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No small plans

Back in June of 2013, the Boston Society of Architects hosted the first candidates' forum for the first open mayor's seat in Boston in 20 years. Nine candidates spent two hours answering questions about architecture, planning, and design. I was asking the questions, and I was struck by the level of antipathy the candidates expressed toward Boston's development process — from its outdated zoning code to the Boston Redevelopment Authority's insular culture to the uninspired design of some of the city's public buildings and shared spaces.

Martin Walsh, who went on to be elected Boston's 54th mayor, spoke of the "frustration" large-scale developers and average residents alike experienced trying to work through the city's opaque procedures. He promised a more rational and transparent system for managing Boston's growth. And last spring, Walsh announced Imagine Boston 2030, a comprehensive plan to bring vision, clarity, and logic to the city's development goals. The plan, Walsh said, would "allow us to think about Boston's future on a global and historic scale while focusing on concrete, reachable goals."

This is the focus of "Framework," the first in a yearlong series of ArchitectureBoston issues that will examine various aspects of city and regional planning.

A similar reform impulse drove city planners in the early 1960s, the last time Boston tried to jolt itself into progressive change with a masterplan for development. "There was a malaise in the city," recalled Tunney Lee AIA, former head of the Department of Urban Studies and Planning at MIT who was on the young team that developed the 1965 "General Plan" for Boston. Lee said Boston's reputation as a den of rogues was repelling private investors. "Predictability and a lack of corruption is what they wanted." (We explore the 1965 plan in the gallery)

One stark difference, of course, is that in the 1960s, Boston was a faltering backwater. No building of any significance had been constructed since the 1930s. The Custom House tower was the tallest structure on what could barely be called a "skyline." As Alex Krieger FAIA, notes in his essay, "The once and future city," a paradox of Boston's recent history is that most of its boldest initiatives came in times of crisis or economic decline. A challenge of the current plan is how to galvanize bold ideas when things are going relatively well.

What kind of city do we want to be? This is the essential, even existential, question that undergirds Imagine Boston 2030. For every bow Boston can take as a youthful, brainy, prosperous innovator, it must accept demerits for its costly housing, its enduring divisions by race and income, its declining population of young families displaced by millennials and empty nesters. A recent study by the Brookings Institution found that Boston has the biggest income gap of all major cities in the United States. And we're headed in the wrong direction: Four years ago, Boston had the fourth biggest divide.

A close cousin to equity is resilience: Boston's ability to prepare for the physical and social shocks that come with climate change. Boston needs to site its new development wisely and retrofit its existing infrastructure so it can function in a weather emergency. Rising sea levels are just the start of it.

Almost as important as the policy outcomes of Imagine Boston 2030 are the quality and diversity of the civic engagement it promotes. Making Boston a more transparent and inclusive city means nothing short of a new model of municipal democracy. Not the 7 PM  meeting in a church basement attended by the same 30 activists. Not a top-down masterplan imposed on the city by an all-powerful institution. Not an unregulated market where the deepest pockets dictate design. A city of informed, engaged, enthusiastic residents with a direct role in building their own beautiful, welcoming city — that's the future Boston we want to imagine. ■

Renée Loth
Editor