art in Public Places (APP) Lab, has recently formed to press for change. The mayor should immediately adopt one of APP Lab’s recommendations by installing dozens of “art pads” in unused corners and lots across the city. These spaces would make it easy and legal for artists to create rotating temporary installations, giving Boston an injection of creativity that could become a city hallmark.
Music: With an abundance of talented musicians and world-famous music schools like Berklee and the New England Conservatory, Boston is a powerhouse music scene lacking a catalyst. What would pull it together? Designating an area in the Innovation District as a live music zone where music is not only allowed but encouraged, indoors and out. Like Frenchmen Street in New Orleans, Broadway in Nashville, or Sixth Street in Austin, it would galvanize the local scene and pump tourist dollars into the economy.
Permits: Any effort to boost the arts must include an overhaul of our arcane permitting system, which presents numerous roadblocks to festival organizers, street artists, and other creative entrepreneurs.
These four changes won’t single-handedly turn Boston back into the Athens of America, but they’re a major step: By signaling to artists that the city is ready to embrace them, the city will also signal that Boston is ready to play on the global stage.
Jason Turgeon is the producer of FIGMENT Boston, an annual celebration of creativity held on the Rose Fitzgerald Kennedy Greenway, and was the coproducer of this summer’s Bartlett Events series in Roxbury.
A public transit ring around downtown
By Alex Krieger
On their respective banks of the Charles River, Boston and Harvard universities are separated by just a few hundred yards, but on the MBTA they are miles apart. To get from BU to Harvard Square requires heading downtown on the Green Line, then transferring to the Red Line, virtually reversing direction. Set out from Fields Corner in Dorchester to Brookline Village, less than four miles away, and you again face lengthy trips on two T lines.
As Bostonians know all too well, getting from point A to point B by public transportation often requires traversing two long sides of a triangle. Efficient commuting is not the only casualty. Our system disorients residents and visitors, and divides our community along social and economic lines.
This setup may have made sense when downtown was the only place one wished to go, but today there are multiple “hubs” beyond Park Street and Downtown Crossing. Savvy highway planners connected our radial roads decades ago with Route 128—“America’s Technology Highway”—then followed up with 495 for good measure.
When it comes to public transit, however, we’re still waiting for a circumferential line first envisioned a century ago. Arthur A. Shurtleff, son of a mayor of Boston and a prominent planner and landscape architect, warned about the missing rims for the radiating “spokes of the hub.” He drew a visionary plan for a light rail “Outer Boulevard” that aimed directly from Dorchester’s Fields Corner through Roxbury, the then barely present Longwood Medical Area, Brookline Village, and Allston Landing, and into Harvard Square. A more effective way to achieve social, economic, and transportation connectivity is hard to imagine.
In recent decades, advocates calling for a transit “Urban Ring” have championed versions that include northward arcs to intercept the Orange and Blue lines in Medford and Revere. The MBTA itself has identified an Urban Ring as one of its long-term objectives since the 1970s, but it remains just a plan.
For 100 years, we have been aware of an essential missing link in the city’s transit system. At this moment of new leadership in our city, let’s take a very old, smart, persistent idea and make it a reality.
Alex Krieger is a principal in the Boston office of NBBJ and a professor of urban design at Harvard.
A whole city of innovators
By Tiziana Dearing
Boston’s success is increasingly tied to innovation—the ideas that come out of its universities, labs, and start-ups. The Innovation District has been hugely successful, creating white-collar jobs and transforming the waterfront.
But look past a few marquee neighborhoods, and those benefits come to an end. The Boston Foundation’s 2011 report “The Measure of Poverty” notes that Boston still has intractable poverty highly concentrated in Dorchester, Roxbury, and Mattapan. These communities have not benefited from Boston’s innovation renaissance.
Such neighborhoods are, nevertheless, crucial to Boston’s future. They are where generations have called home, even as newcomers arrive and settle; they are where Boston’s children grow up and go to school. Transforming the city will require the innovation economy making it out to Boston’s black, Hispanic, and Asian communities.
How? Identify and build innovation clusters right where people live. Call them “New Economy Neighborhoods,” turning Boston’s disenfranchised neighborhoods into successful, small-scale engines of tomorrow.
What could a New Economy Neighborhood look like? A small group of people in a public housing development could use 3-D printing to produce component parts for manufacturing elsewhere. A neighborhood could develop a partnership with the MIT Media Lab to do mass production of an innovation like sewable computer parts. An association of single mothers could use apartment gardening equipment to form an urban growers association, supplying local food to restaurants and markets.
A new mayor would find the pump already primed: Leaders in neighborhoods like Dorchester, Roxbury, and Mattapan have long thought about innovation and micro-economic development. They pioneer all the time. People just don’t recognize it. City Hall’s role would be to listen to those voices, identify opportunities, and then coordinate the human and geographical potential of these areas with the companies and research efforts that could use them.
Cities help smooth these connections for big industry all the time. Why not for neighborhoods of color? That’s a change that will enhance Boston’s prosperity, reputation, and civic health for generations to come.
Tiziana Dearing is a professor at Boston College Graduate School of Social Work and former nonprofit CEO.
A new home for opera
By Douglass Shand-Tucci
This decade marks a sad centennial in Boston’s cultural life. By 1900, Boston was so rich in such institutions as Harvard, MIT, Massachusetts General Hospital, the Boston Public Library, The Museum of Fine Arts, and the Boston Symphony Orchestra that the British philosopher Alfred North Whitehead could observe that “insofar as the world of learning possesses a capital city, Boston, with its neighboring institutions, approximates the role that Paris held in the Middle Ages.”
What was missing? The extravagant and spectacular artistry of grand opera and ballet. And while in subsequent years there has arisen a Boston Ballet Company of great distinction, there is still no opera company. Nor a proper opera house.
Briefly, we had one. From 1908 to 1915 there was a Boston Opera Company of international stature, housed in a magnificent opera house on Huntington Avenue near Symphony Hall. When the financial crisis precipitated by the First World War hit, the much beloved, quarter-
century-old Symphony survived, but the young opera company did not. Then in 1958 the building itself—where Caruso had sung and Pavlova had danced—was torn down. The lack of a true home for grand opera was, Jeremy Eichler wrote in the Globe in 2009, Boston’s “Achilles’ heel.”
The long-term benefits of curing this ill could not be clearer. Never mind the spiritual uplift—the arts, even more than sports, bring both visitors and dollars to the city. We should tear down the buildings along Huntington Avenue opposite the Christian Science Center and build on the other side of that blocklong reflecting pool a spectacular performing arts center—a Sydney Opera House for Boston.
An international competition should be held to design the building, which could be home not only for a new Boston Opera Company but for the present Boston Ballet. A public-private partnership is needed to build, and private money would endow the companies. All that is lacking is leadership to galvanize the will of Bostonians.
Douglass Shand-Tucci is a cultural historian with a focus on American art and architecture and Boston/New England studies. He is currently at work on a historical guide to the architecture of MIT.
A civic Sabbath
By Laura E. Everett
We long for rest from our increasingly frenetic lives. For those of us lucky enough to have regular days off, even weekends are a hustle of e-mails and errands. Our supposedly sacred civic holidays, like Thanksgiving, are being crowded out by commercial demands, forcing workers to report to stores for duty or to remain at the beck and call of professional obligations. Massachusetts students hoping for a snow day remind us of the joy of an unexpected day off. But otherwise, as a Commonwealth, we no longer have common days of rest.
Once we did, by law. The Massachusetts Bay Colony’s Sunday Sabbath laws prohibited commerce, limited activity, and required church attendance. This legacy now survives only in the vanishing “blue laws” that restrict Sunday commerce. Centuries later, we live in a vibrant and religiously diverse state where a common religious Sabbath isn’t something we would want the state to impose. And we wouldn’t want to face the fate of Aquila Chase and David Wheeler, charged in Ipswich Court in 1646 for gathering peas on Sunday.
But what if we recaptured the spirit of the day of rest for a world that needs it more than ever? People of many religious traditions and no religious tradition recognize the value of these shared moments of relief; after all, we will never cross boundaries to meet one another if we are never free at the same time. Our unique Suffolk County holidays need reformation. It’s time to transform our so-called hack holidays into something new: communal civic Sabbaths.
Currently, Suffolk County commemorates Evacuation Day on March 17 and Bunker Hill Day on June 17. Our new mayor should claim these and create two more Suffolk County holidays, one in the fall and one in winter. Four times a year, all Bostonians could have a shared day off to reboot, volunteer, or explore.
We need the power of our city government to help provide the respite that we cannot find on our own. With these new days of freedom, Boston will offer a national model for a healthy (and perhaps even holy) balance between work and rest.
The Rev. Laura E. Everett, a resident of Boston, serves as the executive director of the Massachusetts Council of Churches.
A 21st-century bus system
By Stephanie Pollack
Cities can be tough places to get around—and Boston is among the toughest, but it’s also ripe for a solution. Call it HUBus.
Here’s the picture: As you linger over your morning coffee, your phone beeps to tell you the HUBus is two minutes away. But there’s another one in 10 minutes, and you decide to wait. Even once you’re aboard, you can use the bus’s Wi-Fi to finish that project for work.
It’s almost hard to remember the days before shiny blue-and-gold HUBuses crisscrossed the streets, when Boston’s only public transportation was run by the MBTA. Fortunately, the new mayor decided to do something, ordering his transportation commissioner to get the country’s most technologically advanced urban bus system up and running within a year.
The HUBus network doesn’t use any technology that didn’t exist in 2013—it just puts it together in ways that change commuting dramatically. And it doesn’t replace the MBTA, just supplements it with more flexible, responsive transit that pulls the city together.
Buses “talk” to traffic signals so that the green light lingers to let them through; most fares are collected via smartphone app. So the buses actually run on time! And the city’s new bus lanes are shared by any public transit, so the T buses are running better, too. Like the Circulator in Washington, D.C., the buses run every 10 minutes and cost only $1; as with Los Angeles’s DASH system, there are both downtown and neighborhood routes, quickly connecting residents to T stations.
Some start early, so workers can get to first-shift jobs in hospitals, hotels, and Logan Airport; many run late, to boost night life and get students home safely. And during the quiet midday hours, bus drivers can deviate from their routes to pick up seniors and the disabled, providing them with a better and less costly service than The Ride. Those low fares are subsidized in part by universities, hospitals, and businesses, which sponsor routes in return for advertising.
Your phone beeps again—10 minutes have passed. Here comes the HUBus, right on time.
Stephanie Pollack is associate director of the Dukakis Center for Urban and Regional Policy at Northeastern University.
A night life that unites us
By Malia Lazu
Boston has more than a branding problem when it comes to diversity and cultural issues. You don’t have to spend much time going out in Boston to notice the lack of diverse cultural options in night life and weekend activities. The city’s social scene feels unwelcoming to many people of color, and seems strangely siloed to all.
Cities can play a pivotal role in encouraging their citizens to come together. Here in Boston, we are now a majority-minority city, home to hundreds of languages and immigrant groups, but it’s often hard to detect when you visit the city’s nightclubs, concerts, and street events. Boston cannot claim to be a world-class city with so many cultures completely invisible in our social scene. The new mayor has an ideal bully pulpit to help bring them together—and he can do it in part by reimagining the city’s approach to cultural life.
Three key moves he can make:
■ Work with the city council and community to push a home rule petition lifting the cap on liquor licenses. It sounds like a small thing, but licenses are prohibitively expensive with the current limits. Opening them up will allow a more diverse set of owners to successfully run restaurants and bars, and help build a nightlife culture more reflective of the city.
■ Fix the permitting process. Boston’s permitting processes are onerous and discourage people from using public parks and spaces to come together. The next mayor must reimagine the rules of permitting, removing the often arbitrary and subjective power city workers currently have over providing permits, and defining the entire process as a way to make activities happen instead of restricting them.
■ Sponsor new public events celebrating Boston’s diverse culture. Bostonians do not want to live in a segregated city. The next mayor should encourage more private-public partnerships for events that bring communities together—events as big as Outside the Box and the Together Festival, and as niche as the Red Bull Freestyle and DJ competitions.
The lack of integrated spaces and events causes friction and has a chilling effect on many aspects of our social life. It evokes a Boston that we need to consign to the past. I call on our new mayor to help us to put this friction behind us, and help Boston move into the 21st century.
Malia Lazu is founding executive director of The Future Boston Alliance and founder of MassVOTE.
A boost for young readers
By Diana Lam
This we know: Reading by third grade predicts children’s long-term success in school. Literacy opens every other door. Yet fully two-thirds of Boston’s third-graders failed to read at grade level this year.
This lag presents one of the most urgent educational and public health issues of the 21st century. In our increasingly global, knowledge-based economy, illiteracy limits children’s ability to succeed academically, secure a promising future, and improve their own physical, social, and emotional health, as well as that of their families and communities.
Boston is in a unique position to become the first city with universal third-grade reading proficiency. It has an immense pool of potential reading tutors: over 360,000 college students in Greater Boston-area institutions. These college students could be the backbone of a new literacy program targeting the city’s second-graders.
This solution would be called the Boston Tutor Corps, and as ambitious as it sounds, it could be implemented with current resources. By taking advantage of the America Reads waiver to the federal work-study program—in which the government pays the full wages of work-study students who serve as reading mentors or tutors to young children—the City of Boston could run the program without incurring significant new expenses.
To launch this plan requires a knowledgeable and motivated mayor who will view this issue from both an educational and public health perspective. He’ll need buy-in from universities to supply the tutors; high-performing schools to produce a tutoring curriculum; and a diverse group of educators to train the tutors.
Reading proficiency increases the likelihood of on-time high school graduation and college readiness. At this juncture, with a new mayor, now is the time for Boston to truly prepare our children to flourish in the world of their future.
Diana Lam is the head of school at Conservatory Lab Charter School in Brighton.