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AT ISSUE: Bridge the gap

Field with Seawall, Chris Ballantyne, 2013. Acrylic on canvas, 20" × 16" Image: Courtesy of Hosfelt Gallery San Francisco.


The view from the street

by Jeffrey Rosenblum

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Boston’s population is at a 50-year high (with an 8 percent increase by 2030), but levels of car ownership and vehicle miles traveled are declining. What is going on? People today have different values as to what city life should look like, and auto-mobile ownership isn’t a big part of it. The pressure to rethink how we design our streets culminated in the concept of “complete streets,” which provides for safe, comfortable access by all modes of transportation with an emphasis on biking, walking, and transit. But a lack of coordination among adjacent municipalities hampers efforts to realize a truly rebalanced urban transportation system. Boston, Cambridge, Somerville, and Brookline, for example, each has its own bicycle network plan — and none acknowledges the existence of its neighbors.

Other cities may be considered parochial, but urban “Boston” really excels, with each municipality advancing its own planning agenda. Until a decade ago, Cambridge was the only city in the area with bike lanes, pedestrian-focused signal-timing policies, and innovative traffic-calming measures (and was generally scoffed at by neighbors). Drivers take for granted that a road is still a road as we pass seamlessly from one town to the next. But one day in the early 2000s, as I rode my bicycle from Central Square, Cambridge, toward Boston, the bicycle lane suddenly disappeared when I reached the bridge over the Charles River. The bridge is owned by the state, and the other side belongs to the City of Boston. But from a bicyclist’s perspective, it’s all one street.

It took some time, but now all municipalities in the area are in on the Complete Streets action. Somerville is building a protected bike lane on Beacon Street, Boston is running a Vision Zero corridor planning process for Massachusetts Avenue, Brookline is about to reconstruct the abominable pedestrian crossing across Route 9 by the Jamaica Way, and Newton engaged in some tactical urbanism by temporarily redesigning a street for a day. But only so much progress can be made with each jurisdiction taking advantage of low-hanging fruit, such as adding bike lanes where they are easy to fit in.

Planners now recognize that every street cannot be made ideal for every mode. So the real challenge we face is creating networks, especially low-stress bicycle networks and bus-priority networks. As we usher in the next generation of street designs, the public debate on how to allocate limited street space will grow only more contentious as we weigh the trade-offs. Without municipal coordination, we will end up with a patchwork of individual projects.

Municipalities have shown they can coordinate. (Witness Metropolitan Area Planning Council’s single-vendor Hubway bikeshare program and planning for the Urban Ring transit project.) Can Massachusetts Department of Transportation serve as convener? (If successful, the Lower Mystic Regional Working Group will be a model.) Coordination can also be initiated by a nonprofit (LivableStreets Alliance’s “Emerald Network” connecting Metro Boston’s greenways).

Somerville mayor Joseph Curtatone is a champion for regional thinking, but the big player is the most essential. There is still time for Mayor Martin J. Walsh to turn around the GoBoston 2030 planning process in order to become a catalyst and leader for regional coordination. ■

Jeffrey Rosenblum, who cofounded LivableStreets Alliance, is a PhD candidate in the Department of Urban Studies and Planning at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. He is a former transportation planner for the City of Cambridge.

A bone to pick

by Heidi Stucker

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Every day, long before the sun is up, truckloads of produce from around the country arrive in Massachusetts at the Chelsea Market. Within hours, fruits and vegetables are sorted and loaded back onto trucks that deliver to grocery stores, restaurants, wholesalers, and food service customers across the region. If you live in New England, when you sit down for dinner tonight, chances are your salad will have moved through this distribution system.

This wholesale produce terminal, straddling the municipal boundaries of Chelsea and Everett, is a crucial component of the regional food system, supplying fresh fruits and vegetables to more than 8 million people in Boston, New England, and parts of Canada. The New England Produce Center, the largest privately owned produce market in the country, along with the Boston Terminal Market, a smaller, adjacent produce market, make up the Chelsea Market.

The facility was built in 1968 on low-lying land that in the early 1900s was wetlands and a portion of the Island End River, since filled in. So, as climate change alters the existing borders between land and sea, this vital regional distribution hub is also at risk. By today’s measurements, it is susceptible to flooding; recent modeling released by the Massachusetts Department of Transportation shows that 5 feet of sea-level rise could inundate the Chelsea Market with up to 4 feet of water. According to flood projections, this could be possible within this century. Beacham Street is a deteriorating roadway that serves as the main access point for the Chelsea Market, and any amount of flooding here could cut off truck access and impede business and employment.

Ironically, Everett and Chelsea, the market’s host cities, have limited access to fresh fruits and vegetables. Vast quantities of produce enter and exit through these cities’ borders every day, yet little of it stays. Both cities have significantly elevated rates of diet-related illness — including hypertension and diabetes — and roughly one-third of residents are obese, as compared to 22 percent statewide. They have four full-service grocery stores between them, serving a combined population of 80,000 people, with both of Everett’s grocery stores located on the periphery of the city and feasibly accessed only by car or bus. Advocates suggest that these are too few and too difficult to get to. Community groups such as Everett Community Growers and Healthy Chelsea are increasing awareness and investment in food access issues by engaging residents in urban farming, community gardening, and hunger-relief efforts.

Increasingly tenuous regional food security and persistent community health issues in Everett and Chelsea call for deeper involvement by city and state governments and collaboration with community food advocacy groups and businesses. The interdis-ciplinary nature of food systems requires working across sectors, those conventionally boundaried. Solutions need to be advanced by whole communities.

Recent efforts suggest the political will is there to make change happen. Massachusetts and neighboring states have defined visions in recent years for building stronger food systems. New funding, through the Massachusetts Food Trust, will soon be available to improve food environments in underserved areas; it is now up to state leaders to dedicate this funding. The moment is right for forging new partnerships, working across bound-aries and sectors to ensure a healthy food supply for all. ■

Heidi Stucker is a food system planner with the Metropolitan Area Planning Council in Boston.

When a river runs through it

by EkOngKar Singh Khalsa

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Borders and the names of the spaces within them are useful in that they help us to organize our experience, direct our actions, and condition our behavior. We know that there is a difference between the math department and the English department. There is a different expectation of behavior in the waiting room and the assembly hall. These bounded areas also help to create spheres of influence and lines of authority. It is essential, however, to integrate the distinct places and definitions we inhabit by reference to those principles and conditions that transcend limited boundaries.

Working at the watershed level is useful to that purpose in that the watershed boundary disrupts municipal, agency, and commercial borders and ignores property lines and the rights of ownership. The watershed boundary simply describes an area in which all water flows toward a single point — a river, lake, or stream. The water cares little for contradictory human constructs.

Recognizing we all live in a watershed helps to highlight shared, though often unrecognized, resources and concerns, and it allows a small organization such as ours to have outsized impact.

Though the Mystic River Watershed Association (MYRWA) has no regulatory authority or specific legal standing in many cases, we make an important difference in public policy and regional planning decisions by simply reminding all participants that there are underlying and irreducible conditions to which we must attend.

There are 22 towns and cities in the Mystic River watershed, all with their own concerns and agenda, and four state and five federal agencies with a deep interest in watershed health. MYRWA often has served as a convener of these sometimes disparate interests and has helped to build consensus where often there was none.

A good case in point is the work MYRWA undertook to ensure that Torbert MacDonald Park in Medford received new funding for design and construction of long-overdue improvements. One of the largest waterfront parks in the Boston area, Torbert MacDonald suffered from poor access, extensive phragmites overgrowth on the river’s edge, and a lack of facilities and wayfinding in the park.

We brought together 10 state senators and representatives, the City of Medford, private philanthropists, and senior planners at the Massachusetts Department of Conservation and Recreation to achieve a common purpose. As a result, in 2016 and 2017 more than $650,000 will be spent on design for a new entry and playground, paving replacement throughout the park, a comprehensive invasive species removal, and the construction of a beautiful riverfront boat launch and sitting area. Without MYRWA’s persistent advocacy, this work would not be under way.

The watershed boundary gave MYRWA standing and helped us to knit together disparate community interests. Reference to a shared watershed gave municipal, state, and federal agencies reason to work together toward a common goal.

The flow of water through the landscape is essential to every living thing and the natural border of the watershed points out that many of the boundaries we create are artificial and are ours to ignore as necessary. ■

EkOngKar Singh Khalsa, executive director of the Mystic River Watershed Association through Sept. 12, has worked for 25 years in environmental protection and restoration, on low-impact and brownfields development, and on public policy issues associated with these arenas.

Getting on track

by Brad Bellows

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In the latter half of the 19th century, New England was knitted together by networks of railroads extending north, south, and west from Boston, built by private companies operating from eight facilities on the city’s edges. By 1900, these were consolidated into two grand terminals a mile apart. The need for further unification, via a rail tunnel between the two, was recognized almost immediately; but plans faltered during World War I, and the passenger rail industry itself nearly collapsed in the following decades as transportation policy embraced cars and highway expansion. The rail link’s proposed route became a notorious elevated highway. Now the pendulum is swinging back toward rail.

Our cities and regional highway system are collapsing under the weight of ever-increasing congestion. Millennials are embracing transit-oriented living while the economic, environmental, and social justice benefits of good public transportation are being increasingly understood. Good regional transportation not only protects air quality and fosters economic development but also is the single largest factor in a family’s ability to escape poverty and find affordable housing.

The recent challenges of our rail system notwithstanding, we should recognize that in its nearly 400 route miles and 138 stations, we have inherited the core of what could become a world-class regional rail network and at a far lower cost than would be required to create this anew — if that were even possible. System unification is the essential intervention that will unlock this potential. Why?

First, none of our fragmented rail lines provides effective distribution across Boston nor connects fully with existing transit lines, squandering the potential of both. Second, stub-end terminals are highly inefficient, needing vast rail yards on valuable urban land to park the necessary trains, limiting capacity and incurring operating cost penalties of up to $100 million per year. Finally, the disconnection of our northern and southern lines denies everyone north of Boston direct access to the Northeast Corridor, where 30 percent of US jobs are located.

By contrast, a unified system, connected to transit lines, will streamline rail operations while improving service, increasing ridership, unlocking hundreds of acres of urban land for higher uses, improving access to Boston, and creating opportunities for work and housing. You shouldn’t have to uproot the family if your job moves across our de facto Mason-Dixon Line.

Rail unification will benefit Boston, sparing it the waves of traffic it can otherwise expect while spurring investment in our older industrial cities that were built around rail and faltered with its decline. The current real estate bubbles in Boston and Cambridge are a measure of our broken regional transportation system, which rewards the few places that are easily accessible and punishes the rest. This pattern is unjust and unsustainable.

Cities around the world — Zurich, London, Berlin, Hong Kong, and Los Angeles, to name just a few — have built rail tunnels at reasonable cost and minimal disruption using the latest tunnel-boring machine technology, transforming “commuter rail” into the equivalent of urban transit at regional scale and forging a backbone for regional prosperity. This should be a key goal for Boston’s 400th anniversary in 2030. ■

Brad Bellows is an architect in Cambridge, Massachusetts, a board member of the Association for Public Transportation, and a member of the North South Rail Link Working Group.

From the edges, a new identity

by David Hacin FAIA

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Boston is a city of neighborhoods in a region well known as a patchwork of towns with sharply contrasting physical and economic characteristics. We take pride in our Old World DNA and how geography has fostered and preserved unique communities. The city can seem like a medieval territory not unlike the opening title sequence of Game of Thrones with its spinning fiefdoms, full of intrigue that pits one neighborhood against the perceived encroachments of another.

The almost tribal nature of how our communities have been defined, culturally and physically, is visible in architecture — from the brick bowfronts of the South End to the wood-frame triple-deckers of Dorchester — but also in how they rub up against one another.

This is evident in neighborhoods such as Southie, the Back Bay, and the South End and in enclaves such as Bay Village and Savin Hill; all have boundaries that are clearly understood as a highway, street, or set of train tracks, often bordered by ragged stretches of “no-man’s land.” These areas of scarred, underused land resulted from deindustrialization, ’60s-era urban renewal, and the failed (and realized) transportation plans of decades past. These borderlands have allowed neighborhoods to keep their distance.

In the past few decades, repair came in the form of public connections such as the Southwest Corridor Park, the Prudential Center arcades, and, most recently, the Rose F. Kennedy Greenway. Until recently, many adjacent neighborhoods have remained disconnected from one another by physical and psychological boundaries.

In a city starved for land and reinvigorated by economic and population growth, something was bound to give eventually. Development has moved from contested and congested central areas to the edges. Boundary zones have gone from being “nowhere places” to “well connected” in marketing copy; the real estate website Curbed has even suggested that we may need to create neighborhood names for these newly hot in-between places, such as D Street in South Boston. The next generation of young workers, eager to be centrally located and car free, is blissfully unaware of the identity politics that have characterized Boston for years.

Adjacent to my South End neighborhood, the so-called New York streets area is exploding with development, including a previously unimaginable Whole Foods market; with two existing Asian supermarkets and competing outdoor Sunday markets, the area is becoming a destination for thousands of Bostonians. A few years ago, this area barely existed as an identifiable place on a map; today, residents of South Boston, the South End, Bay Village, and Chinatown share common ground, and the streets are alive with activity and diversity — and quite a bit of traffic. The same is happening all over town. Boston is being sewn back together piece by piece, like a beloved patchwork quilt that needed serious repair to become whole again.

Does this mean our city can finally grow together in other ways as well? Will decades of cultural barriers be broken down by a new sense of connectedness? Decide for yourself: Walk along Boylston from Fenway to Back Bay, take the T to Andrew Square or Dudley Square, or visit the SoWa/South End markets on a Sunday. Boston is changing. The borders are slowly disappearing. It feels like a new city. ■

David Hacin FAIA is the founding principal and president of Hacin + Associates and a member of the Boston Civic Design Commission.

Illustrations: Chris Sanderson, a Boston-based illustrator, has worked as an artist and designer for more than 15 years.