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On Public/Private (Spring 2015)

Reading Jerold Kayden’s article suggesting we catalog Boston’s Privately Owned Public Spaces (POPS), I was struck by the simple elegance of this idea and the disappointing realization that I know very few of them. In an issue where much of the writing addresses the challenges associated with engaging the private sector and designing successful public spaces, Kayden’s message is positive and suggests an attainable course of action.

In support of that, I would like to add the Harvard Art Museums to the list of Boston’s public/private treasures. (I should note that I had the great fortune of collaborating with the Renzo Piano Building Workshop on this project, so I am certainly biased!) Throughout the design process, Harvard encouraged us to engage the greater Cambridge community for feedback about the architecture. We focused on developing a building that would “front” to the city as well as to the campus. We sought to be sensitive to the Carpenter Center next door and to the historic fabric of the original Fogg Museum.

But these considerations were all about the nature of the boundaries between the museums and said little about public access. It was Harvard that decided the ground-floor public spaces should be open and unfettered. It was the museums’ director, Tom Lentz, who decided to forgo the revenue of admission in order to share the iconic courtyard with the public. Through its new operational model and a design that includes entrances on multiple façades, the building welcomes equally those who plan to visit the galleries and those who might simply take a shortcut through the courtyard on their way to the T.

This sort of solution is very much ingrained in our practice, and we have several current projects, including ones at Northeastern and Boston University, that will add to the city’s inventory of privately owned public spaces. For projects like these, the approval process is not always linked to the inclusion of public spaces, but academic clients can often see the benefit of improving their connection to the city. This is more difficult, but not impossible, with non-institutional clients.

In an era where it is necessary to worry about issues of liability, maintenance, and return on investment, I am relieved to find examples of “win-win” solutions that seem to break the rules. While the Boston Redevelopment Authority can and should continue to push us from the approvals side of the equation, I hope that as design professionals we can find ways to encourage our clients to think as Harvard did in this case. Sometimes providing a true public amenity might be just what is needed to develop a compelling and engaging private realm.

Charles Klee AIA
Payette, Boston

The “Public/Private” issue captured ideas about many of the boundaries and mixing zones that exist in modern cities and raised some provocative questions about how we should govern and regulate space to meet the diverse needs of city dwellers. However, I hope a future issue will focus on that most significant and largest element of our communities’ shared space, comprising more than 30 percent of total land area: streets and sidewalks.

Why do I call these spaces shared? Because we cede streets and sidewalks to much private activity, including parking private vehicles for far less than the space would command as a rental unit. (Parking spaces are about 160 square feet, or half the size of the micro-units described in Aeron Hodges’ article!) And while our streets are busy with vehicles for several peak hours each day, from 8 p.m. to 6 a.m. we could probably devote much of that space to a more diverse and interesting set of uses than driving.

When we turn to sidewalks, we truly encounter the city’s living room. Here we share travel, sightseeing, social life, eating, people watching, shopping, talking, and daydreaming. The fine-tuned balancing act that we expect from a city’s sidewalks — open to all 24/7, cared for by a wide cast of characters (municipal employees, private landowners, business associations, everyone who picks up a piece of trash or teaches their child not to litter), both loved and abused — is the most intensive and least understood piece of our shared landscape. Sidewalks are worth studying and managing better. How can we ensure that sidewalks are promptly cleared of snow? Repaved and maintained? Lined with healthy shade trees and flush tree grates? Swept and washed? A great city needs great sidewalks, and we need the design community to be part of that conversation.

Wendy Landman
WalkBoston, Boston