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Common Boston: Peeling back the layers of urban life

We each build our own little city to live in out of the bricks and mortar of our daily routines. They tend to reduce the infinite possibilities of urban life to a familiar circle of people and places. Common Boston was invented to push back on this inclination—by reminding us of the opportunities awaiting at every doorway, street corner and neighborhood.

Piles of books discarded by libraries form a landscape for dancers and partygoers within an artwork-lined hall at Mass College of Art.

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This 10-day mash-up of tours, talks, parties and competitive construction projects explores not only the city’s physical infrastructure but also the people and institutions that inhabit it. Now in its fifth year and supported by the Boston Society of Architects, Common Boston was built from the ground up by a small group of design professionals to bridge the dividing lines of race, class, age and education. Teams of volunteers reach into city neighborhoods to discover the environments and organizations at the core of community life—and reach out to engage the big ideas that define shared aspirations.

The biggest of these ideas was articulated at the kickoff presentation by Harvard economics professor, author and ubiquitous intellectual Edward Glaeser: that city dwellers trade space for knowledge and the opportunities it offers to transform their lives. When people, places and ideas are compacted under pressure, he says, they can produce wealth that is made manifest in innumerable forms. As both confirmation and counterpoint the following night, revelers packed into the dParty at MassArt; they danced their way through serpentine bookscapes made up of piles of discarded academic volumes.

Two weekends of tours opened doors into secret lives, hidden histories and the evolving ecology of the area. A visit to Fenway Studios’ century-old artists’ apartments was typical. Each of the 46 double-height lofts has a story to tell, and a devoted denizen there to tell it. David Lowrey described how his space’s angling shafts of light replicate the conditions of Vermeer’s studio; descending his stairs is like walking into a painting and back to the 17th century.

A Mission Hill hike explored the transformations of an urban neighborhood, recorded in its buildings’ facades and residents’ faces. And a walk through the Back Bay Fens wetlands revealed traces of the dynamic pas de deux between nature and engineering. As an urban explorer who is always reluctant to follow someone else’s storyline, I was delighted with these guides’ knowledge and insights.

A hilltop park offered the opportunity to create new narratives, as six teams of designers used scavenged materials to build temporary installations in the landscape. Armed with rolls of yellow mesh, a $200 budget and instructions to weave urban and natural spaces together, they produced a range of thoughtful interventions. Their inventive benches, modular gardens and intimate spaces were the kind of bottom-up “squatter architecture” that returns public spaces back to the public.

But Common Boston’screative collection of events offers more than just a yearly opportunity to “engage with new places and to interact with people who shape the city” as its printed and online guidebook advertises. After all, every day every city offers a calendar continually filled with fascinating open houses and celebrations. What defines Common Boston is that it ties these opportunities to a broader philosophical argument—that the more we know about diverse points of view, the more we can make positive changes. Urban life inevitably involves navigating between conflicting goals and aspirations; every walk through an expanding institution and the neighborhood it impacts brings a common ground closer to realization.

Common Boston’s evolution from a benevolent insurgency to an established institution with professional affiliations suggests that strategic partnerships can help a grassroots organization fulfill this kind of mission. But cofounder Justin Crane offers a note of caution. “Open House London is sponsored by governmental agencies and has an underlying political agenda. San Francisco’s Architecture and the City festival has a full-time staff and ends up charging $50 or more an event. We’re staffed by volunteers who have a high level of energy so we can keep everything free. And because we’re around only two weeks a year, we avoid the turf battles and political intrigue that too many organizations have to work around.” Small organizations can get bogged down when their ambitions require them to build a bureaucracy, but really smart groups need a way to make their presence felt beyond a limited circle of aficionados.

The online landscape that parallels the city as we know it may offer a way to steer around the gridlock. Digital devices may not be a substitute for the real experience of a city, but they can offer access to the information and insights that Common Boston has worked hard to uncover. Demographic data can be charted, historic landscapes can be traced and the significance of modern masterpieces can be clarified as layers on phone-app maps. Interior environments can be opened up to view through Google Earth links, and YouTube videos let inhabitants tell their story. And Common Boston’s parties, tours and temporary installations can endure as revelations of what cities have to offer.

David Eisen AIA is a principal at Abacus Architects + Planners in Boston. He is the author of Boston Modern: The Spirit of Reinvention and writes frequently on design issues for a variety of publications. He received his architecture degree at Harvard Graduate School of Design.