WHEN IT comes to the Rose Kennedy Greenway, it's the little things that count. On a golden gift of an October morning, I toured the Greenway with Robert Hammond, co-creator of the fabulously popular High Line park in New York City, and Jerold Kayden, a professor of urban planning at Harvard's Graduate School of Design. Hammond's advocacy with the nonprofit Friends of the High Line helped turn an abandoned elevated railway in New York's Meatpacking District into a marquee tourist destination, with 5 million visitors a year. But he had never seen the Greenway, and his observations suggest some new ways of thinking about this much-dissected area, still struggling to find its identity in Boston's public realm.
The comparison between the Greenway and the High Line is hardly perfect. The two do share some similarities: They are both linear parks of almost the same length, at 1.5 miles; they opened within a year of each other; they share several large donors, including the Tiffany Company Foundation and former New York mayor Michael Bloomberg. But as Hammond noted, his project enjoys advantages over the Greenway, starting with its contiguous space high above the street. "It has an integrity to it: the historic nature of it, the actual bones, the vantage point," he said of the High Line. It's a lot easier to feel like you're traveling along a graceful promenade when you don't have to dodge any hectic cross streets.
Hammond praised the ''first class maintenance operation'' of the Greenway's landscape, the lush lawns and nodding purple asters flowing seamlessly into the gravel paths. (He was less enthralled by the "boring, conservative" boxed-in hedges of the North End parcels.)
He was charmed by two "Little Free Library" kiosks — small wooden boxes with books inside to borrow or lend — and by the pendulous eggplants growing in the organic raised beds near Dewey Square. Kayden, who noted that the Greenway lacks a unified design concept and is more a collection of "disaggregated rooms," agrees that these small creations enliven the park. "From an acupuncturist point of view this can work here and there," he said.
Kayden is referring to "urban acupuncture," a fairly new theory of urban design that uses small, "pinpointed" interventions to breathe life and energy into city spaces.
The term, embraced by city planners from Rio to Cape Town to Los Angeles, promotes small, grass-roots projects rather than top-down institutional plans that require vast outlays of capital. Jaime Lerner — who championed urban acupuncture when he was mayor of Curitiba, Brazil, and who is on a book tour in Boston this weekend — continues the medical metaphor, saying these small openings, properly placed, can "heal, improve, and create positive chain reactions" throughout urban districts.
While it isn't exactly a troubled area, the Greenway could benefit from the ideas behind urban architecture, says the Greenway Conservancy's director, Jesse Brackenbury. "All these types of approaches, of doing something in a small incremental way instead of just grand gestures, are very much part of the conversation we are having," he said. He pointed to the addition of umbrellas and moveable street furniture, surprising public art, and the little library kiosks the conservancy installed as examples. Next year, he hopes to extend the idea of the North End parcels as the neighborhood's "front yard," by installing porch swings under a metal pergola there.
What's less prevalent are ideas that evolve organically, without any coordination from official Boston. One of Hammond's favorite developments on the High Line has been the amateur astronomers who set up their telescopes every Tuesday at dusk. No one invited them, but they bring unexpected delight to passersby. "Who knew you could see the stars, much less the planets, in the middle of Manhattan?" Hammond said.
So maybe we've been asking the wrong questions about the Greenway. Maybe, as Hammond says, it shouldn't be viewed as a "destination" park or promenade — Boston's version of the Ramblas or the National Mall. Instead, we could embrace its separate outdoor rooms, some quite small, each with a different character and quirk. Ten years after the last beam of the elevated Central Artery came down, it could be time to reconsider the Greenway's supposed weaknesses and love the park we know.
Renée Loth's column appears regularly in the Globe.