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Building a New Boston: Politics and Urban Renewal, 1950 to 1970

by Thomas H. O’Connor (Northeastern University Press, 1993)
reviewed by Matthew J. Kiefer

How Boston has changed in the last 20 years! A cleaned-up harbor, a buried highway, loads of downtown housing, and myriad incremental improvements everywhere. But it’s nothing compared with how much Boston changed from the end of Mayor James Michael Curley’s reign in 1949 to the completion of the new City Hall in 1969: Think of the Central Artery and the Turnpike, the Prudential Center and Hynes Auditorium, Government Center and the West End, the first downtown skyscrapers since the Custom House Tower, and enormous public housing projects in virtually every neighborhood.

What accounts for the difference? In two words: urban renewal, a federal program practiced in Boston with unmatched vigor and ambition. Boston College historian Thomas O’Connor treats this as essentially a political story, telling planning stories along the way. Despite the book’s subtitle, he begins with the Curley era in the 1930s and ends with the rebirth of the waterfront and Faneuil Hall Marketplace in the late 1970s.

Though associated with Mayor John Collins, the “New Boston” really began with his predecessor John Hynes, who vanquished the parochial Curley machine. Hynes tapped federal funds, the idealism of returning veterans, and popular faith in government, uniting the business community, the cardinal, and the newspapers (all of which really mattered) behind reshaping downtown Boston. Collins, with the benefit of a newly created Boston Redevelopment Authority (BRA) and increased federal largesse, embarked on a citywide makeover and presided over the implementation of what Hynes had started.

The promise of economic redemption for a once-proud city overcame the old Irish/Yankee divide. But over time, a backlash against forced relocation, sweetheart real estate deals, and social engineering engendered a downtown-vs.-the-neighborhood divide that acquired a racial dimension during the explosive 1960s.

Under Ed Logue, the BRA learned from its mistakes, adopting historic preservation, citizen participation, and pedestrian orientation — ideas that dissenters such as Lewis Mumford, Jane Jacobs, and Walter Muir Whitehill championed during the Modernist ascendancy of Victor Gruen and I. M. Pei. Vindicated by the improbable success of Faneuil Hall Marketplace, this change in approach came relatively quickly — it was, after all, only a dozen years from the annihilation of the West End until the Rouse Company was tapped to rehabilitate the moldering Quincy Market in 1973.

The book — and the era it recounts — provokes an uncomfortable mixture of revulsion and nostalgia. Though now embedded in local mythology, the naive planning ideas and ruthless methods of the early days are still shocking to read about. But the notions that central cities warrant federal government support and that planning can be a transformative endeavor are beguiling during an era of limited government, strained municipal resources, endless negotiation of development exactions, and cautious intervention in adapting the city for the changes ahead.

Too Big to Fall: America’s Failing Infrastructure and the Way Forward

by Barry B. LePatner (Foster Publishing, 2010)
reviewed by Ian Baldwin

Beginning with the 2007 collapse of the I-35W bridge in Minneapolis, Too Big to Fall shows us the equally shocking failure of the Minnesota Department of Transportation (MN/DOT) to avoid it. Scarily, Barry LePatner finds, this cynical neglect of bridges is entrenched nationwide.

This persuasive indictment comes, not surprisingly, from a lawyer. LePatner’s autopsy of the hem-and-haw correspondence between MN/DOT and its sundry consultants leading up to the disaster is a gripping — and infuriating — read. He also debunks the report by the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) blaming a 40-year-old design flaw in the gusset plates and reveals that MN/DOT itself may have hastened the collapse by progressively increasing live and dead loads on a structurally deficient bridge designed for 60,000 cars a day but carrying 160,000.

There is plenty of unease to go around. The Longfellow Bridge connecting Boston and Cambridge stands out as an example of the cost of neglecting regular upkeep. Its renovation is estimated to cost $267 million, or three times one estimate for simple maintenance over the years. And I won’t be enjoying the view from the Mount Hope Bridge as long as 22 percent of Rhode Island’s bridges are logged as structurally deficient, one of the worst rates in the country.

Some may find LePatner’s explanation of how we got here simplistic (Jane Jacobs plus MBAs equals cowed engineers), but he demonstrates that publicsector engineering departments have also marginalized themselves, becoming indecisive, overly thrifty, standards-reliant, and politicized. The NTSB report that LePatner adeptly discredits was produced under a nonengineer chairman, a political appointee with a background in public relations.

LePatner holds up New York’s iconic Williamsburg Bridge as a counterexample to I-35W. After inspections in the mid-’80s found a split column, a 10-foot rip in the deck grating, and 400 holes in the bridge’s steel, the ugly legacy of deferred maintenance was clear. Elizabeth Dole, then secretary of transportation, initially blocked funds for repairs, preferring a replacement meeting federal standards. Fortunately, the city was able to negotiate a rehab, saving an estimated $300 million in the process.

This governmental penchant for rebuilding is at the heart of the crisis. “America is always about the next new thing,” LePatner writes. Politicians know that hooking federal funds for a new bridge creates jobs and photo ops, but raising taxes for routine maintenance creates angry voters. LePatner calls for leadership, but a society grown fat on first-rate infrastructure at little cost to end users tends to create entitled citizens, not bite-the-bullet officials. LePatner’s other suggestions — an infrastructure bank, reformulated funding, better inspections, and national coordination — are laudable, but I wonder if time may trump technique. When a healthy economy returns, so will business as usual. We will round the curve, touch the accelerator, and sail out over the void once more, oblivious to what lies beneath.

The New Politics of Planning: How States and Local Governments Are Coming to Common Ground on Reshaping America’s Built Environment

by Arthur C. Nelson and Robert E. Lang (Urban Land Institute, 2009)
reviewed by Ellen Whittemore

In the US, land-use controls have always reflected our values in terms of how we choose to develop our metropolitan areas. As Arthur C. Nelson and Robert E. Lang report, these values have recently shifted, swinging away from a market-driven, piecemeal approach to planning that is lacking in environmental accountability to one that measures success against environmental criteria and the impact on our quality of life.

Concerned by the nation’s exponential population growth, the authors argue that “the way we grow now is broken” and that a “new dialogue” between private and public property rights is emerging to rebalance the situation. To substantiate their view, they present a brief history of land use in the US and a statistical analysis of recent state legislative action, and ground their proposition in six case studies of states that show the effect of this legislative change.

Overall, their analysis finds that this “new dialogue” is taking place on several fronts. First, legislation has become more favorable toward environment planning and increasingly committed to planning in general. Second, voters are willing to raise taxes for Smart Growth initiatives. Third, private, nonprofit land trusts and public land acquisitions have been gaining in popularity as alternative ways to control development. Fourth, private governance, in the form of homeowner’s associations (HOAs) and the like, has been expanding along with special taxing districts, such as business improvement districts (BIDs). Fifth, and finally, legislative protection for private property rights and compensation for lost value due to new Smart Growth initiatives have increased, a rebalancing of protections in the wake of the Kelo v. New London eminent-domain decision.

The way we grow may indeed be broken, but what the authors characterize as alternative development strategies (HOAs and private, nonprofit land trusts) is somewhat troubling. It is true that these mechanisms can fill a void that local public governments often cannot. However, they need to be looked at in terms of their impact on the public domain or, perhaps more precisely, the diminution of the public domain. Also, the authors focus on US planning trends but, in an era where new cities are forming on a regular basis worldwide, a mention of what is happening on the international front would be well placed, especially as the book’s publisher is the Urban Land Institute, a worldwide organization.

This a small book with a lot of depth. The authors have brought their experience, resources, and intellect to a complex situation in order to provide the reader with a cogent and useful definition of the problem facing planners in an era of exponential growth and an increasingly fragile environment. Let’s not forget, after all, that a well-defined problem is, in large part, the beginning of a solution.