Growing Pains

Why must a few lonely cranks decide the future of Boston’s buildings?

By George Thrush | Boston Magazine |

When the School of Architecture at Northeastern University, where I teach, hosted a conference on the public process in April 2011, all the participants — developers, educators, planners, and architects — agreed that the system has devolved from its activist roots. And many of them, perhaps unsurprisingly, saw a solution in technology. If the city’s goal is true public participation, then let’s give everyone the ability to evaluate and comment on development proposals rather than just the few of us with time and an ax to grind. Instead of requiring attendance at months (or years) of meetings — like some kind of jury duty from hell — let’s move the process onto the Web.

A team of faculty at Northeastern is creating software that would allow an iPad user to see a digital model of a proposed streetscape. The viewer could thereby understand the exact consequences of the suggested construction. This simple app could radically change public review by addressing two of the biggest problems in the current system. First, people won’t be able to make up facts about the project — everyone will see the same thing. Second, the information will truly be public and available to all for comment, not just to a select, vocal few.

Whether or not the democratization of planning is a good thing, it’s our legacy. If we’re going to engage in this kind of participatory process, it’s about time we started doing it better. It’s only our future that’s at stake.

  • doober

    yes there are cranks, however before the crash the proposals from developers eagerly visualized by their unwitting lap dogs tended to be pretty onerous – we didn’t need more oversized commercial space rented out to chain stores, nor do we need this continual march of 2-bedroom, 40-bathroom apartments for incontinent boomers looking to downsize… we need bigger affordable multi-bedroom units for families, small and redundant (and cheap) storefront space – things that actually turn a much smaller profit margin (if any at all). something that most developers won’t do. I do agree that we need more high-rise, though.

    I’m also not sure if moving the comment process online (to something YOU developed, DEAN Thrush – why are you hiding this?) would be helpful, because then people who actually know a thing or two about design could comment anonymously, raising much greater rancor within the already rather political “public” process, and making it even more risky for architects to associate themselves with potentially politically charged projects.

  • Edward

    Oh, Please…

    This is nothing new and opening up the process to a wider public via the web only encourages the pro- and anti- forces to hire/engage/program more of their own shills, human or cyber, to further ‘game’ the system.

    Welcome to America’s 21st Century, where the 1% strategy of minority interests to frustrate the political process has us in stasis while China and India race past us all….