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Desire lines

I grew up in a New York suburb right on the border of Greenwich, Connecticut. In those days, the legal drinking age in New York State was still 18, and every weekend, thirsty pilgrims under age 21 streamed over the line to get soused in our town. It didn’t take long for me to resent the interlopers who sullied my community’s reputation — or to recognize the distortions that artificial boundaries can create.

The nation has since settled on a unified drinking age, but a patchwork of sometimes capricious, often conflicting municipal regulations remains, governing everything from taxes to tolls to the size of buildable lots. 

In 1992, I spent several weeks in the frontier town of Texarkana, covering Ross Perot’s presidential bid. My hotel was on the Texas side of State Line Avenue. Texarkana was a “dry” town, dotted with neat homes and churches, while just across the street, on the Arkansas side, a honky-tonk of bars, tattoo parlors, and shops selling liquor and fireworks proliferated. 

Sure, there’s something charming about a system where each community can create its own distinctive character, but a slavish devotion to local quirks badly impedes our efforts to plan a shared future. This issue of ArchitectureBoston, third in our “The Year of the Plan” series, considers the challenges and potential benefits of regional cooperation across geographic, political, and even psychological lines.

New England is particularly susceptible to traditions of local control, with its town meetings and other colonial vestiges. But there’s a thin line between pride and parochialism. Here in Boston, the welter of jurisdictions with a claim on every decision — neighborhood, city, county, state, and sometimes quasi-governmental entities such as Massport — can derail the most dedicated designers. Boston and Cambridge have both embarked on major efforts to develop comprehensive city plans, but the two communities rarely consult each other — even though they each hired the same planning and architecture firm.

Like most things that divide us, borders are manmade. There’s nothing inherently more enlightened or benighted about one community over another except that politics or economics make it so. These divisions — between city and suburb, town and gown, classical and modern — are mere social constructs, as artificial as synthetic turf and often just as ugly. In “Why can’t we all just get along?” (page 32) Dante Ramos counts the ways that tribal identity politics can stymie progress. But on page 31, David Hacin FAIA sees fresh possibilities in the undeveloped territories between existing neighborhoods.

Several articles in this issue also look at conditions that don’t submit to arbitrary constraints. The environment knows no boundaries, and neither do environmental threats such as climate change or industrial pollution. Rivers, breezes, the fog, and pollinating bees all meander indiscriminately between farm, harbor, and city. Nature abhors a border. 

Commuter traffic, commerce, and electronic networks also flow to the place of greatest efficiency, oblivious to lines on a map. The information superhighway — that 1990s metaphor for the Internet — suggested an unimpeded current of data. But the better image is the World Wide Web, its spidery branches making ingenuous, unexpected connections. 

This is as it should be. Because, really, most of life is not bounded by bright lines but instead moves on a continuum. Who can tell the precise moment when black shades to gray and then to white? Or when dawn subsides to day? Recognizing the truth of our interdependence will move us all forward, and not just when it comes to zoning regulations. 

Our boundaries are more porous than we think. It’s time we start acting that way. ■