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On Framework (Spring 2016)

In reading Alex Krieger’s essay (“The once and future city”), which encourages us to dream big again in planning Boston, I was struck by his modest expectations for the public sector’s role. He cites the many transformative developments in our city’s history that were accomplished by bold public funding accompanied by legacy governance structures, and he identifies critical planning questions facing us today: Can a steady stream of private development “be channeled for greater public good? Beyond welcoming development, is our public sector keep­ing up with its responsibility?”

After 20 years at the Boston Redevelopment Authority (BRA), I wonder if we have been perhaps too successful in channeling public benefits from private and institutional development. We have allowed our public sector to scale back on its share of responsibility in public realm and infrastructure investments. During the last two decades, Boston’s planning and development review process has focused on managing private and institutional development to mitigate negative impacts and maximize public benefits. In the process, our city has set the gold standard in leveraging private contributions to improve the public realm.

In “Ivory powers,” Ann Beha highlights some of the tremendous city building done by our universities. But she notes that the city’s permitting and review process is costly and excessive and may have become a disincentive for innovation. I wonder whether the current expectations and scale of the exactions have become disproportionately large.

How did the public sector become so timid? Is this the lingering effect of the Big Dig? The project was allowed to wind down without completing promised surface parks for the Rose F. Kennedy Greenway and associated transit commit­ments. Surely the BRA would not have allowed a private developer or institution this much slack? Should the public have to rely on the Conservation Law Foundation to file suit against the Commonwealth to enforce promises of expanding transit?

The most urgent planning challenges for our city and region — climate resiliency, income inequality, housing affordability — will require unprecedented public sector leadership, ingenuity, and funding. The Imagine Boston 2030 planning effort is a great opportunity to recalibrate aspirations for the public sector and to create a new compact in which we all agree to elevate our proportionate contributions for the public good and hold each other accountable to our commitments.

Kairos Shen
Visiting Lecturer, MIT Center for Real Estate
Cambridge, Massachusetts

Alex Krieger throws down the gauntlet in his excellent piece. As director of a regional planning agency serving Boston and 100 surrounding cities and towns, I second his call for dreaming big and suggest extending that call to the entire metro region. In recent years, we have seen a resurgence of strong planning at the municipal level: Somerville, Cambridge, Arlington, Watertown, Woburn, Boston, and others have undertaken masterplans. And our regional plan, MetroFuture, provides a bold yet achievable road map to a more sustainable, equitable region.

Massachusetts is one of the few states that does not require local zoning codes and permitting procedures to be consistent with masterplans, so implementation is where things can fall apart. The good news is that progress toward a more prosperous and inclusive future is happening through the individual efforts of the public, private, and nonprofit sectors. We are also seeing greater regional coordination through such efforts as the Metro Mayors Coalition, which includes 14 mayors and managers, including Boston Mayor Martin Walsh. The bad news is the challenges we face are significant: income and asset inequality, the high cost of housing, and the expected impacts of climate change, to name but three. These challenges require a vigorous and sustained response if we are to succeed in overcoming them — and none can be accomplished by any one city acting alone.

That’s why masterplanning efforts must “talk to each other.” The people who live and work here pass seamlessly across municipal lines. They may live in one city, work in another town, and send their kids to school or activities in a third. Often, they don’t even know (or care) when they cross a municipal boundary. We owe them a plan for the future that conforms to the patterns of their lives. Intermunicipal collaboration must become a centerpiece of our planning efforts.

Marc Draisen
Executive Director Metropolitan Area Planning Council

Imagine Boston 2030 comes in the middle of one of the most remarkable transformations in urban history as 21st-century cities redefine themselves. Low-density auto-dependent suburbanization is giving way to an appreciation of what cities at their best can provide: community, places of culture and business that we can walk to, mass transit, and a wealth of amenities that can’t be supported without density. Cities like Boston can provide meaningful responses to the issues of social inequity and environmental challenges.

Alex Krieger appropriately exhorts us to embrace new forms of civic generosity, broadening the beneficiaries of change beyond the private sector investment clientele as we expand our shared common ground. “Lesson plans” from other cities urge us not only to think big but also to think laterally, from resourcefully clawing back green gains in Philadelphia to cultural planning that leverages diversity in Los Angeles to investing in human capital in Oklahoma City to resurrecting neglected bayous in Houston and undervalued architecture in Detroit.

As Boston looks to its own future, this reset is a wonderful opportunity to tap the shared wisdom and creativity of Bostonians while addressing big opportunities like creating new parks along the harbor and developing a more transparent planning process that improves neighborhoods and housing affordability.

Ken Greenberg
Greenberg Consultants Inc.

Brian Swett’s “Ready or not?” rightfully highlights Boston’s vulnerability to climate change from extreme weather events. Cities comprise interconnected systems, and the resiliency of the area’s buildings, neighborhoods, transportation, energy, and water infrastructure are critical for our region’s long-term survival. Many architects have embraced preventative strategies aimed at mitigating climate change with such programs as the AIA 2030 Commitment, LEED, and the Living Building Challenge, and the City of Boston published “Building Resilience in Boston” as a best practice guide for existing buildings. While designers must focus on minimizing environmental impacts, we also need to embrace and implement the principles for creating resilient communities.

Swett highlights the actions that have been taken, but I would argue that we need to be bolder and continue to be national leaders on climate mitigation. For the past few years, the American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy has ranked Massachusetts number one. Swett cites New York, London, and Copenhagen but neglects to mention the city of Cambridge’s aggressive plan to get to zero carbon emissions for all buildings by 2030. The adoption of a similar framework for Greater Boston will increase the scale of the plan’s impact while establishing the area as a national leader in preparing for climate change.

Andrea Love AIA
Associate Principal, Payette

Community engagement. Public process. Neighborhood outreach. No matter what the title, we’ve all witnessed successful events and epic failures. Many public agencies are still beholden to the three-meeting process: 1. a review of oppor-tunities and constraints, and a listening session, 2. preliminary design-alternative presentation, and 3. the eagerly anticipated preferred plan unveiling (cue the confetti). As landscape architects, architects, urban designers, and planners, it is up to us to push our clients’ expectations about how civic engagement can be performed. Increasingly, the profile of our “public” is diversifying. It is no longer reasonable to expect that the midweek school cafeteria meeting is going to be accessible for everyone interested in participating.

Russell Preston’s “Bring on the Joy” highlights innovative ways his firm is yielding meaningful results. Renting a cottage in the project neighborhood? The potential for tricky conversations and awkward encounters multiplies infinitely. And that is exactly what design professionals must embrace in order to yield results that are grounded in local context and shaped as a reflection of community ideals. This takes guts, and it is what separates those who succeed and those who fail as they wrangle complex design challenges through the permitting and public feedback processes.

So bring it on! Take the plunge into the messy, unpredictable waters of true civic engagement. The results will be authentic, inspired, and joyful.

Cheri Ruane ASLA
President, Boston Society of Landscape Architects
Vice President, Spurr | Weston & Sampson’s Design Studio