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Being dense

My first exposure to how committed we are was to show up for my first BSA Urban Design Committee (UDC) meeting in 1978—except that I showed up at 7:30 pm and the meetings were held at 7:30 am. At that point, who knew I was joining a community that would meet at any and every time of day and night? My next UDC meeting was the first of hundreds of BSA breakfast meetings, followed often by a meeting at lunch and then possibly another after work. We all enjoyed one another’s company, but we met because we cared—about creating a Boston Civic Design Commission (BCDC); about preventing the wrong plans for Park Square and Midtown; about getting the city to do a plan period for the Seaport District; about whether the Central Artery should be a corridor of buildings, parks, or both—and then what kind of park it should become; about trying to launch and then 10 years later save the Urban Ring; about launching a regional smart growth initiative; and about social justice, sustainability, and how politically active the BSA should be—and then organizing some of the best mayoral candidate debates because we consistently decided we should be active. This list doesn’t, and shouldn’t, end. More important, I don’t think any of these “abouts” represented a waste of time. Taken together they represent a very proud, living legacy of making the right difference.

This brings me to a 2001 phone call from BSA executive director Richard Fitzgerald: Would I be willing to run for BSA president? In response to my protestations of being disorganized, a procrastinator, and an urban designer instead of a more mainstream architect, Richard said two things I have never forgotten: He and the staff would do all the hard work (turned out to be very, very true), and the president’s real job in turn was to be yet another symbol of one of the many faces of our extraordinary BSA community. Each president embodies a different dimension of what is collectively an amazing professional persona. Several months later, I was elected (thank you); I attended my first board meeting, and a wise former president (I think it was Lee Cott FAIA) asked me what my “project” was going to be. It turned out that Richard had momentarily forgotten to mention that each president takes on some major life-draining, world-changing (or at least Boston) project on behalf of the BSA. The project does not occupy one year. No... the president-elect spends a year preparing for a project that then requires the year of being president to carry out. I will never forget that question or stop being thankful for Richard and the BSA’s amazing support because in about five minutes I decided that my project—and the BSA’s project—would be density.

‚ÄčIn the spirit of does-a-falling-tree-make-a-sound-if-there-is-no-one-there-to-hear-it, “we”—Richard, the unflappable deputy director, Nancy Jenner Hon. BSA, the literally inexhaustible (but exhausting) program director, Alexandra Lee Hon. BSA, and coconspirators such as Diane Georgopulos FAIA, Randy Jones, Rebecca Barnes FAIA, and others—decided to partner with National AIA to hold Density: Myth and Reality, the first national conference on density. To say “with National AIA” is not quite accurate. Richard quickly determined that it would be much easier if the BSA planned, organized, and ran the entire conference—with lots of great input from AIA National’s Regional and Urban Design, Housing, and Environment committees. Doing it ourselves turned out to be a very wise strategy. I will never forget the panic I felt when the AIA announced that it had closed registration two weeks early—with 17 registrants. AIA also reasonably advised canceling the conference at that point. The BSA immediately reopened registration, and two weeks later, 400 people from across the country (and from a couple of additional countries) showed up and walked around sporting “Be Dense” stickers.

Thanks to Richard, Nancy, Alexandra, Mark Ruckman, and other BSA staff, and a great board, I consider my opportunity to be BSA president to be one of life’s real privileges. I had one more year on the board as past-president, which meant I got to urge on Brian Healy FAIA as he championed the BSA as a global center for great design... and tried to preserve some of the great urban qualities that Rebecca Barnes FAIA and Robert Brown AIA had fought so hard to make part of the Greenway. I will never forget the day after I “retired” from the board. Richard hosted a small event for those of us leaving the board. I remember suddenly feeling like I had been gently placed in a small sailboat and cheered as I floated out into the sunset... while everyone else stayed onshore together to enjoy the next party. It had been a full and a great three years made possible by an amazing community of very skilled and dedicated BSA members and the terrific staff they put in place.

David Dixon, 2003 BSA president

Header image: Back Bay brownstones from the Westin. Credit: Pi.1415926535, creative commons license, modified.