24 February, 2008

Boston's new parks and Lifestyle Centers

This New York Times story is optimistic about the new parks that have recently replaced the formerly-above-ground stretch of I-93 that ran through Boston. The freeway is now in a tunnel instead of elevated (see the pre-picture). This is what it used to look like:

This is more or less what it looks like today:

The question is: Has anything improved? It's certainly nicer aesthetically. Space that was once covered by highway and exhaust is now covered by grass and (soon) trees. But much more needs to change before these extensive tracts will be used by people. Boston already has a lot of green space in Boston Common, the Public Garden, and the Esplanade. These established parks benefit from a variety of mixed uses: swimming, ice skating, lunching and so forth. The former two connect the neighborhoods of Downtown and Back Bay and so there is foot traffic through the parks from one to the other.

This new "Greenway" has none of these advantages. It is abutted by high-rises with no floor-level attractions or shops. The actual green space is not terribly attractive. Why would anyone go there, especially when there are much more active options a few blocks away? The developers want the Greenway to rise to the stature of city areas like Las Ramblas in Barcelona. But what makes Las Ramblas great is that there are lots of things to do: tapas, clubs, hostels, restaurants, shops, etc. It's also a walking street with no cars in sight.

I guess the architects of the Big Dig didn't think through what would become of the space above the tunnels before they began. Apparently, buildings can't be built over them. So I'm not optimistic that much will become of this area. Right now, it's basically a glorified median. It's pretty disappointing that something more organic couldn't be allowed to happen in this area. Downtown Boston is already filled with artificially created dead space like the West End and Government Center.

On the same topic, here's an article by Chris Leinberger in the Atlantic arguing that there is pent-up demand for walkable urbanism and vast oversupply of suburban living options. I'd like to see more walkable urbanism, but must we call these new planned downtowns "lifestyle centers"? Yikes. The problem with planned downtowns is that, as the article points out, planners need a lot of businesses to sign on right away. These things can't be built up slowly. People want lots of things to do and businesses need lots of customers. And usually the only businesses willing to take such a risk are chains. So instead of malls with McDonald's, Cosi and the Gap you get downtowns with Panera, Cosi and the Gap. The latter is better, but I'd like to think there is some demand for uniqueness. Perhaps not.


Elliot said...

I think you're getting at why the kind of urban spaces we idolize are so hard to actually make come about in practice. Its kind of a catch-22: people will come when there are many attractions, but businesses will only sign on to provide those attractions when it has assurances that people will come. Thus it makes sense that many "classic" old town, charming type downtowns are just that -- old, old enough to have built up gradually, as generations of shops, cafes and residencies are superimposed over one another in a dense but organic grid.

But it does seem that, apart from that structural difficulty, most urban planners simply miss the point. Its not open space and trees per se that are lacking from our cities, but as you say a dense and diverse array activities, of things to do. Maybe its because the interest of cars and and car drivers still dominate when planning american cities? That would explain why America finds it so hard to create its own Ramblas -- you gotta plan for parking garages!

spencer said...

Exactly. The urban spaces that we love to spend time in have arisen organically over long periods of time. Throwing down some wide sidewalks and trees just isn't going to create the kind of urban experience that we all crave.

There is a subtle point here. In my post I said that gradualism doesn't work in building up downtown areas. This doesn't contradict what we're saying here. Gradualism doesn't work for planned downtowns because in this case there's no demand or supply already in place. In more organic cities, population gradually expands over time and a complicated and beautiful dance between supply and demand determines the urban structure.

As far as cars, I think you're right. People love their cars in this country...this would not be a problem if they were paying the full cost of owning a car. But there are lots of costs that they do not internalize: congestion, pollution, road construction, etc. Not paying these costs means that we implicitly subsidize driving, to the detriment of walkable urbanism.

carina said...

Boston, one of the oldest cities in America, evokes a distinct European feel, which is evident in the city's culture. The city's role in the American Revolution has led to the nickname, the "Cradle of Liberty."

Things to do in Boston