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Planning FAIL — Boston Edition

Boston, like nearly every U.S. city, ripped out large swaths of its core to accomodate motorists in the 1950s and 60s. Boston’s downtown freeway was called the Central Artery (a great name, that sounds even better in the native accent). In the 1970s, Boston, like most places began to realize that freeways tend to break up the organic pattern that makes urban living interesting and attractive.

So the planners came up with a plan to correct the plans of the planners who tore out the city’s guts to build interstates. They would bury the Central Artery. Put the traffic underground, and instead of a noxious concrete wasteland dividing neighborhoods, there would be an open green space at ground level to re-unite Bostonians.

Minneapolis dreamers have a similar vision. I’ve seen sketches of a park built over I-35W around 35th to 38th Streets. It would expand an existing park (MLK) and repair a gash in the Field, Regina Northrup neighborhood. Since we just reconstructed I-35W in south Minneapolis, that plan will be locked in the dream stage for at least a few more decades.

Which is good, because in Boston, all they did was change the color of the barrier from gray to green:

Throughout the project, the mantra that the Central Artery had severed the city, and that its burial underground* somehow would "knit the city back together" seemed oblivious to the fact that it was not the Artery which had severed the city, really, but the demolition of over 1,000 buildings for the Artery's right of way which had done so.  Removing the Artery simply revealed that pre-existing wound to the heart of the city, a gap so wide and poorly-defined even Baron Haussman might have thought it could use a little narrowing.

Green space is part of the New Urbanist catechism. But the planners forgot that green is more like a seasoning than a main ingredient to vibrant cities. People are the main ingredient. People doing ordinary daily stuff. Ordinary stuff is usually done in buildings, not on acres of grass.

So now I imagine the planners are plannning to corrects the plans of the planners who screwed up the unplanned plan that made Boston “Boston”.

The missed opportunity is even more tragic given that one of the very few neighborhoods in the United States laid out in truly traditional fashion, the North End, with its narrow winding streets and attractive mid-rise architecture, sits right next to the Greenway.  The blank side walls of 19th century townhouses, their adjoining buildings demolished for the Artery in the 1950s, cry out to be extended southwards by new neighbors.  The elusive vision is right there, a reality, not a fantasy, yet somehow it escaped the attention of Boston's elected officials, planners, architects and the public itself.

Planners and architects believe that form drives function. The are focused on buildings and landscapes and layouts. People are an abstraction. Construct the right of place, and those abstract people will be drawn in, like birds to birdhouses. But people—usually—are more complex than birds.

Its hubris to believe that a planners can understand, let alone predict, the needs and desires of those people who put life into any place. Seems better to me to let the people define their spaces, building by building. Like the kind of Boston we keep trying to re-create.