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BSA News

Mar 10, 2022

New iteration of Urban Design Workshop launches this spring

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Photo by jacob Licht on Unsplash.

In the coming decades, the population of Greater Boston is projected to increase significantly. Given that Massachusetts is in the midst of a housing crisis, this can be a foreboding prospect to some residents and policymakers.

For many, the term “density” can conjure up images of overcrowding and a city undergoing an uncomfortable transformation.

However, some designers and architects are offering another perspective. Martin Zogran is one of them.

“You can increase density in cities in very productive ways that provide greater equity and sustainability, as well as resource allocation and sharing," said Zogran. "A positive sort of transformation can potentially take place.”

Zogran is a Principal at Sasaki and one of the co-chairs of the BSA Urban Design Committee, which is spearheading the latest iteration of the Urban Design Workshop series this spring. First established in 2014, the workshops aim to bring volunteers from the BSA community together with municipal partners to conduct research, assess the potential for growth, and formulate policy proposals. This year’s workshop, “A Quarter More: Exploring Density in Metro Boston,” will kick off this month.

“Plenty of places around the world have higher densities than we’re accustomed to in the Boston area, and we know they’re great environments where people thrive and prosper. And so introducing that sort of mindset, and spreading it across Boston, is, I think, a big aim of what this Urban Design Workshop will accomplish,” said Zogran.

Interdisciplinary teams will focus on one of three 20-block areas in neighborhoods located in Boston, Cambridge, and Everett. Throughout the spring, the workshop program will strive to foster a greater understanding of these neighborhoods’ unique characters, while also pursuing a thorough analysis of what the effects of increased density can and should be in each area.

“I think we all believe in our hearts that this is the way forward for a city like Boston to prosper for a greater number of people,” Zogran said.

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Cambridge is one of the municipalities with which workshop teams will work.

Photo by Henry Dixon on Unsplash

Rami el Samahy, Principal at OverUnder, is the other co-chair of the committee, who utilizes his background in economics, anthropology, and other disciplines to frame his understanding of the factors which influence the built environment. Through the workshop program, Samahy sees the potential for a more equitable way for communities and designers to work together.

“I think, also, it’s an opportunity for municipalities to have some smart volunteers think about these issues in a… let’s say a non-threatening way,” said el Samahy. “Because it’s volunteer work, it’s a little looser and perhaps a more forgiving environment. So, therefore, it may have some kind of life and interest for the municipalities as they move forward, as something they can refer back to without being beholden to it.”

While these workshops have always been intended to further the BSA’s efforts to promote collaborative design and allow urban design firms to work for the benefit of communities outside the commission model, this workshop series will differ from the previous ones in several key ways.

“One of the ways it is different from the past is that we’re working with multiple municipalities at the same time. This is not a weekend charette, but a series of points throughout the spring, at which the groups will check in with us and move forward,” said el Samahy. “Finally, we’re hoping that we won’t necessarily have teams organized by firm, but by mutual interests—which isn’t to say that we’re rejecting teams that want to work as a firm, but we want to give people a chance to meet other people and give people a chance to work with those they haven’t worked with.”

“The fact that it’s not a single event, but a series of touchpoints that give designers an opportunity to interact with municipal partners … is a big change, and, I would suggest, a positive one,” el Samahy added.

The workshops were first established under Tim Love FAIA, founding Principal at Utile, who served as President of the BSA in 2014.

“I thought it would be interesting to use my presidency as a platform to do free high-profile urban design charrettes, focused specifically on large-scale urban projects that were already in the news,” Love said.

This included participating in early planning processes for projects like the Allston Yards redevelopment, the Dorchester Avenue corridors between Broadway and Avenue Square, and developing Suffolk Downs.

Much of Love’s work today at Utile involves urban design. The firm regularly takes on projects for local municipalities and cities. Currently Utile is leading the effort to create a comprehensive plan for the city of Beverly, a process which engages a variety of stakeholders through initiatives like public workshops.

“The outcomes of the urban design charrettes weren’t meant to be recommendations– they were meant to be one potential future that foregrounds placemaking and design,” Love said.

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A public visioning workshop for the PlanBeverly project.

Photo courtesy of Utile

He sees the BSA’s role in the charrettes as feeding into the dialogue around urban planning by advocating for good design, serving as one voice among many others.

“The BSA, in a way, is advocating that design quality matters too,” he said. “Consideration of the qualities of the built environment, and all of the things that are associated with that, need to be on the table as much as the other issues.”

Love acknowledges that a lot has changed in the past eight years, but, significantly, some problematic conditions have stayed the same.

“There’s a highlighted set of issues that were present in 2014 and 2015, but are more present today. We need actual specific solutions to deal with climate change and rising sea levels, and [in terms of] a focus on equity relative to displacement and gentrification, is there a role for design in that? That’s a kind of question. There’s a chance for the BSA to recast its role,” said Love.

In Zogran’s view, urban design is in a “reflective mode”.

“It’s a much more incremental, participatory approach to city-building, which reflects the positioning we all need to be in right now,” he said. “No more grand plans coming from out of the sky by professionals, but rather, thoughtful engagement with professionals, with people in the community, with a broad range of people, to think about the future of the city.”

Like any dedicated design endeavor, this form of urban planning will require architects to question themselves, think on their feet, and evolve—a process that might not always be easy or comfortable. But Zogran and el Samahy are up to the challenge.

“I think both Martin and I would like to believe that good design can be strengthened, rather than diluted, by being tested,” said el Samahy.

Interested in getting involved with this year’s Urban Design Workshop? Fill out our volunteer form. Teams will be formed in the week after the March 22nd kick-off. Teams will work with municipal partners throughout April and May, culminating in a final presentation in early June.

Register for the kick-off.

Learn more about the Urban Design Committee.