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Into the future

What changes could coming years bring to Boston's landscape? We asked the Globe's architecture critic to gaze into his crystal ball and tell us the shape of things to come.

By Robert Campbell
Globe Correspondent / March 29, 2009
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As City Weekly fades into the past, it seems a good moment to look to Boston's future. What can we expect in the next 10 or 20 years?

I'll start with an axiom I picked up from Toronto urban designer Ken Greenberg, who does a lot of work in Boston. Says Greenberg: "The big problems we're facing in the world today will be solved in cities."

He's thinking of problems like global warming, climate change, rising sea levels. Cities have two qualities: They're densely populated, and they mix a lot of different kinds of people and activities close together. As a result, you're not in a car all the time, burning carbon to get from place to place. You're in touch with your neighbors. Your apartment can be heated or cooled more efficiently than your cousin's home in the suburbs. (We're not yet a leader in the energy race. The Swedish city of Gothenburg, with a climate as harsh as Boston's, now heats itself entirely with recycled garbage.)

Author Richard Florida writes that the successful cities of the future will be the ones that can attract what he calls "the creative class." Boston is more richly endowed with great universities than any other US metropolitan area, and it's blessed with dozens of compact, livable neighborhoods, from Somerville in the north to Dorchester in the south. If we can't attract and retain a creative class, nobody can.

Cities have another quality, too. They introduce different kinds of people to one another. The great urbanist Jane Jacobs defined a city as "the place where we meet strangers." In a world torn by ethnic strife, that is another of the city's gifts to civilization.

A half century of suburban sprawl is drawing to a close. A new age of the city is dawning.

But how will our future city look and feel? Here are just a few thoughts.

Downtown Village. Downtown Boston is destined to become a delightful, walkable residential neighborhood. The office towers won't go away, but my business friends predict that the office market won't grow that fast, that the growth industries are going to be hospitals and universities and the research activities they spin off. Downtown's old buildings, those handsome brick warehouses and factories, were built before electricity. They had big windows because they needed daylight, and that light now makes them good residences.

We used to zone our cities. Manufacture was here, office there, residence somewhere else. The goal was to keep noisy, smelly industrial activities away from homes. But those noxious activities are gone. Nearly all work in Boston today is clean. So in Downtown Village, everything will be mixed together: homes, offices, stores, places for social life and recreation. A planner friend calls it "marbling." Walking and biking, water ferries and rail service, will largely replace the car. (A straw in the wind: all four major downtown garages are now being considered for demolition.)

It's an exaggeration, but I would argue that much of the work of the city today is to offer us the experience of city life. The city's work is no longer so much to nurture trade or manufacture. Much of that is done electronically anyway. The city exists to provide a rich, diverse life, the interaction of many kinds of people and activities, discoveries and surprises. And with globalization, and new immigrants continuing to arrive, the number of languages and voices in Downtown Village grows all the time, especially in a city with so many foreign-born students.

Downtown Village faces two dangers. One is gentrification, the threat that the moneyed class will drive out the less fortunate, destroying diversity and opportunity. Only action by government can keep affordable housing in the city. The second danger is bad schools. Nothing would help the future of Boston so much as an improvement in the quality of public education. Those aren't my issues - hey, I write about architecture - but they're crucial.

The Rose Kennedy Greenway. The Greenway is part of that future urban village. But today it looks suburban. It's as if a mad emperor had chosen to build a golf course in the middle of downtown Boston. It's an empty expanse of green that nobody knows what to do with.

But things will improve. Plantings will mature. New buildings, or additions to old ones, will fill in along the Greenway's edges. They will bring civic life: shopfronts, restaurants, café tables, doors and windows and balconies, maybe roof gardens, maybe museums, all of them overlooking the Greenway, perhaps spilling out onto it. I even cherish the hope that, some day, it will be possible to overturn the current rule that 75 percent of the Greenway must always remain as public open space. With a whole ocean a block away, we don't need that much space in this location. Better to fill in some of it with handsome low-rise redevelopment, sewing the city back together over this still-gaping wound.

Some parks would remain, of course. And I'm a fan of Mayor Menino's initiative to link the Greenway to the rest of the city by greening the streets that branch out from it.

Fort Point Channel. I'm guessing that the channel will be one of the iconic postcard views of Boston in another generation. This is an urban body of water with a human scale (and a wonderful old bridge that we've thankfully saved). The channel is now blocked by the huge federal post office, which walls the downtown side like a fortification. The feds want to move. Their departure will open the channel, permit a walking/jogging path along its entire length, and incidentally create room for added tracks in the adjacent South Station.

The channel reminds us how much we love water in our cities. All over the world, most notably in Scandinavia, cities are pressing toward the water, regaining their waterfronts from shipping and industry and filling them, instead, with lively and inventive new housing. We could do that too. No American city, not even San Francisco, has a lovelier waterfront than Boston. There are many little-known waterways and canals (the Broad Canal at Lechmere, the Reserved Channel in South Boston, the Chelsea River and Mill Creek, to name a few). Best of all are the more than 30 harbor islands, most of them now part of a national park. The Harbor Islands are the recreational future of Boston.

Boston will become the city of waterways and greenery that was envisioned, more than a century ago by Frederick Law Olmsted, the creator of the Emerald Necklace.

Waterfront development, though, needs to address the issue of rising sea levels. Water comes in many forms, including tsunamis and hurricanes. Arrogant humanity is learning, again, about the power of Nature.

The Urban Ring. As everyone knows, Boston's transit is a spoke-and-hub system. Everything more or less radiates from Park Street or near it. In a rational system, there'd be a circle line connecting those spokes, like the rim of a wheel. Such a line has long been proposed. It's called the Urban Ring, and if all goes well it may exist some day, perhaps partly underground and partly above, like the Green Line.

Transit changes everything. When the Green Line extends into Somerville, for instance, that town will surely metamorphose. Somerville, which is one of the most densely populated cities in North America (that's good, not bad), is triangulated by three great universities on its borders - MIT, Tufts, and Harvard. A magnet for the Creative Class?

While we're on transit, I can imagine a day when the newer Boston suburbs, which unfortunately were built so as to be entirely dependent on the car, will gain good public transit. If they do, they can begin to densify and morph from anonymous, unsustainable sprawl into genuine villages and towns.

The Universities. The Boston area's universities and hospitals are its economic engines. They're our insurance that Boston will continue to thrive. But in the city of the future, the universities will assume a more responsible role in the life of the place. Today they're selfish and isolated. I can't imagine, just for one example, why Harvard, even before the current slump in its endowment, wasn't eager to collaborate with Boston and Cambridge to help fund the Urban Ring, which could connect Harvard to its satellites in Allston and Longwood. In the future the universities won't be so separated off onto campuses. They'll begin marbling in with the rest of us. Town-gown distinctions will blur.

Boston City Hall. Globe readers generally hate this building, but like most architects I admire it. I don't care if you think it's ugly. It's powerful and memorable, and it's sited in the right location. A mayor who loved it could make it a wondrous place. It certainly needs a total renovation, not surprising after 40 years. It needs to be more energy-efficient, it needs more sunlight indoors, it needs a lot of things, but they're all achievable. The National Trust for Historic Preservation is right when it argues that "the greenest building is the one that's already built." A lot of energy was expended to build City Hall, energy that can now be thought of as being embodied in it. It isn't green to throw our buildings away, no matter what we replace them with.

City Hall's real problem is City Hall Plaza, a grim and useless tundra. In the future it will be ringed with a lining of modest buildings. They will shrink the plaza and energize its edges.

Those are just a few thoughts and hopes for the future. It's possible they'll all be made obsolete by some tech solution to the energy crunch. Maybe, in coming years, we'll all be driving around in magical zero-emission vehicles, in an ever-expanding, ever more socially alienating sprawl. I hope not. Boston began as a tightly knit city and should remain one.

Globe architecture critic Robert Campbell can be reached at camglobe@aol.com.