The story of Boston’s growth and development is one that involves the interplay of private developers, conscientious citizens, and a raft of public government entities. It’s a complex story, and one that is expertly told by James O’Connell in this volume published by the MIT Press.
As someone who has taught urban studies and related subjects for years, I knew I had to reach out to James to see if he would time for a brief interview about his work. He was most generous with his responses and here’s what he had to say.
For the uninitiated, what’s the value of planning to society?
Planning creates a framework for urban and suburban development. It provides transportation, water supply, sewers, parks and open space, and public buildings. Infrastructure and zoning allow private actors to build out housing and businesses. Planning, in the case of Boston Emerald Necklace and the Metropolitan Park System, also provides the beauty, landmarks, and attractive recreational areas that make the city appealing.
My book The Hub’s Metropolis: Greater Boston’s Development from Railroad Suburbs to Smart Growth traces planning efforts for nine distinct eras of suburban development as well as Boston’s later 20th and early 21st century redevelopment. Each era’s planning paradigm has a distinctive approach to real estate patterns, transportation, housing styles, business location, and open space in shaping the built landscape. The eras are:
- Traditional Village Centers and Proto-Suburbs (1800-1860)
- Country Retreats (1820-1920)
- Railroad Suburbs (1840-1920)
- Streetcar Suburbs (1870-1930)
- Metropolitan Parkway Suburbs (1895-1945)
- Suburban Mill Towns (1820-2012)
- Postwar Automobile Suburbs (1945-1970)
- Interstates, Exurbs, and Sprawl (1970-2012)
- Smart Growth Era (1990-2012).
Each model of suburban development has left its imprint on the landscape. In some places, a planning template complemented an earlier model and in others replaced it.
What brought you to this particular project?
When I moved to Boston from Cape Cod in 2000, my family and I were driving through Milton and I was struck by the Blue Hills Parkway and the adjacent early 20th-century development. I recognized that this artery was similar to others in the Boston area and wanted to learn how they came about.
I became interested in learning more about how the metropolitan region had developed and how it functions today. Living in Newton, working in downtown Boston, and seeking recreational and cultural opportunities in other communities, I recognized that we live regionally, but do not always think regionally. Besides Sam Bass Warner’s book Greater Boston: Adapting Regional Traditions to the Present, I could find no book that provided an overview of Boston’s metropolitan area. There are hundreds of books on the city of Boston, but little on the region. To satisfy my curiosity, I researched several topic areas that turned into articles, talks, or book chapters—regional planning, the Metropolitan District Commission, public transit, regional development patterns, open space conservation. My wife and I took weekly expeditions to explore the region’s cities, towns, open spaces, college campuses, shopping areas, etc. After about a decade, I had a book on my hands.
I should confess that I am a regionalist at heart and have written books interpreting regions where I have lived. Residing in Springfield, I wrote The Inside Guide to Springfield and the Pioneer Valley and edited The Pioneer Valley Reader. I also have written the only history of Cape Cod’s development as a resort—Becoming Cape Cod: Creating a Seaside Resort.
What are three of the defining moments in the history of planning for the Boston region? (laws, acts, movements, technological innovation, etc.)
Creation of the Railroad System—The railroad system created during the 1830s and 1840s spurred development of the region’s pre-World War II suburbia. Investors started New England’s first railroad, from Boston to Worcester, in 1834. They built rail lines to Providence and Lowell (1835), Salem (1838), Newburyport (1840), and Plymouth, Fitchburg, and Fall River (1845). This truly made Boston the “hub” of the region and created the commuter rail system that still exists and provides the development framework for transit-oriented development.
Metropolitan Parks and Parkways—The Metropolitan Parks and Parkways, which were long managed by the Metropolitan District Commission, provided a magnificent open space and parkway system. It formed the development framework for the first-generation automobile communities within the Route 128 beltway. Designed by landscape architect Charles Eliot in 1893, this system was the country’s first example of environmental regional planning. The forest preserves included the Middlesex Fells, Blue Hills, Stony Brook, and the Waverly Oaks. Eliot set out to preserve the banks of the region’s three major rivers—the Mystic, the Charles, and the Neponset—as well as Revere and Nantasket Beaches, which were the first publicly-owned beaches in America. Within seven years, the metropolitan park system conserved 91,000 acres of open space, 13 miles of oceanfront, 56 miles of riverbank and built seven parkways. Now, that’s using the public sector to get things done.
1948 State Highway Master Plan—The postwar blueprint for highway construction in Massachusetts. The Highway Master Plan laid out a highway system that included the Route 128 and the I-495 beltways, the Massachusetts Turnpike, Storrow Drive, Central Artery, Southeast Expressway, I-93, as well as the unbuilt Inner Belt. This system took a couple decades to be built and transformed metropolitan Boston.
What two or three things (such as infrastructure improvements, policy tools, etc.) would you like to see happen in Boston proper? (a wish/dream list, if you will)
Urban Ring—A decade ago, the state was planning a circumferential transit route two miles out from downtown Boston. The Urban Ring would cross all the subway lines and numerous bus routes, facilitating cross-town transportation and encouraging transit-oriented development. In its initial stages, the Urban Ring would be bus rapid transit service on dedicated lanes. By its final phase, the Urban Ring be a fixed-rail system. With the ultimate cost reaching into the billions and the challenges entailed in maintaining the existing transit system, the state suspended the visionary project in 2010.
Promote Development in Suburban Town Centers—Encourage more compact mixed-use development where development and infrastructure already exists. This objective can be promoted through state zoning reform legislation and state and local development incentives. Such initiatives could be especially useful for redeveloping Gateway Cities—older industrial cities—and stimulating development in established suburban centers which have been static in recent years.
In your experience, what’s the best way to get people out of their automobiles and on to other forms of transportation (buses, subways, bikes, etc)?
More Extensive Transit Service—Modernize the existing transit system. An expansion of transit service, by extending the Green and Blue Lines and introducing the Indigo and South Coast Commuter Rail Lines, could fill out the region’s public transit system and entice more drivers out of their cars. It is also important, through zoning, to encourage transit-oriented development , which makes public transit a more attractive mode of transportation.
Create Dedicated Bike Lanes—It is estimated that bicycle use could increase by 600% if cities provided dedicated, low-stress bike lanes. There are a certain number of bike riders who will brave city streets and use striped bike lanes, but there are large numbers of casual bike users who do not feel comfortable jostling with motor traffic. Separate bike paths are a means of attracting this broad audience of bicyclists. A clearly marked network of discreet bike path routes around the city and environs should be further developed.
Recently, there has been a great deal of talk about the resurgence/reinvention of Downtown Crossing. What do you think is currently missing in terms of the commercial (or other) mix in that section of the city?
I work downtown, on State Street, and think that the redevelopment of the Filene’s block, which is supposed to start this year, will do a lot to spur surrounding development. I think it would be a mixed blessing if most of the spinoff commercial development were national chains that are already present in the Back Bay. I like the mix of locally-owned stores and restaurants that currently exists on Washington, Bromfield, West, Summer, and Winter Streets and Temple Place. We need more funky independent stores, such as Bromfield Camera, Bromfield Pen, The Watch Hospital, and the stamp & coin stores on Bromfield Street. Eateries such as jm Curley’s, Stoddard’s, Herrera Mexican Grill, Pizzeria Rico, The Marliave, and The Silvertone create unique downtown magnets. I think Downtown Crossing, though a shadow of its former self, is under-rated and should build on its recent achievements. In some ways, it has the vitality of the locavore culinary movement, seeking authenticity in local life and culture.
One theme I noticed in your book is the debate about density in a range of communities around the region. You’ve mentioned the cultural import of the single-family home and its seemingly bucolic and in some sense, agrarian origins. Are we seeing a shift of people away from this ideal?
A large swath of young singles, couples, and empty-nesters desire urban living in townhouses or apartments. Christopher Leinberger, in The Option of Urbanism: Investing in a New American Dream, cites a market survey showing that 40% of Greater Boston residents desire “walkable urbanism,” while 30% prefer “drivable suburbanism” and 30% would accept either. Only 25% of the current metropolitan Boston housing stock can be considered “walkable urbanism,” so there is a gap in the market. Leinberger estimates that 60% to 70% of all demand for walkable urbanism will be met in suburbs. The new downtown Boston and Seaport District housing is too pricey for most of this market.
The market segments that appreciate urban neighborhoods are attracted by “third places,” which are the pubs, cafes, restaurants, libraries, cinemas, gyms, and similar social hangouts. Besides the urban neighborhoods of Boston, Cambridge, and Somerville, many suburban town centers have been redeveloped as concentrations of “third places” in recent years. They include Salem, Melrose, Arlington, Lexington, Concord, Waltham’s Moody Street, Newton Center, Wellesley, Needham, Norwood, and Hingham. Such places are magnets for residential development.
Right now, many multi-family units are being built by national developers like Arborpoint, Avalon, Archstone, and JPI outside town centers. Suburban communities should work with such developers to encourage new housing to be built in town centers. In some cases, this would entail raising height limits to four or six stories, something which most suburbs have avoided. In addition to building housing in traditional downtowns, communities should also encourage housing to be built in lifestyle shopping centers like Dedham’s Legacy Place or Hingham Landing. I think that rebuilding commercial strips with compact mixed-use developments, like the housing units at the Natick Mall, will be another trend.
If you were to single out two or three instances of thoughtfully designed planned areas within the city of Boston, which ones would you recommend people explore when they have time?
Emerald Necklace and Charles River Parks—For shear enjoyment, explore the Emerald Necklace parks and parkways, starting at the Boston Common and the Public Garden and proceeding up Commonwealth Avenue to the Back Bay Fens. Then follow the Emerald Necklace through the varied landscapes shaped by Frederick Law Olmsted, including Jamaica Pond, Arnold Arboretum, and Franklin Park. This is Boston’s city planning masterpiece. One wonders whether such magnificent public spaces could ever be created again.
Stroll the Charles River parks from the Charles River Dam to Soldiers Field Road past Harvard Stadium to Watertown Square. You don’t have to try these walks in one effort. Take them in short snatches. The Charles River at the Charles Eliot Memorial Bridge is one of my favorite places in Boston. It seems so sylvan.
Neighborhood Commercial Centers—Returning to my discussion about vernacular planning paradigms, I would suggest exploring some of Boston’s neighborhood commercial centers, such as Brighton, Jamaica Plain, Roslindale, and West Roxbury. You could say that they are not planned in the sense that Government Center or the South Boston Seaport District have been planned, but they represent a combination of municipal/neighborhood planning (including Main Street programs) and many private initiatives. An important reason to engage these neighborhoods is that they are models for lively mixed-use centers that could be replicated in Boston’s far-flung suburbs. These organic neighborhood centers are incubators of small independent businesses that help create unique and sustainable communities.
In The Hub’s Metropolis, I trace the relationship between Boston and the suburbs to explain today’s metropolitan condition. From the 19th century until World War II, the suburbs were bedroom communities, single-function subsidiaries to the multi-functional central city. From 1945 until the 1990s, city and suburbs were in opposition. It was an era of “urban flight.” Thousands left Boston for the suburbs out of anti-urbanism and in search of the “bourgeois utopia.” Defenders of the city regarded suburbia with antagonism. By the 2000s, Boston became a national leader in urban redevelopment and there was broader acceptance of the legitimacy of both cities and suburbs. Greater Boston is a metropolitan mosaic, which should be appreciated as a sum and in its parts. There are still tensions around localism, NIMBYism, and class segregation, but there is a growing sense of interdependence and the need for a regional perspective on planning and development.
For more information on James’ work and this book, please take a look at his professional site, The Hub’s Metropolis.