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The Spaces In Between

Think beyond buildings to forge a new civic identity

Achieving the delicate balance of power between the private and public realms in any city is equal parts aspirational and daunting. Too often our urban landscape is inspired by civic ambition yet shaped by commercial interests. Forget the number of cranes dotting Boston's skyline these days; it's time to reexamine our definitions of growth and prosperity, look at new measures of success, and create value that extends beyond the properties themselves. This is a moment when we can bring bolder visions—and visionaries­—to the built and open spaces that connect and contribute to public life.

Humanity of scale, excellence of design, and the activa- tion of public and open spaces are all demonstrated strategies to build and sustain social capital in neighborhoods. Together, they create a distinctiveness of place that cities like Boston can use to shape a civic identity.

When Boston's Innovation District was first imagined, for example, it was envisioned as an area unique in its combination of natural waterfront resources and space forcreative endeavors. It would be distinct from the Financial District or Kendall Square and would symbolize a new, global Boston. Aspirations soared for this diverse new neighborhood, which would add to the city's beauty and architecture, embodying contemporary principles of urbanism, sustainability, and creativity.

Today we have a rare opportunity to recalibrate Boston's buildings, parks, and cultural spaces, adding "Arts" to "Eds and Meds" as the anchor institutions of our city.

As one of the area's first permanent buildings, the Institute of Contemporary Art (ICA) became a 21st-century architectural triumph for Boston. Its design declares that it could not be anywhere else but on the waterfront. The architecture deliberately blurs inside and outside, with wood defining both the indoor theater and outdoor seating; its views move visitors through the building with carefully placed reveals of water and cityscape. Its grandstand offers free public gathering places that provide access to the harbor. Although the art is predominantly inside, the entire museum is an invitation to the waterfront.

Its success in attracting thousands to the Innovation District is a testament to the civic and architectural vision of the museum's leaders and its architects, Diller Scofidio + Renfro, and a celebration of public access, strong design, and artistic excellence.

Boston must now leverage new opportunities to create cultural value through new buildings, spaces, and partnerships. New York's High Line, also designed by Diller Scofidio + Renfro, is wildly successful as urban architecture and as a magnet for millions. Like the ICA, it had a set of visionary supporters who marshaled the political, local, and financial resources necessary to create an overnight landmark and cultural destination. Boston's Rose Kennedy Greenway could have been such a distinctive landmark, but it suffers in comparison. Crippled for years by orphan status and the lack of a bold mandate, it was approached as a problem rather than an opportunity. With great determination, the Greenway is making headway on programs and plantings; think what that perseverance might have generated in partnership with intrepid architectural and political leadership.

The tendency to rely on permanent public art as a design solution to liven up commercial spaces is also often less than visionary. Even in the absence of a formal "one percent for art" set-aside program, public art is frequently mandated as mitigation for permitting large commercial developments. Harvard professor Jerold Kayden has documented the danger in this strategy, showing that privately owned public spaces such as building plazas and parks tend to be underutilized and marginal. The public art placed in these spaces tends to underperform because permanent interventions in private spaces generally depend on bureaucratic consensus—a lowest common denominator often antithetical to big vision and bold art. Anish Kapoor's Cloud Gate in Chicago's Millennium Park is an exception, closer to the High Line and the ICA in the political and artistic vision it required.

Today we have a rare opportunity to recalibrate our buildings, parks, and cultural spaces, adding "Arts" to "Eds and Meds" as the anchor institutions of our city. Let's cast a critical eye on where and how the public and private realms meet. We can rethink the spaces between buildings to expand the open spaces on the waterfront, preserving human scale and public access on the water's edge. It's time to retire the shortsighted argument that waterfront space is too expensive for anything but luxury condos and high-priced office buildings. From New York City to Seattle to Shanghai, creating vibrant waterfronts has become a successful strategy for building a healthy economy.

With these models in mind, I offer the following recommendations:

  • Connect conversations about open space and the environment with those about cultural planning and economic development. The solution to rising tides, for example, can be achieved with the combined expertise of design and technology, and creating equitable, sustainable, and culturally rich communities requires the arts.
  • Launch a new approach to "Privately Owned Public Spaces." New York's Lower Manhattan Cultural Council exists for just this purpose. It works with artists; community organizations; and civic, corporate, and cultural leaders to foster artistic growth and long-term sustainability. What is Boston's version?
  • Create a critical mass and distinctive mix of innovators and institutions in the Innovation District. Small parks, one modest-sized museum, and District Hall are simply not enough to balance the private buildings that wall off the waterfront from the public.
  • Invest in bold vision and visionaries. The venerable spaces and buildings that capture the civic spirit of Boston value public good over private wealth: the Boston Public Library and Trinity Church bookending Copley Square; Boston Common and the Public Garden; the Emerald Necklace and Esplanade. Each was the work of strong individuals—political, philanthropic, cultural, civic, religious—who believed in the importance of a common good. It is in thinking beyond bricks and mortar that Boston will create real value and lasting prosperity. ■