What happens to the ribbon of land being created by the depression of the Central Artery may be the most important development decision to face Boston in a generation.
Envisioning a Changing CityBy Robert Campbell, Globe Correspondent, 07/19/2001
Rebecca Barnes is Boston's chief planner. It's a job that didn't exist before Barnes took it last spring. At the time, she was running her own business as a planning consultant. She was also president of the Boston Society of Architects. In her new job, she works in the Boston Redevelopment Authority under director Mark Maloney. We met recently at her apartment in the Mercantile Wharf on Boston's waterfront to talk about her job and the city.
Q. What is your job description?
A. The job description I prefer is the one Mayor Menino gave me, which was that it's a work in progress. What I'm doing as kind of a first job is a diagnosis of what's going on in planning in the city and how I can be useful.
I've talked to a lot of people, and there is a very wide range of opinion. Which actually is kind of delightful to me. It means I could have a long tenure.
Q. What do you see as Boston's strengths?
A. Its nature as a waterfront city, both on a harbor of the ocean and to a large extent bordered by rivers. Its geography and history as a waterfront city are a really strong combination. The impact that [Frederick Law] Olmsted and [Charles] Eliot have had on the landscape of the city. Their vision of parklands and parkways joined is a great vision. The character of Boston is strongly influenced by the experience people have of Storrow Drive and the Esplanade and Memorial Drive, Jamaicaway, the Arborway. Our experience of Boston is heavily influenced by these parkways.
Q. Other strengths?
A. Clear blue sky. I came here from Seattle, which is famous for its gray skies. When I came back to Boston, I was thrilled and shocked at how colorful it is here, which I don't think people who walk around here every day see. The architecture, of course. And the construction of land where there wasn't land previously. The Back Bay, the creation of new neighborhoods, but at the same time retaining components, like the Common, of a previous way of life. It's that overlay upon overlay of eras that we can read in our physical and built environment.
Q. What do you see as risks?
A. What's most on my mind is something you wouldn't think would be the bailiwick of a city planner. It's the educational disparity. Here we are, in this capital hub of intellectualism, with more universities and colleges and more students than most cities would ever dream in their wildest dreams of having. On the other hand, we have a school system that hasn't come close to being able to provide its students with the education that could get most of them launched toward our higher education pool.
Q. The fact that people of low and middle income are being driven out of the city isn't helping.
A. Affordable housing, good comprehensive transportation access and mobility, and educational equity and job training that's appropriate to where we're producing jobs -- those are the basic ingredients of success or failure for the city.
Q. What makes a city a city?
A. It's a center for a significant amount of population, of economic life and cultural life and social life. It's there to serve not only the people who live and work there, but people who visit. It exists on a stage that's a more visible, public stage, and that's a significant difference in my sense of suburb and city.
Q. Some people here think all new buildings should look like old ones, such as the entire population of the South End. Do you have a comment?
A. You said that, I didn't. There's some fear of the new and the unknown, and love and respect for the dear. People haven't stopped loving and respecting the red brick and the dear, but I think that Boston in the last 10 years has become -- this is a gross generalization -- more interested in the new, in innovation, and more comfortable with change. To some extent that's because a lot of migration has happened.
Q. Boston planning used to come from the top down. It was government telling people what should happen. Now planning, more and more, comes from the bottom up -- from neighborhood groups, from citizen advocates of all kinds. Are advocacy groups doing more harm than good?
A. I am an advocate of bottom-up planning. There's still a lot of power at the top and a lot at the bottom. The media has a huge role to play, too. The media is the stage where it plays out.
Q. What should happen on the surface downtown when the Central Artery disappears?
A. I hope that the Artery parcels' day in media court is still coming. The Artery parcels are an opportunity to invent something new about Boston. We should think about these parcels as a common ground for Boston's citizens, from all neighborhoods, from all different ethnicities. There are ways to think about open space that is beautiful to look at and walk through, but which also teaches us about the environment.
We haven't even tapped the sources of creative thinking about what these places can be. We've really used a very limited vocabulary in thinking about what parks are here. We need to bring in some people who have experience in thinking about discovery places and outdoor classrooms and stuff like that.
But there's a critical period here, in the next five to eight months, where any new ideas have to get on the table, so that the final designers Also, I don't know how widely recognized it is, but there is quite a bit of private investment in the maintenance of some of our parks. The Common and the Public Garden are hugely helped by private interest groups, and now the Olmsted parks have their own Emerald Necklace conservancy. I think that the Artery will need to have its own friends group.
Q. What's your favorite slice of urban design?
A. If you come across the Longfellow Bridge, walk up the Esplanade to the Mass. Avenue bridge, and then come back down on the Cambridge side, you see both cities from the other shore, and you see up and down the river, and that's especially nice at, like, dusk. It's gorgeous. Or the new Millennium Park in West Roxbury. You can see from downtown to the Blue Hills. It's this incredible surprise and it's a big secret.
Q. What would you like to see in 10 or 25 years?
A. The business community and the educational institutions fully engaged with the city's public school system. I don't yet know how to fix housing affordability. The South Boston Waterfront as a really vibrant urban neighborhood with lots of different kinds of people living there, but a lot of people living there. That we're a city that has a role to play on the world stage, but also that we're a city that understands its immigrant roots.
Q. What is your background?
A. At Brown [University], I wanted to do an independent major -- they didn't let me as it turned out -- on the role of the artist in society. I thought artists seemed to be considered very important individuals, yet totally sidelined in our culture. I went to architecture school in Oregon and I've worked in Providence, Seattle, and Boston, sometimes in the private sector, sometimes in the public.
I was the first manager for architecture and urban design on the Central Artery Project. In Seattle, I managed a comprehensive plan for the city.
I came back to Boston as a transportation planner for a private firm. I like going back and forth between the public sector and the private sector. I feel like I can do a better job on either side of that line, if I have understanding, and not too stale an understanding, of the thinking and the behavior and the motivations and values of the other side.
Robert Campbell can be reached by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.