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New Copley Square design will emphasize event space, greenery

Construction is estimated to begin next spring.

Copley Square's new design will increase tree cover and add a lawn in front of Trinity Church. Sasaki

Copley Square is set to get its biggest makeover since the 1980s. 

The architectural firm Sasaki, which redesigned the plaza in the 1960s, is getting another shot at remaking the iconic Back Bay area. The redesign aims to better accommodate large crowds while simultaneously making the square greener and more appealing to everyday passersby. Construction is set to begin next spring, soon after the Boston Marathon, according to The Boston Globe

The journey to reach this point wasn’t an easy one. Sasaki, which is preparing to move its offices from Watertown to downtown Boston, underwent a three-phase community engagement process to judge how the city sees Copley Square and what areas of improvement are most important. In total, more than 2,500 people from across the region shared their feedback, according to the firm. 

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The new design aims to balance the two ways in which the public sees Copley: either as a green oasis within a densely developed urban area, or as a destination landscape that draws people to the area for cultural and recreational reasons, according to Sasaki

Last year, the firm’s plan appeared finalized and officials were hoping to begin construction by spring 2022, according to the Globe. But neighborhood concerns about the area’s fountain and lawn area prompted designers to tweak their plans even more. 

The most prominent change between the new Copley and the old will be that the lawn and paved area will be switched. Once construction is complete, a lawn will stretch directly in front of Trinity Church while a “flexible hardscape” will span the area along Dartmouth Street across from the Boston Public Library’s McKim Building. This hardscape plaza will be geared towards hosting events, be it the weekly farmer’s market or larger gatherings like First Night or a Celtics playoff watch party. 

A rendering of the proposed redesign of Copley Square. (Sasaki)

Flipping the plaza to the side of Copley closer to the BPL will better equip the space for occasional closures of that portion of Dartmouth Street. Last month, the city’s Copley Connect endeavor experimented with this. It created a pedestrian-only space between Copley Square and the McKim building, from St. James Avenue to Boylston Street. This “pop-up plaza” was meant to make extra room for library activities, the farmer’s market, food trucks, dance lessons, yoga, and more. 

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It lasted for 10 days, and appeared to be a hit with business owners and tourists, the Globe reported. However, closing that block to traffic caused headaches for drivers that regularly have to navigate Back Bay. City officials say they are studying the project and will release a report. 

The BPL is also in the process of reinvigorating its Dartmouth Street entrance area to better serve as a civic hub and urban destination.

Copley’s revamped fountain will mimic the current one’s look, but will be shallower and offer more seating areas alongside it, according to the Globe. It will also be more enveloped by greenery and tree cover. Plantings will be strategically placed to “buffer the square from the street,” according to Sasaki. 

A new fountain will be shallower and feature more places to sit alongside it. (Sasaki)

Another striking new feature will be a large, raised platform next to the plaza, near the corner of Boylston and Dartmouth Streets. This deck will offer unique views of the surrounding historic architecture. It will also incorporate a “raised grove” which will better protect some of the trees planted there by keeping foot traffic away from roots and providing more space for soil. Overall, the new layout will have almost twice as many trees but less open grass than the square’s current design.

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Although millions are being poured into Copley’s redesign, some locals say this alone will not ameliorate all the area’s problems. Chair of the Neighborhood Association of Back Bay Elliot Laffer told the Globe that the square needs more staffing by city workers, especially security.

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