Boston makes fresh investments in social infrastructure
by Alice Brown
Teen Central, located on the second floor of the Johnson Building at the Boston Public Library in Copley Square.
Photo by Aram Boghosian
When author and New York University professor Eric Klinenberg talks about his time as the research director for New York’s Rebuild by Design program, he tells a joke. After training design teams to think about building social resilience into their climate-preparedness plans, one team came back with a plan for “resilience centers”—community spaces that served as meeting points for the surrounding area, with friendly staff, free Wi-Fi, regular events programming, and maybe even books. Klinenberg lauded the great idea, then sent the team to the nearest public library—to see their idea already being implemented. It’s a joke that’s at once hilarious and sobering.
In his book, Palaces for the People: How Social Infrastructure Can Help Fight Inequality, Polarization, and the Decline of Civic Life, Klinenberg argues for the creation, rehabilitation, and renewed appreciation of the physical spaces in cities that bring people together and build both a sense of community and authentic interpersonal bonds. It’s a compelling case for those places where humans can connect and interact, especially since it’s easy to be distracted and disheartened by the social fragmentation happening around us. The rise of digital communication and the ease with which we can self-select a bubble of people who agree with us and reinforce our beliefs haven’t helped.
In an era of increasing segmentation, we can to fall prey to a belief that our social spaces are eroding, our community divides are growing, and we’re more polarized and isolated than ever. But what if we look up from our phones (not yet, though, keep reading) and take stock of the new physical infrastructure that is bucking this trend—the buildings in Boston where people are coming together in real-world spaces the way they did 100 or maybe even 200 years ago—in buildings that are fresh and new, and that often leverage digital tools to pull it off.
Boston is a city that invested in multibenefit social infrastructure long before even the invention of the telephone, with places and institutions that are famed destinations now: Boston Common, Faneuil Hall (with both a food market and a meeting hall), the Public Garden, the Boston Public Library (BPL), and the Emerald Necklace. What’s striking today is that exciting new social infrastructure is being built while some of the older institutions are undergoing major renovations to provide the same benefits. Organizations are developing online platforms, leveraging social media, and simultaneously investing in the built environment to share ideas and bring people together. You’ll find these investments in libraries (Klinenberg’s favorite example), for play and recreation, around food, for meetings and lectures, and across the town/gown divide. The funding and management of these spaces comes from the public, private for-profit, and nonprofit sectors with varying degrees of intentionality around building community, though all of them provide tangible proof in the built environment that real-life social connections are valued.
The library: Having America’s first large free municipal library is a badge of honor for Bostonians, and the exquisite McKim building in Copley Square is unquestionably a “palace for the people.” Yet it’s the $78 million renovation of the Johnson building next door that BPL president David Leonard credits with increasing foot traffic by 20 to 40 percent and building civic infrastructure. Completed by William Rawn Associates, Architects in 2016, the glass façade, bold bright colors, and new gathering spaces convey that the library is truly inviting the city to gather and use its resources. The books—coupled with computers, classes, and a WGBH radio studio—attract young and old library users, new immigrants, city leaders, and everyone in between.
Unlike some other cities that have updated only the main branch of their libraries, between 2013 and 2021, Boston will spend a combined $75 million building and improving branch libraries—from a new building in East Boston to renovations of Modernist buildings such as Dudley Square, investments are flowing out into the neighborhoods. In 2018, a temporary branch opened in Chinatown—the neighborhood’s first in 62 years. And the construction of a new branch library for Uphams Corner is coupled with plans for a cultural district and affordable housing.
The mezzanine level of the Johnson Building overlooks Exeter Street in Boston.
Photo by Aram Boghosian
People of all ages and backgrounds are coming and using the library for whatever their need is at the moment [whether that’s] reading, literacy, improving yourself, or gathering with others to watch radio live and in person.
The park: Boston Common may be America’s oldest city park, but a new park straddling the Cambridge-Boston line has set a new standard for usage and community building. In November 2015, the Charles River Conservancy (CRC) cut the ribbon on the $5 million Lynch Family Skatepark designed by Stantec and constructed by ValleyCrest Landscape Development. The concrete ramps and bowls have since become, per square foot, the most used state park in Massachusetts. After being kicked out of so many spaces, a generally marginalized population now has a place to hang out and hone their skills. Laura Jasinski, the executive director of the CRC, appreciates that they’re given a chance to be constructive, productive, and physically active.
For its next social infrastructure concept, CRC is developing a swim park that’s just a four-minute walk away on the other side of North Point Park. People will be able to swim in the Charles River in a contained environment that may be open for a longer season than most municipal pools, warmer than the ocean, and with fewer environmental issues than the area’s ponds. In the meantime, the City of Boston is developing plans to renovate Boston Common and has just unveiled designs for a major overhaul of Moakley Park that would build climate adaptation and protection along with social infrastructure.
The 40,000-square-foot Lynch Family Skate Park was built with $800,000 from The Lynch Foundation, $1.5 million from Vans, and additional support from the Barr Foundation, Wilmer Hale, the City of Cambridge, and the Department of Conservation and Recreation.
Photo by Topher Baldwin
The food market: The original Faneuil Hall served as a market building with an open ground floor, and Quincy Market’s 1976 reopening as a festival marketplace was heralded for its inclusion of local food stalls and pushcarts. But if you’re searching for an authentic European-style food market today, where locals spend time and build connections, you’ll more likely find it at Bow Market in Somerville’s Union Square.
Matthew Boyes-Watson and his business partner, Zach Baum, set out to intentionally create a vibrant public space and a series of affordable storefront opportunities. They’re using metrics defined by the Danish architect and urban designer Jan Gehl to study how people use and spend time in the plaza that is ringed by redeveloped garage bays that have been transformed into the market. Boyes-Watson says that they’re “really excited by early indications that [people] feel fully at home in the space. . . . We love seeing the diversity of humans who come.” They know that they’ve achieved what they set out to do when they see seniors come into the space who feel comfortable reading a book instead of engaging in retail.
Other food markets have been popping up in recent years, from the Boston Public Market—operated by the Trustees of Reservations with a focus on locally produced food—to the more corporate Eataly inside the Prudential Center. Time Out Market, modeled after a successful food hall concept in Lisbon, Portugal, is scheduled to open in the Fenway today.
Mark Boyes-Watson, the architect who designed Bow Market and Matthew’s father, says that the Bow Market team points out that they set out to do something deliberately different physically, financially, and metaphorically. The landscape architect for the project was Merritt Chase.
Photo by Emily Tirella
The forum: There was a time when Boston was famed for its orators, but as speeches and conversations moved onto the radio, Boston’s most nationally well-known voices may have been Click and Clack, the Tappet Brothers of Car Talk on WBUR-FM. Last year, the 69-year-old radio station decided to invest in a physical space for building community. CitySpace, built by Cambridge Seven Associates, opened in February 2019 and in its first month hosted everything from an opera singer and a celebration for 25 millennial artists of color to conversations with famous chefs and a panel on ending chronic homelessness. The programming intentionally pulls different kinds of people into the space.
The premise of the new venue is that even as people are moving away from radio ownership and doing more listening online, they are simultaneously gravitating to spaces where they can be around other people. And with outdoor speakers and expansive windows, passersby have a chance to interact with the space as well.
CitySpace exterior rendering by CambridgeSeven.
Courtesy of CambridgeSeven and WBUR.
The more diverse the content is, the more diverse the audience is...
Director of Community Engagement
The university: Though renowned for their caliber, Greater Boston’s institutes of higher learning have rarely been famous for their welcoming vibe. Harvard’s Common Spaces program has spent nearly a decade actively trying to make the university more inviting while also developing places where students and faculty from across its schools can interact. From installing brightly colored chairs in Harvard Yard to redesigning and heavily programming the Science Center Plaza, the university has physically demonstrated that they want people to linger on campus. With the reopening of the Smith Campus Center last fall, there’s been a clear investment in a welcoming indoor space that feels, well, like a palace for the people. Full of seating (and plants), the building offers an atmosphere of inclusion, collaboration, and curiosity that the Common Spaces program strives to create.
Northeastern built its Interdisciplinary Science and Engineering Complex, designed by Payette, in a way that attracts the public onto the plaza and into the building on Columbus Avenue. The university invested in making Carter Playground a well-used park and constructed a new bridge from the Fenway campus to the Roxbury neighborhood across the Orange Line tracks.
Whether built to welcome community, intentionally programmed with the curated content, or designed to bridge divides, these investments in new civic spaces aspire to take social infrastructure to the next level. It remains to be seen if they are part of a growing trend that continues to expand across the region and how the social bonds formed by these spaces make communities more resilient.
Harvard University Campus.
Photo by Jon Chase, Harvard University
We call it a campus center, and not a student center, for a reason... The space is open to everyone—faculty, staff, students, and the community.
Director of Common Spaces at Harvard University
Alice Brown is the director of planning for Boston Harbor Now.