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Our Fair City

When the ArchitectureBoston team was first sketching out the scope of this issue—before we even knew who Boston's new mayor would be—I gathered a small group of architects and planners for a brainstorming session. I explained that the magazine would be addressing the challenges facing the city's first new mayor in 20 years but only insofar as they involve urban-design issues: housing, transportation, development, and the like. "So, not anything about the public schools or crime," I explained.

One person at the table politely pushed back. "But schools are a design issue," she said. "Crime is a design issue."

Precisely so. This holistic understanding of design—that good architecture can enhance every navigation of daily life and that bad or indifferent architecture can diminish it—is the unspoken theme of this magazine. When it comes to building the kind of city we want Boston to be—safe, open, healthy, beautiful, and fair—every issue is a design issue.

Cities around the United States today are in a far better place than the last time Boston inaugurated a new mayor. From Seattle to Charlotte, cities are enjoying a renaissance few would have predicted during the bad old days of bankruptcies and broken windows. For the first time in years, Boston's population is growing, and it isn't beyond imagining that it could regain its peak of 801,000 souls, last reached in 1950. (Indeed, as Stephanie Pollack notes in her article on the transportation crush, if you count commuters, it already has.) Many of Boston's current challenges are the wages of growth and prosperity: congestion, gentrification, the $7 million condo, the $300,000 parking space.

For too many residents, however, such "problems" are a distant rumor. So it's no surprise that most of the articles in this magazine wrestle with questions of social equity. How can Boston create more housing for the 99 percent? Why do the lowest-income neighborhoods have the longest commutes? What explains the endurance of the informal divisions that keep a dynamic city Balkanized, when neighborhood boundaries are, after all, only lines on a map?

Good design has the answer to these questions, from intelligent zoning and land use to physical and social connectors like bike paths and reliable transit.

Sometimes the dividing lines are not metaphors. On my own street in Brighton, a fence literally separates Boston from the Newton border, preventing through traffic and confounding GPS devices. But the psychological divisions are more insidious. When Boston crows because it lures Vertex Pharmaceuticals from Cambridge, or wails because it loses Partners HealthCare to Somerville, each community suffers. The neighborhood chauvinism that has long defined Boston extends from Quincy to Brookline to Chelsea, with baleful results for public investments in transportation, housing, and economic development. "Regional co-operation" is a phrase that elicits yawns from the most earnest policy wonk, but other cities are much better at it. We should heed Benjamin Franklin's warning about hanging together or hanging separately.

We need everyone pulling together because it will take public resources to build on the region's achievements and more broadly share its success. Billions in taxpayer dollars were spent cleaning up Boston Harbor and tearing down the Central Artery, and the dividends have been profound. A fraction of that kind of investment could spell the difference between a vibrant, connected city with a beating heart and a pretty stage set with a brittle core.

Carl Sandburg famously called Chicago the "city of the big shoulders." Boston is the city of big brains. A trailblazing leader from bifocal lenses to anesthesia to the safety razor to First Night, Boston is poised to reinvent itself into a new city. Let's make it one where everyone sings the same tune and really means it: Oh, Boston! You're my home. ■