scorecardresearch Skip to main content
Ideas | Matthew Kiefer

It’s the end of urban planning as we know it (and we feel fine)

David L. Ryan/Globe Staff/File 2016

When Boston Mayor Martin J. Walsh proposed a new master plan two years ago, many might have expected the effort — dubbed Imagine Boston 2030 — to alter the very look of the city. The mayor had convened a design summit to address a crisis of boring architecture in a booming city, and where he pitched a new master plan as the solution.

Plus, transformation was in the air. The city was embroiled in a debate over a bid for the 2024 Summer Olympics, and organizers were proposing athletic facilities, transportation systems, and housing complexes all over Boston.

In practice, Imagine Boston 2030 is shaping up very differently. Instead of promoting a vision for physical transformation, planners began with extensive outreach through neighborhood open houses, community workshops, visioning kits, and online and on-street surveys that garnered 12,000 “touches.” An engaging, jargon-free draft was released in November; the final plan is expected shortly. It’s both more ambitious and less specific than the land-use plans of the past. While it captures aspirations not just for housing but education, energy, the environment, and the arts, it’s less a plan than a set of guiding principles for equitable growth.

Like Boston’s last citywide plan, released in 1965, Imagine Boston 2030 proclaims Boston a “City of Ideas.” But virtually everything else about the new plan is different, because so much has changed in Boston, in cities generally, and in the way planning addresses urban challenges. The last Boston plan was completed at the peak of urban renewal, an era of city-making and un-making fueled by federal programs for highway building and “slum clearance.” That muscular approach to city-making didn’t end well — and the rise and abrupt fall of Boston 2024 brought back awkward memories of this top-down style of planning.


Urban planning, as we once knew it, is over. The current urban revival happened with no master plan and no national urban policy framework, mostly through the “invisible hand” of market forces. An amalgam of development approvals, incentives, and exactions has arisen in the past several decades, largely in place of planning, to harness this private initiative to serve public policy goals. Imagine Boston and other recent urban plans acknowledge this change. These plans express an attitude toward growth, rather than fostering the illusion that cities can or should just decree what’s going to happen where.

Urban planning is as old as cities, and it has taken many forms over its long life, from the standardized street grids of the Roman Empire to the sophisticated infrastructure of the Aztec capital of Tenochtitlan and Haussmann’s modernization of 19th-century Paris. The true test of any plan is how it’s implemented, which today takes a combination of resources, political will, and staying power. This is especially true for plans like Imagine Boston, which are so conceptual that it’s hard to grasp their concrete implications.

Boston’s 1965 plan sounded an urgent call to refashion the city, setting an aggressive timeline for execution. Its authors had great confidence that this was possible, given the availability of federal funding and the sense of urban crisis. All Boston needed to tap that vein was a clear road map for new highways and remade neighborhoods.

But with the destruction of the West End and the launch of the Inner Belt Highway that would have sliced through Roxbury, Brookline, Cambridge, and Somerville, Bostonians decided they’d had enough of planners and planning. As a result, Boston’s 1965 master plan was the last ever produced for the city, until now.


Reified in the epic battles here, and those between master builder Robert Moses and urban activist Jane Jacobs in mid-century Manhattan, the urban renewal debacle changed how we think about cities, spawning the historic preservation movement, citizen activism, and growth control.

Since then, Jacobs’s once-iconoclastic views about what makes cities work have become near-gospel. The texture and interactivity of the urban experience is now widely recognized as an essential value proposition — it’s why General Electric relocated to Boston from suburban Connecticut. Quality of life — a phrase unknown in the urban renewal era — is now sought after, and walkable urbanism is the guiding philosophy for urban form.

Urban renewal also changed urban planning — not only its goals but its process. We have learned — maybe over-learned — Jacobs’s lessons about the importance of citizen engagement as a bulwark against thoughtless planning. Although urban renewal was impelled by federal urban policy and the lure of suburbia, planners were perhaps unfairly singled out for blame. In the ensuing decades, they often became consensus-seekers rather than problem-solvers and visionaries. Public participation is now so ingrained (and so often change-averse) that it can impede housing production, transit improvements, and other pressing needs.

Even within the constraints of modern planning, cities are finding ways to shape their destinies. Contemporary urban challenges require coordinated public and private investments for major improvements like housing, transit, storm water management, and smart utilities. This rewards advance planning, and planners are pioneering new ways to respond. Robert Moses, first unstoppable, then vilified, is even being cautiously reappraised in search of effective ways to reinvent cities.

Then-Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s PlaNYC, released in 2007, was a milestone. Perhaps the most ambitious citywide plan since Daniel Burnham’s 1909 Plan of Chicago, it set ambitious goals for housing production, carbon reduction, climate resilience, bike and pedestrian improvements, and waterfront development.


It also inspired followers. In 2012, planners helped Detroit face its decades-long distress with a plan called Detroit Future City. Mindful of New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina, where planners too quickly consigned shattered, flood-prone, low-income neighborhoods to abandonment, the Detroit plan carefully identified neighborhoods to be upgraded and maintained, and those to be reduced and even decommissioned.

Many other North American cities have recently completed ambitious citywide plans. Unlike Burnham’s Chicago plan, these plans do not posit an ideal urban form, but instead frame strategies for cities to refashion themselves for the contemporary economy, culture, and climate.

Even in Boston, which has gone without a master plan for half a century, we see the outlines of how less prescriptive ways of nudging a city forward can create major benefits over time. Boston’s Harborwalk emerged from a 1980s plan and was enshrined in state waterways regulations. Today, 38 of its envisioned 47 miles have been built as public and private waterfront developments proceed. This model of planned incrementalism can be used for coastal protection (if we start soon enough) and for extending the Emerald Necklace to form a greenway network.

In Boston and elsewhere in the country, we also see examples of the new tools cities can use to align private investment with public action — fewer bulldozers, more incentives — to reshape their landscapes. These tools supplement the more standard ones of new zoning and direct public construction of streets, parks, and sewers. Public private partnerships — compacts between public agencies and private nonprofits — are increasingly used to build and maintain open space amenities. New York City’s High Line, which transformed an abandoned elevated railroad into a linear park, may be the best-known example.


Cities are increasingly tapping the private sector to help repay public investments in transit and other infrastructure by capturing increased tax, lease, or concession revenue. Chicago is using this value capture approach to complete the Riverwalk, first envisioned by Daniel Burnham a century ago; revenue from vendors will help repay a $100 million US Department of Transportation loan.

To architects and developers, to city officials, and even to some neighborhood residents, this delicate tango doesn’t feel as satisfying as simply declaring how a city is going to change and then pouring in enough money to make sure it happens. But Imagine Boston’s more aspirational approach may achieve a different goal.

Spreading the benefits of urban recovery, as Imagine Boston contemplates, can reframe attitudes toward growth as key to the city’s future vitality and equity. By aligning public and private actions over time, the plan can help the city meet its challenges — and help lead the way forward to planning that matters.

Matthew Kiefer is a land use attorney at Goulston & Storrs in Boston. He has taught in the planning programs at MIT and Harvard University.