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