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A Sense of Place Quiz for Boston

Posted by Anthony Flint May 10, 2011 03:57 PM

In honor of Jane's Walk this past weekend, held around the world to explore the kind of great urban neighborhoods celebrated by Jane Jacobs, whose seminal The Death and Life of Great American Cities was published 50 years ago, herewith a test of knowledge of the Boston area:
1. At what spot are there are four layers of transportation possible, one on top of the other -- a boat on water, a train on tracks, pedestrians, bicycles and cars on a roadway, and an aircraft in the sky?
2. The Massachusetts Avenue connector and Melnea Cass Boulevard form the beginning of what was to be the Inner Belt, an expressway that would have provided an alternate route around the Central Artery. What is the other evidence of the Inner Belt, still in place today?
3. Where is Scott Harshbarger Square? (Not a trick question)
4. Kendall Square was the site of the first telephone call and a booming tech center, home to Microsoft and Google. Back in the days of John F. Kennedy's administration, what was originally supposed to go there?
5. What city is the densest city in the Commonwealth?
6. What town famously refused to be annexed by the City of Boston, and in what year?
7. Frederick Law Olmsted's Emerald Necklace was originally intended to loop back around down what street, ending where?
8. The Rose Kennedy Greenway is littered with unbuilt dreams, from the botanical gardens at Dewey Square to the YMCA. What is the only public building to actually start construction?
9. What is the area north of Charles Street in Beacon Hill known as?
10. Where in Cambridge can the view to the Charles River never be obstructed -- from the front door of what house?
Write your responses in the comment section. Answers in a forthcoming post.

Worcester's next steps

Posted by Anthony Flint April 29, 2011 10:27 AM

WORCESTER -- It's painful to walk around the common here and see the devastation still apparent from urban renewal -- the vacant parcels, the surface parking lots, the double-wide arterials, the monstrosity of the Galleria mall -- a hulking white spaceship plopped downtown as if it was a deliberate attempt to destroy the urban fabric. But perhaps equally sad has been the repeated attempts to recover from that era --not only urban renewal in the 1950s and 60s but the delcine of manufacturing and the flight to the suburbs -- with reinventions and grand new schemes aimed at finally putting the City of Seven Hills back on the map. If only -- and this is what cities like New Haven are thinking, too -- some of the magic of Providence could catch on.
So it is with guarded optimism that Worcester is wecloming yet another plan to breathe new life into downtown, based around the rehabilitated Hanover Theatre, and covered by the Worcester Telegram & Gazette -- itself a property that is poised to be part of surgical but ambitious redevelopment of the area. The Worcester Business Development Corporation, which has been successful retrofitting the area north of downtown, at the site of a shuttered vocational school, with new and rehabilitated space for bio-tech and life sciences, is signing a memorandum of understanding with the city to assess how the emerging "theatre district" might be embellished and reconfigured. The Cambridge firm of Chan, Krieger-NBBJ has been hired to draw a master plan. All of it will accompany the ongoing redevelopment of the Galleria mall, the $583 million CitySquare project set in motion initially by Young Park and Berkeley Investments, and now an undertaking of Hanover Insurance Co.'s Opus Investments Management group. In that redevelopment, new towers will be accompanied by the demolition of some of the fantastically ugly structured parking and the squat mall section that was blocks Front Street like a giant tree lying across the road. Opening that street up so it once again leads to the elegant Union Station will be like Worcester's own version of the dismantling of the elevated Central Artery (if anybody still remembers that).
But this is a tricky business, trying to cultivate downtown living in Worcester, given the current market -- and also the legacy of urban renewal, which messed things up so much in the first place. Civic leaders are essentially saying trust us, we'll get it right this time. There isn't much appetite for tearing down buildings if they have the slightest historical significance, or using eminent domain, ever since the Kelo case prompted by failed redevelopment efforts in New London. The signs at the CitySquare construction site read, "Coming Soon: Mixed Use." What that really means is "Coming Soon: More People." Worcester can only hope, and keep the shoulder to the wheel.

Space frontiers

Posted by Anthony Flint April 25, 2011 11:57 PM

Is it possible to track human behavior -- movement patterns and purse snatching, shopping preferences and all kinds of other things, from property values to energy consumption -- within the confines of city spaces? Tim Stonor, founder of Space Syntax, thinks so. He founded the urban planning software company some 15 years ago, inspired in part by the work of Bill Hillier, whose landmark book “The Social Logic of Space” codified spatial layouts and urban movement. City neighborhoods from London to Beijing are thought to have their own unique deep structure and spatial signature.
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The analysis of how human beings actually navigate urban places will comes in handy for the task of retrofitting the spaces that don't quite work right. Case in point: City Hall Plaza, where Stonor is consulting alongside Utile Inc. on a redesign. The consensus is the plaza feels barren because it lacks active edges. But planners need to be sure they don't create anything new that could also work against the best use of the space. Stonor, a Loeb Fellow who spoke at the Lincoln Institute recently, plans to draw on experience in analyzing Trafalgar Square in London, where a set of stairs and blocked entry points interfered with natural desire lines. The redesign has prompted a new life for the area, beyond the pigeons and the tourists snapping pictures.
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Because he believes it will help integrate disciplines -- from urban economics and town planning, to criminology and landscape architecture -- the planning software will soon be freely available as open-source -- “free, resilient, with multiple options, open – not unlike a city,” he said. Linking in Google Maps and GIS, satellite and Census data, the use of such software could create legions of educated stakeholders and citizen planners armed with mobile devices, he said, from New York City to the slums of Mumbai.

Processing process

Posted by Anthony Flint April 14, 2011 11:13 PM

The headline in the Wall Street Journal read, “Enough with Jane Jacobs Already” – above an essay decrying the extensive public process that projects in our cities must go through today. George Thrush, chairman of the School of Architecture at Northeastern University, could sympathize. For him, public participation in the development process has become more of an airing of grievances than an opportunity to rationalize projects in a larger, regional context – how they might impact commuting patterns, for example, or carbon emissions, or energy use. He developed the Urban Gauge (in beta) , to try to organize these kinds of measures so they might be considered alongside whether a new tower might block someone else’s view.
An important question -- how did we get here? – was posed in a conference Thrush organized last week: The Process: Public Participation and Design in Contested Cities Since the 1960s. Massachusetts State Representative Byron Rushing helped explain that in the days before Jane Jacobs, and particularly for under-represented constituencies, there was no public involvement in urban neighborhoods subjected to the policies of urban renewal and highways through cities. The tradition of giving the community a voice and a role in development decisions was established – and often, understandably, with a raw and emotional subtext. The machinery of the public hearing, litigation on an environmental basis, protests, and experts for hire, followed.
As more major infill redevelopment projects are turned over to the private sector, government has become a kind of referee, in increasingly contentious discussions, said Matthew Kiefer, an attorney at Goulston & Storrs. There are citizens advisory committees, civic design commissions, mayor’s advisory commissions, and the kabuki theater of the public hearing, which, Kiefer said, might be defined as “a place where nobody listens.” Most developers start out by meeting with neighborhood residents well ahead of time, with no drawings but rather a concept plan, to be shaped by community input. “You have to just stick your head into the lion’s mouth,” said Kiefer.
Yet stalemates are common. Anthony Pangaro, principal in Millennium Development Associates, recalled with some amazement how there was no consensus following dozens of meetings on the rehabilitation and redesign of the Longfellow Bridge connecting Boston and Cambridge – marked by not only clashes between bicyclists and pedestrian groups, but between two bicyclists groups. Established residents are concerned about density, congestion, parking, schools, and increased fees for burdened services like water and sewer. “How can this not be a fight?” said Curtis Kemeny of the Boston Residential Group.
Looking ahead, Lincoln Institute senior fellow Armando Carbonell suggested that technology and open-source planning software tools could help facilitate more meaningful citizen engagement – seen in the scenario planning that helped refresh frames of reference in Kona, Hawaii. “We can model a variety of futures,” he said. MIT’s Eran Ben-Joseph was also hopeful that technology will facilitate better understanding of the city, collaboration, and creativity. Digital information-sharing is inherently horizontal, versus “experts” sitting up front and addressing an audience.
For many, the public process is a negotiation, said Tim Love, professor at the school of architecture at Northeastern and principal at Utile, “but we also have responsibility to use technology to convert it and make it more of a discourse.”

Design Research and Harvard Square: Modern living, back in the day

Posted by Anthony Flint March 14, 2011 01:59 PM

Every once in a while an enterprise comes together that helps define a place -- that captures a time but lives on and becomes part of the story of a place, even long after it's gone. Such is the case with Design Research, housed in the concrete and glass structure that also houses offices and the Harvest restaurant, designed by D/R founder Benjamin Thompson, at the corner of Brattle and Church streets in Harvard Square.
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Thompson (1918-2002) was the man behind Fanueil Hall marketplace and Harborplace in Baltimore, a pioneer in the now-familiar practice of revitalizing industrial waterfront areas. He was a founding partner along with Walter Gropius of the Bauhaus in The Architects Collaborative (TAC), which designed the equally pioneering Six Moon Hill community in Lexington, a planned neighborhood with a common modernist aesthetic that is cherished to this day.
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And he was also the driving force behind Design Research, a general store for modern living -- undisputed precursor to Crate and Barrel, as well as influence for Design Within Reach, Esprit, and West Elm, for that matter. Walter Gropius and Jose Louis Sert brought modernism here in association with Harvard University's Graduate School of Design; Le Corbusier built the Carpenter Center, his only building in North America; but TAC and Six Moon Hill and Design Research all brought modernism to New England in a somehow more accessible, comfortable way.
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Design Research was founded in 1953 in a clapboard house at 57 Brattle Street, replaced by the building now occupied by Harvard's Graduate School of Education. Then Thompson designed the award-winning new home for the general store of design, fittingly home to Crate and Barrel until recently -- "concrete without brutalism, glass without glossiness, contextual without imitation," as aptly described in the wonderful new book Design Research: The Store that brought Modern Living to American Homes (Chronicle Books), by Jane Thompson (Ben's wife) and Alexandra Lange.
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At Design Research the showrooms of dinnerware and furniture coincided with some big-name collaborations, from Marimekko to Julia Child. I was honored to be at a Loeb Fellowship gathering at holiday time not long ago, where Thompson brought out all her Marimekko prints and umbrellas and scrafs, and they were arrayed all over the empty store (in transition to its current occupant Anthrolpologie). Not a moment went by without people knocking on the door, hoping to get in, thinking it was a museum exhibit or groovy new emporium. The building itself is understated and welcoming, a low-pressure place for people to gather, though the concrete reminds one a bit of Boston City Hall. It was spared the rock-throwing students of 1970 around Harvard and won numerous awards; the New Yorker came up to see what the fuss was all about.
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Today Harvard Square has changed in many ways, but walking around the complex is a marvelous throwback to the 1970s. Give me some bellbottoms or at least a wide tie, and let's order martinis at the Harvest.
Jane Thompson will talk about her husband, Design Research, and the lessons that might be found for today, Wednesday March 16 at 6 p.m. at Rabb Lecture Hall at the Boston Public Library in Copley Square. It's free and open to the public, and more information can be found at www.architects.org/lectureseries.
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Paying the right price for parking

Posted by Anthony Flint March 2, 2011 10:59 AM

The parking meter hungrily took in my quarters in the Back Bay the other day, buying me 12 minutes per 25 cents to leave my Prius on the street, up from 25 cents for 15 minutes. But as I am cursed with particular knowledge of parking policies in cities, I didn't feel aggreived. The Boston Transportation Department says the increased meter rates are still a bargain, and they are right about that.
Parking.jpg
Philadelphia charges $2 an hour, Chicago, San Francisco and Washington, D.C., rates are as high as $3 per hour, and in Los Angeles, the fee is as high as $4 per hour. As BTD points out, parking meter fees have not changed since the mid-1980s when the old nickel and dime meters were removed. Gas was a little over a dollar a gallon and a movie ticket was about $3.
It's a difficult thing to do politically to raise fees of any kind. But Boston could have easily gone even further. Cities practically give away the valuable real estate of a parking space, and should do more to price the spaces appropriately as part of an overall management of driving in our dense downtowns, says Donald Shoup , author of "The High Cost of Free Parking." There's all kinds of transit available in cities, and we all make choices in part based on incentives. Gas is heading back to $4 a gallon, and if parking is another cost consideration, fewer people might drive into city centers. New technology is available for those who do drive to find spaces quicker without circling blocks quite so endlessly, using mobile devices and newfangled meters. This has turned into both a strategy to reduce congestion and to reduce carbon emissions, and it's what's behind London's decision to charge drivers about a $16 toll to enter the city center.
Look for New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg to try again with "congestion pricing" to drive south of 86th Street in Manhattan; his first attempts were batted away. London has had good results -- far less congestion, less pollution, and the revenues get poured into better and better transit service. Boston may have to wait for New York to go first before considering such a move. But there's one other thing the city can do in the meantime -- stop requiring residential developments to have 1.5 parking spaces per unit, in locations near transit. People are moving back downtown to walk and take the T, become a one-car family or perhaps lose the car entirely. We should be going from parking minimums to parking maximums, to truly keep up with these changing times.

Zombie subdivisions and post-bust detritus

Posted by Anthony Flint February 10, 2011 03:59 PM

Down in Charlotte last week for the New Partners for Smart Growth conference, I was struck by the indications of what might be called Smart Growth 2.0 -- sessions on integrating local food systems and public health benefits (as in, more walking) into real estate listings, redeveloping vacant lots in cities, addressing gentrification, form-based codes and zoning reform. But one topic was particularly daunting -- what to do with thousands of acres of “zombie” subdivisions: approved and platted, some partially built but most just lots, unimproved roads and the occasional lone lamppost. The phenomenon is less known in Massachusetts, but is prevalent in the South and Intermountain West.
Many developers rushed for entitlements in the real estate run-up to 2007, said Jim Holway, executive director of Western Lands and Communities, a joint venture of the Sonoran Institute and the Lincoln Institute, speaking on the panel “Reshaping Development Patterns.” The planned developments are typically in far-flung locations, make it difficult for others to get permitting in better locations, and lock in water allocations. Much of the land wouldn’t be developed for 5 or 10 years under the best of circumstances, let alone amid the plummeting demand.
The zombie subdivisions “are never going to move,” said Kathy Rinaldi, county commissioner for Teton County, Idaho, where nearly 5,000 homes and lots lie fallow in over 36 approved, unbuilt, and incomplete subdivisions across thousands of acres of environmentally valuable land. Some developers are changing their schemes to create more density and open space, but others, including a development around a golf course where the topsoil has been scraped for fairways, simply hope and wait for the market to come back.
Zombie subdivisions.bmp
Aside from the contentious idea of replatting or rezoning already approved land, one option, given that prices are so low, is for local or state government and possibly non-profit partners to go in and purchase the land, especially if it has high wildlife or natural resource value, said Holway. Senior fellow Armando Carbonell, who moderated the panel, suggested there might be a way to seize the moment and rethink the location of these developments, or possibly redesign them.
The incentive for developers for engaging in such a “reset” would be to recognize the changing market for housing that is steadily turning away from the purchase of single-family homes, said Arthur C. “Chris” Nelson, professor at the University of Utah. In the coming years, households with children will drop, and the market will be dominated by aging baby boomers -- but millions of them will be trying to sell their own homes, creating oversupply, and more interested in multifamily and renting. “We’re overbuilt by about 28 million homes on large lots considering demand by 2020,” Nelson said.
The bottom line, said Holway, who is leading research on what is also known as obsolete or premature subdivisions: “It’s not just a crash. It’s going to be different when (the market) comes back.” It's worth thinking about accordingly in places like Worcester County or Southeastern Massachusetts, and as the state Legislature once again takes up the Comprehensive Land Use Reform and Partnership Act.

10 reasons to be nice to pedestrians in 2011

Posted by Anthony Flint December 29, 2010 02:14 PM


1. If you're driving, you'll soon be one. Think of how deferential you are in the parking lot outside Target. You know that as soon as you park the car, you're going to be in their shoes, trying to cross or deposit a shopping cart.

2. Some very famous crosswalks are being honored with historic designation -- the one used by the Beatles for the cover of Abbey Road (28 IF? No socks for Paul).

3. Because our children deserve Safe Routes to School.

4. Walking (and biking, and roller-blading) consumes no fossil fuels and discharges no carbon emissions to worsen global warming.

5. A well-functioning city depends on it -- and will spur good urban design to make for more livable, walkable urban environments everywhere (see No. 4).

6. It's refreshingly human to make eye contact from behind the wheel and usher someone across. When's the last time you gave someone the finger out walking? (Present company excepted).

7. Good behavior will slow the explosion of speed bumps, speed humps, flashing lights and bright yellow warning signs that constitute such a form of streetscape blight. It might even inspire a few more woonerfs.

8. In Massachusetts, it's the law -- motorists must yield to pedestrians in unsignaled crosswalks.

9. Anyone out braving the elements deserves accomodation.

10. It's Christmas. In pedestrian-motorist relations, it can be year round.

All climate politics is local, so that's where the action is

Posted by Anthony Flint December 13, 2010 01:30 PM

Action on climate change at the federal level seems increasingly unlikely in the months ahead. Republicans vow to block cap and trade and challenge the Environmental Protection Agency's regulation of carbon emissions. The U.S. economy missed the window to put the needed price on carbon. Meanwhile, negotiators in Cancun, pretty much as anticipated, failed to put together a major international accord on global warming.

In spite of all this -- and this is truly incredible to see happening -- cities and regions are plodding ahead on climate change, continuing the work and the awareness and the reality-confronting from the Bush years. This local and regional effort not only has to do with reducing greenhouse gas emissions, but adapting to the inevitable impacts of global warming, beginning, for coastal cities, with flooding and sea level rise. And therein lies the ramifications for city-building and placemaking in and around Boston. We're going to be building for a wetter, warmer world.

Case in point: Seaport Square, the 6.3-acre L-shaped South Boston waterfront parcel from the Barking Crab and the Moakley courthouse to the big parking lots near the Fidelity developments at the World Trade Center. Long on the drawing boards, going back to when Frank McCourt owned the land, Seaport Square will be the mother of all infill redevelopments; where there are now surface parking lots, we'll have urbanism from Fan Pier to Fort Point and over towards the convention center.
Seaport Square.jpg

The waterfront is not only the new frontier for Boston real estate. It's ground zero for climate change. Fifty years from now, rising seas will change the dynamics of key sites significantly. Seaport Square, the largest single development approved by the City of Boston, also was the first major project where the partners (Boston Global Investors, Morgan Stanley and WS Developments) agreed to comply with the city's guidelines on climate adaptation. In the permitting process, it's not every day you see a developer agree to rules that haven't been written yet. But it's testimony to how builders are going to have to take care to put key infrastructure, for example, in places protected from flooding.

Another example of designers and builders thinking ahead is the Spaulding Rehabitation Hospital at Charlestown Navy Yard, where the ground floor was raised three feet higher than the street, mechanical and electrical systems went from the basement to the roof, and critical-care activities were moved from the first floor.

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The Boston Harbor Association has been tracking this kind of adapation activity, along with the Boston Green Ribbon Commission, co-chaired by Mayor Thomas M. Menino and Amos Hostetter. The commission's 30 leading members are working to support Boston's Climate Action Plan.

More local initiatives on mitigation and adaptation -- including efforts in Keene, N.H. and Bridgeport, Conn. -- were detailed last Friday at the Federal Reserve Bank of Boston as part of the New England Smart Growth Leadership Forum, organized by the Lincoln Institute of Land Policy in partnership with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the Federal Home Loan Bank of Boston.

Armando Carbonell, senior fellow and chairman of the Department of Planning and Urban Form at the Lincoln Institute, said that while climate change has been called “the ultimate externality,” necessitating collective action at the national and global scale, local and regional efforts can chip away at the problem – as long as they are targeted for the greatest impact.

Reid Ewing, professor of city and metropolitan planning at the University of Utah, talked about shaping the future built environment for reduced emissions. Smart growth and compact development, going on in a number of places around the countrty, produces 20 to 40 percent fewer vehicle miles traveled (VMT) compared to conventional suburban development, he said. Places with density, a mix of uses, well-designed public spaces, street connectivity, and destination accessibility, have direct correlation to travel patterns that is unrelated to income. The bottom line is that projects like Seaport Square will have a smaller carbon footprint, but will also need to adapt -- given that no matter what we do in the next few years, we're already in store for rising temperatures.

The cultural and political backdrop for all of this made for interesting discussions. Agreement that there is solid evidence for warming global temperatures has declined from 72 percent in 2008 to 60 percent in 2010, and most people base their opinions about climate change on local observations, such as hurricanes in the South or forest fires in the West, according to Barry Rabe, professor of public policy and the environment at the University of Michigan, who has conducted a 1,000-person survey on the topic. Support for cap and trade or a price on carbon declines precipitously if either will end up costing families $15 or $50 a month, the survey shows. Most respondents think the federal government has the primary responsibility to attack the problem, but many support their home states taking action -- even if neighboring states do not. “Public opinion is volatile,” Rabe said, “but the bottom has not fallen out for public support to do something.”

Meanwhile, Avi Garbow, deputy general counsel at EPA, detailed the agency's continuing efforts in the broader regulation of carbon dioxide. “The agency is moving forward to implement the act with respect to stationary sources in a very … common sense way,” he said, despite the EPA delaying new rules on smog and industrial boilers. He defended the Clean Air Act, which he said sparked innovation, such as the creation of the catalytic converter, and predicted similar entrepreneurship will likely flourish as the EPA begins regulating carbon emissions from power plants and other major stationary sources in January.

Surely there's going to be more innovation in planning, urban design, and construction as well.

Red light, green light -- how about nothing at all?

Posted by Anthony Flint October 14, 2010 04:18 PM

Palmer Street in Harvard Square is a curious football-field length stretch of street. It’s not blacktop like Church Street with a double yellow line down the middle; its paving suggests a pedestrian way, though there’s no sign indicating vehicles are not allowed. Any motorist traveling down it plods along slowly. In other words, a perfect shared space, according to Ben Hamilton-Baillie, an architect from Bristol, England who specializes in new street design.
Palmer Street.jpg
Streets are too often the forgotten element of the public realm, dominated by traffic engineers interested in the swift flow of vehicular traffic, and adorned with all manner of signage and warnings and flashing lights. Highways are a separate matter, but the streets in downtowns and town centers serve a number of functions, as places where pedestrians, bicycles, and cars and trucks must mix. If the aim is more livable, greener cities, being able to feel comfortable walking or riding a bike is hugely important.
We’ve been living with the legacy of Le Corbusier, who among others advocated the strict separation of pedestrians and traffic. Lately there have been efforts to change the paradigm. In New York City, the blur of traffic in Times Square has been replaced by tables and chairs. Many communities are engaged in traffic calming, with such measures as bump-outs, neck-downs, speed bumps, bicycle lanes and brightly marked pedestrian crosswalks, all of which achieve some of what is known these days as “complete streets.”
But in Europe, designers are taking it a step further – removing traffic signals and signage altogether, relying on the human ability to adapt and communicate with other drivers and pedestrians by entering an intersection or traveling down a street and figuring it all out. It’s a counter-intuitive notion to be sure, based in the Dutch concept of the “woonerf,” a street that eliminates the strict separation of uses and instead invites a civil set of ad-hoc rules and eye contact. Woonerfs are all around us – the valet area in front of a hotel, or the parking lot in front of Target. Everybody slows down because there is an obvious mix of parking and getting out of cars and moving around on foot.
“When you introduce a little uncertainty, and no one’s sure what the rules are, the driver becomes human again,” says Hamilton-Baillie.
On Walnut Street in Brookline on weekday mornings, dozens of parents and kids make their way to the Lincoln School. There are crossing guards and flashing yellow lights indicating a 20 miles per hour limit in a school zone. But even without all of that, the visual cues make it obvious to all drivers what’s going on there: they should slow down and be mindful of little kids making their way.
To go down this road, as it were, in Harvard Square, for example, would require taking a hacksaw to all the traffic signals and let the cars and pedestrians mix it up, says Hamilton-Baillie. That’s essentially what they’ve done at Exhibition Road and Seven Dials/Covent Garden in London, and in the ring road in Ashford in Kent, at the portal to the Chunnel. Nobody could believe this could possibly make sense; a BBC reporter predicted hundreds of deaths. But in fact the accident rate and especially fatal accidents goes down when the signage and signals are taken away. “Humans are smart. We adapt to circumstances,” says Hamilton-Baillie. As it is now, all the signs are doing the thinking for us.
Can American culture ever embrace such a system, or non-system, in cities? Hamilton-Ballie, who spoke earlier this month at the fall lecture series at the Lincoln Institute, part of the 40th anniversary symposium for the Loeb Fellowship at Harvard’s Graduate School of Design, says the important thing is to just get started, and to experiment. Cambridge and Brookline – Webster Street in Coolidge Corner is an example of a woonerf – have been doing just that. Boston may be a tougher challenge. It’s been hard enough to raise awareness about the state law requiring motorists yield to pedestrians in unsignaled crosswalks. The statewide highway design manual in Massachusetts now allows lower design speeds and narrower minimum street widths, though it doesn’t say anything about removing signals entirely. But thinking about the context of streets is well worth it. The payoff is not only safety, but a more civil and attractive urban environment.

Learning from 30 Rock: Grand plans and citybuilding today

Posted by Anthony Flint September 16, 2010 02:51 PM

Walking around Rockefeller Center earlier this week with Time and past New York Times public editor Daniel Okrent, author of Golden Fortune: The Epic of Rockfeller Center, made me marvel at this extraordinary place anew. The tour was put on by the Forum for Urban Design, a partner of the Lincoln Institute that mixes history with today's challenges.
For once, it was OK to stagger around with neck craned, looking up. To take it all in. Growing up around New York I used to come here for the obligatory roasting chestnuts, skating rink and tree viewing at holiday time.

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The Today show and Tina Fey and the Top of the Rock observatory -- inexplicably closed for 15 years, but now getting two million visitors a year -- keep the tourists coming in throngs these days, but it's really Raymond Hood's masterpiece of urban design and architectural details that create the sense of place that is so compelling: the way the promenade slopes down to the skating rink, or the use of escalators as a kind of ornament or sculpture.

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Rockefeller Center, envisioned as a cultural and commercial center originally including a new Metropolitan Opera House, was also a triumph of marketing and financing. The idea to create the rooftop gardens on the shorter buildings fronting 5th Avenue was based on charging property owners in the towers all around who would enjoy the view.

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Returning to Boston and enjoying the sunset at Sams, the contrast with the slow-motion citybuilding on Fan Pier was striking. It's been more than 10 years since I wrote about the Seaport public realm plan. A visitor couldn't be blamed for wondering if the location of the ICA, amid a sea of parking lots, was some kind of statement of industrial chic. Boston's version of midtown, Downtown Crossing, is also famously stuck in neutral. I asked Daniel Okrent if there are any lessons from Rockefeller Center for these large-scale infill redevelopment projects today. "It takes a czar," he said. But at the same time a vision that ensures the project blends in with the existing urban fabric, as Rockefeller Center did, and does. (Plans to blast a short north-south avenue to MOMA, otherwise known in the Rockefeller Family as "Mother's museum, were derailed by the influential owners of 21.) It helped, as well, that Rockefeller Center was all considered on private land, including the street between 49th and 50th streets, and that the driving force was a family with a bit of influence in its own right.
As such. this may be purely an exercise in nostalgia. But we can dream.

For Southie, what's in a name

Posted by Anthony Flint September 7, 2010 04:58 PM

The moving trucks had gone ahead, and the Prius was packed with lingering possessions as I pulled around Broadway at Dorchester Avenue one final time, when I noticed the billboard that implored, "This Corner Needs a Name."

This corner needs a name SB.jpg

A resident of South Boston since the 1990s -- a fugitive of the South End -- I had written about the Towne in 2005 (Same Old Southie, Boston Globe Magazine), and identified this very spot as the place where the neighborhood would probably change fastest -- closest to the South End and downtown, all around the T station, with the Macallen and Court Square Press buildings, the new loft buildings on West Fourth Street, the renovated church and the transit-oriented development across from Mul's Diner at A Street. They started selling sushi at the site of the old Whitey Bulger hangout, the Triple O's. And then came the plans to build, sensibly, on the little parking lot at the T station, and the closing of The Quiet Man pub, and plans for a Foodies two blocks up. Dunkin Donuts still holds its ground against Starbucks, but change is in the air.
A place earns a name, over time. The street names are familiar and reassuring, like so many cities across the land -- Broadway as Main Street. Dorchester Avenue, a potential grand boulevard running deeply south into the city, used to run all the way up to downtown, before the US Postal Service blocked it off. As gateways go, though, what would be an appropriate label? WeSoBo (West South Boston)? Like "SoWa" (South of Washington Street), any SoHo-inspired moniker will seem forced. This may be especially true in this neighborhood -- a place where you can get a $15 haircut at Skip's, and a pint of Guiness in about a thousand pubs. You don't tend to appreciate things about a neighborhood until you leave it. This corner already has a name, and for as far as I can see, it will be Southie.

Preserving modernism in Boston: making the case

Posted by Anthony Flint July 22, 2010 05:29 PM

Historic preservation around these parts has always had to do with red bricks, colonial or Victorian era sites. But a new campaign underway in Boston puts a new twist on honoring the more recent past --- the celebration of modern architecture: Boston City Hall and the Hurley Building as part of Government Center, Harvard's Peabody Terrace and Holyoke, the Boston University Law School ...

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... and the Blue Cross/Blue Shield building downtown, and many other examples of this distinctive period of archictecture and urban design.

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It's an effort rife with irony and contradiction. Many of the structures were part of the era of urban renewal -- which of course gave rise to the full-throttle historic preservation movement in this country in the first place, as activists fought against the razing of Penn Station and the destruction of the West End and Robert Moses' plans to run an expressway through the cast-iron facade buildings of Broome Street in SoHo. But now that a half-century has passed, preservationists are saying that the products of urban renewal are themselves worthy of protection.

The idea takes some convincing not only among those in historic preservation but mostly the public. In many cases these are buildings that are hard to love. The Federal Reserve building (Stubbins Associates, 1977) is known around town as the "refrigerator building."

Federal Reserve.jpg

The Government Service Center (Paul Rudolph, 1971), with its combed concrete and urbanism-deadening blank walls, is a controversial experiment in Brutalism. "Dynamite would be too kind for this monstrosity, which would be far better suited as the headquarters of the KGB circa 1965 than a building in the cradle of American liberty," says Universal Hub .

And yet, there are surely ways to integrate the complex with the urban fabric, and preservationists urge a second look -- the sculptural bravado, the heroically scaled passageways, the hidden courtyards. And check out one playful element of what appears to be a sort of concrete monster face on the facade; once you notice it you can never look at the building quite the same way again.

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It's important to note the better-regarded modernism classics around the Boston area. Nobody would think of tearing down Le Corbusier's Carpenter Center on Quincy Street in Cambridge ...

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... or Baker House or Kresge Auditorium at MIT, or indeed the Gropius House in Lincoln or the Six Moon Hill community in Lexington.

But some other structures are indeed under threat -- Boston City Hall (Kallmannn, McKinnell and Knowles, 1968) being the leading example.

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Urban renewal of urban renewal as long been on the drafting table for the John F. Kennedy federal office building and the Hurley/Government Service Center complex. Modernist buildings are increasingly expensive to maintain and could be lucrative to replace.

Some interesting arguments come into play -- the embodied energy in the structures, or whether renovation and modification is historically appropriate, the Christian Science Center complex being a major case study. I had the pleasure of moderating "Boston Modern: The Spirit of Reinvention," June 30th at Rudolph's First Church of Boston on Marlborough Street, itself a modernist icon, with Charles Birnbaum of the Cultural Landscape Foundation, Susan Macdonald from the Getty Conservation Institute, Harvard University's Kathy Spiegelman, and David N. Fixler, principal at EYP Architecture & Engineering, and part of DOCOMOMO-U.S./New England (the Documentation and Conservation of buildings, sites and neighborhoods of the Modern Movement). The consensus was that we should think long and hard before eradicating a layer of architectural history. A lot of Victorian structures were deemed ugly in the 1950s and torn down.

"If there are choices about what to save, perhaps we should err on the side of inclusiveness and entertain innovative options for reuse," said Christine Madrid French, director of the Modernism + Recent Past Program at the National Trust for Historic Preservation . "By thinking creatively, communities can incorporate old buildings into new plans, and manage existing resources in sustainable terms. The focus is on saving remarkable designs and innovative craftsmanship, but within that context, we also want to save stories, about the architects, the city, and the community."

Says David Eisen, principal at Abacus Architects + Planners, who put together a wonderful booklet on modernism treasures around Boston: "The concrete structures of 1960s and 70s are as true to their time as Faneuil Hall, the State House, and Trinity Church were to theirs, and have a sculptural power that is absolutely their equal. Like the ambitious architecture of most any era they will go in and out of fashion as the city and society continue to evolve. But the best of this work is as worthy of appreciation - and preservation - as that of any other period in history."

Moving past feasts

Posted by Anthony Flint July 20, 2010 06:09 PM

Traveling on the Mass Pike the other day, on a weekend, I noticed the signs heralding a farmers market at selected service areas. Farmers markets have become important engines in urban settings, bolstering pedestrian activity and activating public spaces. Think Haymarket, but also Dewey Square. Or, the mother of all fresh-food urban markets: the Public Market in Seattle.

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But what about going 65 miles per hour and pulling over for peaches and corn? It may not be that different from the roadside farmstands that have long dotted the rural areas of the state. The notion of local food -- fresh, locally produced, secure in origin, typically organic -- is welcome wherever the setting.

The post explaining the farmers market program at MassDOT says it all: "Farmers can sell their goods as long as they do not compete with the businesses that operate within the service plazas." Don't compete with a glazed Honey Dew donut or a Big Mac? Not much of a chance of that happening, I would guess.

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The state says the Farmers Market program has been a popular customer service for the last ten years on the 11 Massachusetts Turnpike service plazas and this year MassDOT will expand the Farmers Market program to include all 18 service plazas on state highways.

If you're left wanting more, American Farmland Trust has a rundown of America's favorite farmers markets in all 50 states. The top five for Massachusetts are: Attleboro Farms, Northampton Tuesday Market, Nantucket Farmers and Artisans Market, Bedford Farmers Market, and Amherst Farmers Market.

The elusive effective playground

Posted by Anthony Flint July 6, 2010 03:30 PM

Being a father of three, I consider myself something of a playground afficionado. The job description is actually quite simple. What do the children do when confronted with equipment? How are they engaged? I've often wondered about playgrounds in the context of activating public space -- yearning for something beyond a swingset, a slide, a conglomeration of climbing and bridge opportunities otherwise known as the jungle gym.

In State of Play in the July 5 New Yorker, Rebecca Mead has a nice chronicle of the "imagination playground" concept, popular in Europe, but like a lot of other things, slow to catch on here.

The idea is to give kids loose pieces -- blocks and tools -- and let their imaginations run wild, damming up water features or digging holes and tunnels in sand. Intuitive stuff -- like how a child loves a sandbox with loose toys in it.

Adults, too. The success of Bryant Park in New York comes in large part from the decision to leave movable chairs scattered across the seating areas, for visitors to arrange as they wish.

Litigation and safety concerns have limited playgrounds to a certain cookie-cutter variety in most instances. One exception was the playground at the Boston Water & Sewer facility at Albany Street in the South End -- fixed equipment, but sort of a combination of a three-dimensional climbing wall and something one might see on Wipeout. But that brings us back to the litigation thing.

After battle, park at Harvard site manages to please

Posted by Anthony Flint June 30, 2010 02:20 PM

   Riverside Park at the old Mahoney's garden center site on Memorial Drive in Cambridge officially opened earlier this month. It's a satisfying outcome for a parcel with a tortured history in the annals of Harvard University and its neighbors, and a case study for when a big  "starchitect" project doesn't happen.

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     Mahoney's was a kind of private public space for many years, attracting visitors who wandered in a maze of gardens and greenhouses. But the site was owned by Harvard, and in the late 1990s the university sought to build a new modern and contemporary art museum, also housing the installations of the Arthur M. Sackler Museum, designed by Renzo Piano. The sweeping design was low-lying and sensitive to views to the Charles River, but suffice it to say neighbors in the Riverside section objected. One went so far as to say, "If you build it, we will bomb it."

     The Allston-Brighton campus project has been getting all the attention lately, but Harvard's dealings in Cambridge are legendary. In one of the most telling episodes, neighbors blocked a proposal to build office and exhibit space near Gund Hall that was completely out of sight, underground.

The Mahoney's site battle was similarly raucous, but there was a valid point -- was this really the best place to put an art museum? Then-president Lawrence Summers pulled the plug on Piano, and negotiations began for a new assembly on the site -- housing including more graduate student housing, a park, and, in an unfortunate and very un-green move, an underground parking garage.

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    The result is the complex we see today along Memorial Drive at Western Avenue, a team effort rather than a one-man show: Riverside Park, designed by Halvorson Design Partnership , the graceful Riverside Park Pavilion by Touloukian Touloukian Inc., graduate student dormitory that nicely reflects the unabashed modernism of Peabody Terrace by Kyu Sung Woo Architects , and wood frame style houses, both student and affordable housing, along the neighborhood edge by Elkus Manfredi Architects .

The 3/4-acre park itself rises to the challenge of its frontage on a busy four-lane road, the grass and benches a welcoming oasis for watching the crew shells glide by.

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     The real coda may be what ended up happening with the Fogg, Busch-Reisinger and Sackler museums, at the corner of Quincy Street and Broadway  -- a smart decision to renovate in-place, sort of like passing on a new stadium and sticking with Fenway Park. And look who's doing the makeover, which preserves the historic design based on a 16th century Italian villa: Renzo Piano . His back-rising additions will add much-needed exhibition space; viewers currently see only one percent of the collection.

The 204,000 square-foot project, set to be completed by 2013, will complement the wonderful Carpenter Center for the Visual Arts, Le Corbusier's only building in North America, and keep everything much more in the center of things -- a walkable location appropriate not only for interesting architecture but to reflect the university's commitment to the arts and arts education. The T is a short walk across Harvard Yard.

    The power of neighborhood opposition can still be seen in a bricked-over portal intended for a skywalk linking the Fogg and Sackler, a blocked attempt to bring these buildings together many years ago.

But this story is not about bemoaning what might have been. Riverside gets a well-designed park, Cambridge gets housing, and Harvard gets a sleek retrofit for its art museum, right at the gates to Harvard Yard. In the built-out metropolis, the name of the game is working with existing parcels and buildings, and working in the context of neighborhoods. Sometimes the process ends up working out after all.

What do you think of Riverside Park? Post a comment or contact the author at anthony.flint@gmail.com. Follow Anthony Flint on Twitter @anthonyflint.

About the author

Anthony Flint is a fellow at the Lincoln Institute of Land Policy, a think tank in Cambridge, Mass. www.lincolninst.edu and author of Wrestling with Moses: How Jane Jacobs Took on More »

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