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Two Cities: One Future

Two cities with different issues, identities and planning priorities — for the first time, their respective urban-design gurus brainstorm on why the two cities are connected by much more than a river.

See the related story Transforming the Lost Half Mile.

See statistics comparing Boston and Cambridge.

The Charles River both links and divides. While tourists, commuters, and joggers move back and forth seamlessly, in more meaningful ways, the two separate cities of Boston and Cambridge operate as two different worlds. Locally, the perception is one of separate parts. The “People’s Republic of Cambridge” is seen as a universe apart from Southie or Beacon Hill. And in the global quest to attract new companies and new talent, the two cities may need to compete with each other, while being perceived as one by the rest of the world.

Daily life activities-shopping, museums, dining-ignore municipal boundaries.<br>Sketch by Prataap Patrose Assoc. AIA Clusters of influence--Many neighborhoods--such as Longwood or Kendall Square--are part of a global network in which the dividing line of the Charles loses its significance.<br>Sketch by Prataap Patrose Assoc. AIA Waterfront cities--For centuries, Cambridge and Boston have been increasing landmass, streamlining their shorelines, and growing towards each other.<br>Sketch by Prataap Patrose Assoc. AIA Sketch by Prataap Patrose Assoc. AIA
Sketch by Prataap Patrose Assoc. AIA Sketch by Prataap Patrose Assoc. AIA Sketch by Prataap Patrose Assoc. AIA  

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How can we embrace our role in the global economy?

The world is rapidly shifting from a top-down corporate culture to a youth-driven culture of ideas; the cities of Boston and Cambridge are an internationally recognized ideas hub. Stunning facts demonstrate the depth of this young, vibrant culture. In Boston, one in three residents is between the ages of 25 and 35, while Cambridge has a student population of 44,639 — a reasonably sized city itself — of whom approximately 20% come from abroad. Combined, we have the highest number of creative professionals per capita anywhere.

We are one region made up of complementary parts. This is essential to maintaining and strengthening our leading role in the New World Order of Ideas.

How do we complement each other?

Cambridge and Boston, alone or combined, have enviable clusters of innovation: The Longwood Medical Area to Kendall Square or MIT to the Seaport Innovation District all attract the best of 21st-century investment and talent. This is further augmented by our extremely diverse population. Neighborhoods from Beacon Hill to Harvard Square or East Cambridge to Hyde Park offer a vast array of lifestyle choices and are complemented by centers of art and culture such as the BSO, the ICA, Harvard’s Fogg Art Museum, and MIT’s Media Lab. Both cities have been consistently voted “most walkable” by major magazines and indexes. In short, we are an array of world-class institutions and neighborhoods that provides a rich network of urban options and opportunities. All this is set in a dense, sustainable, easily accessible compact landmass that is well suited to keep us a global model for complementary economic and urban development. Our assets are larger than the sum of the parts. The challenge, then, is less about changing our urban setting and more about changing perceptions.

Architects and planners are at the forefront of influencing public perception through the facts and stories we choose to highlight and the ideas we reinforce through design. In our medical and educational clusters, we build to complement one another; in our physical connections and bridges, we repair and reinforce how mindful we are of the skylines and street views; and, in the physical and symbolic “lanes of innovation,” from bike lanes to the Innovation Express, we connect. A healthy rivalry is part of what makes both cities richer, by increasing our depth of options for those who want to explore, invest, play, and live here. Architects and urban designers are in the business of visualizing alternative futures in which the parts and whole can be seen as different yet complementary.

The design qualities of the Boston region reflect our New England culture: Our history is one of different villages growing together into an intricate urban web, featuring diverse New England squares and commons as uniquely defined, livable centers. We are all enriched by respecting these special spatial qualities, even as we welcome excellent new architecture, expand our extensive network of open spaces, and increase the density of our urban centers. Architects can serve as curators and spokespeople for this concept of “different yet complementary” when designing buildings, streets, open spaces, and whole new districts that define and connect the complex urban fabric joined by the Charles River. Where could we be working to strengthen the perception of the Boston/Cambridge region as a whole?

Our Open-Space System

The Charles River Basin has long been the defining public open space for our region, and the New Charles River Basin will extend that space to the harbor. For decades, the parks along the Charles have been disconnected from the public spaces of Boston Harbor, separated by dams, highways, railroad tracks, and other urban infrastructure. A design process, with representatives from Boston, Cambridge, and the Commonwealth, is transforming this “Lost Half-Mile” into a place for people. Recent successes include the addition of 40 acres of new parkland connecting miles of newly accessible river frontage from the Charles River Basin to Boston Harbor. More coordinated work is on the way. Where is the next “lost mile” for us to tackle together?

Our Transportation System

Cambridge and Boston are linked together by a limited number of older bridges along the Charles. The ongoing bridge-repair planning process, which engages all users, is nearing a successful conclusion. Well-designed construction that meets the needs of all modes of travel is underway. What might be new modes and points of connection across the river?

Our Common Waterfront

The improvement in Charles River water quality in recent years is heartening and strengthens the draw of the river as a place for everyone. Yet more ways for people to access the water and more destinations along the waterfront need to be made. Should there be a common vision for the river?

Our Institutions

The strong, urban presence of our premier academic institutions along the Charles River and throughout our cities helps define our collective image. In the coming years, Harvard University, Boston University, and MIT are likely to be building new landmarks that will be visible across the river in both directions. The schools’ future physical changes need to have input from both sides of the Charles. How do our institutions relate across our shared waterfront?

Our Economy

Whether a brilliant new idea is brought forth in the Seaport Innovation District or in Kendall Square, we all benefit. The growth of ideas defines our collective regional economy and enables us to compete in the global arena. Can we embed entrepreneurship, innovation, and creativity into our urban fabric?

The Whole Community

As we continue to grow and complement our differences, we should also continue to consciously expand on the narrative of what makes our shared story even more compelling in the new World of Ideas. Should a regular forum convene designers and nondesigners to focus on “celebrating our differences”?

It is an exciting opportunity for the two of us to jointly share our critical views of our two cities, building on our complementary differences and assets. We invite you to continue this dialogue. We believe that together, as architects and planners, we can create a whole that is greater than the sum of its parts.

Cambridge Employment Boston Employment
26% = 28,000
9% = 47, 630
10% = 10,866
22% = 119,046
Total Jobs
Cambridge People Boston People
Total Population
Students: 44,639
Students: 150,000
Population Density
26 people/acre
19.94 people/acre
Foreign Born
27% = 168,000
Population with bachelor's degree or higher
National average: 23%
Housing Units
Hotel Rooms
Cambridge Land Boston Land
Land Area
6.24 sq. miles
49 sq. miles
Dedicated Open Space
Miles of Bike Lanes
16 miles
50 miles