All images courtesy of the Boston Redevelopment Authority.
Fifty years is a long time, even for a city about to celebrate its 400th birthday. But much of the 1965 "General Plan for the City of Boston and regional core" holds up beautifully—as an artifact of an era, as a window into the midcentury thinking of city planners, as a compelling graphic document of urban hopes and challenges. Initially written to satisfy federal requirements for urban renewal funding, the plan became a touchstone for a new day of civic reform in Boston.
Produced by a team at the fledgling Boston Redevelopment Authority, the plan was in many ways prescient. Even before the invention of the floppy disk, the authors were touting Boston as "a city of ideas." The plan raised questions about the pivotal role of private universities and regional authorities such as the MBTA promoting a healthy future. "The needs of the city," it warned, "are too extensive to be met by local government alone."
Today, the 1965 general plan looks less like a relic and more like a road map to the future. This gallery features selected images from the plan that reflect urban development issues still relevant today.
Fields of dreams
The 1965 planners envisioned a grand “World’s Freedom Fair,” to be held in 1975 on the eve of the nation’s bicentennial, celebrating “the values of individual and national freedom, and the need for universal peace.” They proposed new sports and exhibition facilities in a “cluster zone” from Dorchester Avenue to the South Bay. The area remains in the sights of developers: Any resemblance to early proposals for a 2024 Boston Olympics is not entirely coincidental.
In 1965, Boston was a city of distinct community “islands”—often organized by parish or ethnic group—that fostered not only cohesion and local pride but also insularity and resistance to change. Today, those boundaries are blurring, as development is largely occurring in the interstices between neighborhoods. But successful new districts—SoWa, Fort Point, the D Street corridor—don’t just happen; they need an intelligent design.
The 1965 plan proposed the development of 37,000 new units of housing (including 5,000 subsidized public units) to accommodate a growing population the city’s leaders could only dream about: Boston’s population had plummeted by 100,000 souls between 1950 and 1960. Today the city is growing again, and Mayor Martin Walsh promises to build 53,000 new units of housing by 2030. But will supply outstrip demand enough to temper sky-high prices?
Urban renewal carries a deservedly bad reputation, forged in the wholesale “slum clearance” of Boston neighborhoods during the 1950s. But the 1965 plan proposed areas for rehabilitation that included the future sites of Villa Victoria and Castle Square, two affordable-housing developments that have helped the South End retain some measure of economic diversity. Today it is free market forces, not an all-powerful public authority, that most threaten Boston’s older neighborhoods.
Hub and Spoke
The 1965 plan was unusual in that it went beyond the official boundaries of the city to consider the larger metropolitan region. The authors recommended a composite of three development patterns that would link adjacent cities and towns by developing new transportation corridors. Happily, one proposed transportation development—the Southwest Expressway and Inner Belt—was abandoned in 1970, before it could cut its swath through the neighborhoods, destroying thousands of homes.
By 1960, no significant private building had been erected in Boston in almost 30 years. Then the Prudential Insurance Company offered to develop a multiuse center at the disused Boston and Albany rail yards in Back Bay. In exchange, it demanded significant tax breaks and semi-autonomous status as a redevelopment corporation. Boston continues to entice corporations with tax concessions; its recent deal with General Electric, for all its advantages, will cost millions in foregone property-tax revenue.
Renée Loth Hon. BSA is the editor of ArchitectureBoston.