The Next Big Thing
I have always been partial to gigantic engineering projects. As a
kid, I spent countless hours playing a game called SimCity, which
allows players to build and rebuild major urban centers where simulated
people, or Sims, go about their daily lives and let you know how well
or poorly your city works.
There were a bunch of options: San Francisco after an earthquake,
Rio de Janeiro during major floods, Tokyo in the wake of a
Godzilla-like monster, and Boston as it coped with a nuclear meltdown.
I typically chose Boston. After blockading the radioactive areas and
replanting a few trees, I would set to work redesigning the entire
city. And this was the beauty of the game: It taught you to think big.
Ever since construction on the Big Dig began in 1991, thinking big
has been out of fashion in Boston. Yes, we have a new convention
center, but for the most part the city has channeled its resources,
ingenuity, and imagination into the Big Dig. Now that the project is
pretty much done, however, it's as if a veritable cold war has ended
and finally we can divert our attention elsewhere.
There's one problem: The Big Dig, which was supposed to be
substantially completed this month, won't go away. No matter how many
leaks we fix or gobs of money we throw at it, the damn thing won't
behave. All of which begs the question of how this job got so
fantastically bungled. Rest assured, we'll get plenty of opinions on
that matter. But at the end of the day, when the political posturing is
done and every last leak has been fixed (I'd keep the top up on my
convertible for now, if I were you) urban planners will have some
more-far-reaching questions to mull over, such as, has this idea lived
up to its promise? Was it worth it?
Apparently. In a survey conducted for Boston magazine by
Atlantic Research & Consulting, two-thirds of respondents said the
Big Dig has had a positive impact on their lives. (A shortened airport
commute was the number one reason; for complete results, see page 165.)
But another question we should be asking ourselves is: What sold us
on this idea in the first place? Part of the answer is that we love
grandiose innovations. Boston is a city of firsts. This area gave birth
to the first integrated textile-factory system (in Waltham), the first
corporate research-and-development movement (in Lowell), the nation's
first railroad, the hemisphere's first subway system, the first
telephone, the first computer, the first school of city planning—the
list goes on and on.
This tradition of innovation has often played out on a grand scale.
Whether it's filling in the Back Bay or turning a boggy wasteland into
the Fens or consolidating a series of harbor islands into Logan Airport
or burying a highway underground, we tend to leap headlong into massive
engineering projects. But when we are done applauding ourselves,
perhaps it's time to ask: Has our passion for such projects beguiled
our puritan sense of practicality and taken us past the point of
diminishing returns? Or is it time to puff up our chests, unfurl the
blueprints, and unleash the earthmovers again?
In fairness to our dour-faced, yardstick-toting, number-crunching
forebears, it's worth noting that Bostonians were really forced into
the business of urban engineering. The city was founded on a narrow,
700-acre peninsula surrounded by a series of sprawling mud flats.
Almost as soon as the area was settled, residents began building
massive docks along the Great Cove, where the water was deepest, and by
the time of the Revolutionary War Long Wharf stretched roughly half a
mile into the misty edges of the harbor. Before long, the dearth of
solid land posed a problem, and here again Boston residents resorted to
engineering—landfilling, to be precise. For more than a century,
beginning in 1803, they either excavated or imported vast amounts of
rock and dirt to create new neighborhoods, including the Bulfinch
Triangle, the Back Bay, and the South End. By the late 1800s, when
fresh water became scarce, city officials sought to connect Boston with
reservoirs in central Massachusetts. This led to yet another massive
engineering project, the metropolitan water system, one of the most
sophisticated of its age and part of which is now a national
Many of these efforts were every bit as gargantuan in scale as the
Big Dig, and often they took decades to complete. The damming of the
Charles River and subsequent sculpting of the Back Bay waterfront took
almost 70 years from conception to completion. Frederick Law Olmsted's
park system took generations to build. Boston has, in many ways, been
one giant construction site ever since its founding. You could say this
is the very definition of a city that is continuously revising itself.
The third edition of The American Heritage College Dictionary
uses a photograph of Scollay Square to illustrate the term
“demolition,” with one building being torn down in the foreground and a
modern high-rise going up behind it.
It was engineering that fueled the Massachusetts
Miracle—specifically, the influx of Pentagon-funded research in missile
guidance systems and the rise of computer and software companies
including Digital Equipment, Data General, Wang, and Lotus. In an
appropriate twist of fate, many of these companies took over the
abandoned textile mills where the region's high-tech sensibilities had
been born. Thus, when the city began in the late 1970s to seriously
reassess its traffic problem and consider an alternative to the
elevated highway system, it is hardly surprising that Bostonians
envisioned an epic engineering project, the likes of which the world
had never seen before, to fix the problem once and for all. And it
would work. It had to work. Because when the city had its back up against a wall, building big was almost always the solution.
I have always had a soft spot for the Big Dig. At dinner parties,
when debate erupts over the matter, I have found myself defending that
nearly $15 billion undertaking. Then, one night not long ago, something
happened that made me question my thinking. And it began, harmlessly
enough, when I was cleaning my apartment.
As I was going through a bookshelf in my study, I came upon the
dusty box that contained my boyhood copy of SimCity. Suddenly I felt
overcome with that old desire to clean up radioactive fallout and
redesign poorly conceived roadways. Alas, the game was on a
three-and-a-half-inch floppy disk for which I had no disk drive.
Instead I ended up leafing through the yellowing, dog-eared instruction
book until I came upon a section that read: “What is the good city? We
are unlikely to arrive at an unequivocal answer; the diversity of human
needs and tastes frustrates all attempts to provide recipes or
instruction manuals for the building of cities. However . . . a useful
guide in this enterprise is Kevin Lynch's A Theory of Good City Form. ”
Lynch, as I subsequently discovered, was a renowned professor of
urban studies at MIT, and his theories formed the basis for what the
creators of SimCity considered efficient urban design. One of his most
famous innovations is the concept of “place legibility,” which holds
that truly great cities are laid out in a way that is both memorable
and easy to understand. According to Lynch, a city is essentially just
a network of paths, edges, districts, nodes, and landmarks. A city with
easily navigable paths and genuinely notable landmarks would make it
more user-friendly and therefore more efficient.
In his 1960 book, The Image of the City, Lynch claims that
Boston's weak boundaries, isolated pockets, and absence of distinctive
landmarks give it poor place legibility. Of course, the city has
changed a great deal in the 45 years since then, and improved pathways
(like the Big Dig), districts (like the restored Quincy Market area),
and landmarks (like the John Hancock Tower) have presumably gone a long
way toward improving its legibility. But in order to get a better grasp
on all this, I paid a visit to one of Lynch's protégés, an MIT
professor named Dennis Frenchman.
Frenchman is a large, affable teddy bear of a man with a bristly
white beard and matching moustache that he keeps immaculately trimmed.
He still holds Lynch in great regard. He is quick to add, however, that
a city's “paths,” “districts,” and “landmarks” are all now on the verge
of being radically redefined by something that did not exist in Lynch's
day: digital technology. The indexes of Lynch's most famous books don't
include a single listing for the word “technology.” However, they do
include a great many listings for the word “information,” because Lynch
believed a city was—at its core—a giant crossroads for information. The
way he saw it, a good city gives people a steady stream of information
about what is going on so they can understand the ebb and flow of
everything from weather to traffic to sewage.
In Lynch's vision of the future, information is made available by a
range of different devices—diagrams, remote sensors, listening devices,
periscopes. For a man who did not index the word
“technology,” he seems smitten with it. Perhaps when he was exploring
these ideas, they seemed too abstract or outlandish to apply that term.
Whatever the reason, he would be pleased to know his former student
Dennis Frenchman is devoted to the realization of his vision through
the use of technology.
According to Frenchman, the coming changes will be particularly
apparent when it comes to driving. In the not-so-distant future,
traffic lights will be networked so that if, for example, there is
congestion at Commonwealth and Clarendon, lights elsewhere will react
and alleviate the problem. After a Red Sox game, every traffic light in
the city will operate in unison, directing traffic like one giant
synchronized relief valve. Finding a parking spot will no longer be the
epic and inefficient quest it is now: Cars with
global-positioning-satellite systems will communicate with computerized
parking meters and tell drivers where the nearest open spot is.
Buildings with special glass will display images with information; the
entire façade of the Hancock Tower might exhibit, for example, a map
for how to best vacate the city during a blizzard.
All this may sound far-fetched, but it's really not. London has
already begun using a network of digital cameras to tackle its traffic
problem. These cameras record the license plate numbers of cars that
enter high-traffic zones during peak hours and relay the information to
a central computer, which assesses the owners a modest toll. This has
helped London reduce congestion by 30 percent and raised hundreds of
millions of pounds in revenue, which is then pumped back into the local
transportation system. And the city has done it without moving any
“Managing traffic electronically was never really considered as a
supplement to the Big Dig,” Frenchman explains. “And that is because
the Big Dig is really a late-1970s and early-1980s project. It has
taken 25 years to get this project done, but if you think about it,
that really means that this project is already 25 years out of date.”
The other problem, he says, is that we cannot escape our past. Even
when technology can solve problems—which it increasingly can—we keep
thinking about urban planning in terms of bridges, tunnels, and
landfill. “We are a city with a history of solving urban problems with
huge engineering feats. We love it. It's cultural. It's in our blood.”
“Is this a handicap?” I ask.
“Yes,” he replies. “It could be.”
Even Dennis Frenchman would concede that not every aspect of urban
planning can be solved with the click of a mouse. Boston already has
many big engineering projects that have been proposed and might be
worth considering. Two that are particularly intriguing, if somewhat
outlandish, are Thomas Dolle's plan to create a more modern façade for
the Prudential Tower and Fred Koetter's proposal to cover Storrow Drive
and turn it into a garden promenade.
Dolle's plan calls for the addition of three vertical bays on each
side of the Pru, culminating in a neogothic spire resembling a modern
rendition of the Empire State Building. The needed capital would come
from office and living spaces that would be added to the tower.
The gist of Koetter's plan is not to bury Storrow Drive, à la the
Big Dig, but to roof it with a wide terrace covered with grass,
gardens, and flagstones. This terrace would slope down to the banks of
the Charles with a broad sequence of steps, reconnecting the city to
the river. It could be paid for by developers who would erect a new row
of houses facing the river. Of course, there would be objections from
those whose current river views stand to be eclipsed, but similar
objections were overcome when the Back Bay itself was built and the
people on Beacon Street lost their river views, so there is potential
poetic justice here.
A more practical proposal is Alex Krieger's suggestion to create a
transit branch called the Yellow Line—a sort of beltway or urban ring
within the T system that would eliminate the need to go downtown to
change trains. It would be like a giant “C,” intersecting at its lower
terminus with the Red Line in Dorchester. From there it would curve
upward—or northwestward, actually—to the Boston Medical Center and
Longwood medical area, then northward to Harvard's emerging Allston
campus and on to Harvard Square. Finally it would curve back eastward,
through Cambridge and Somerville, and connect with the Orange Line at
the top of the “C.”
Perhaps the most ambitious plan, and the one most likely to happen,
comes from Marc Margulies and others. This proposal, which could be
called the Big Bury, suggests turning the southern edge of downtown
into a scenic “hill town.” Right now that area is nothing but a jumble
of on-ramps and off-ramps—”highway spaghetti.” The idea is to cover it
over, then build parks, shops, and two gleaming towers overlooking the
Financial District. In theory, this sloping complex would serve as a
gateway to the city from the south, much the way the Zakim Bridge now
welcomes visitors from the north. No matter how it ends up looking, the
bottom line is that this plan would take 20 ugly acres and make them
To get a better grasp on all this, I meet Margulies on the site of
this future hill town and ride an elevator to the top floor of a nearby
building to take in the view. Margulies is a fast-talking, well-dressed
man with an aquiline nose, a smartly coiffed plume of black hair, and
the boyish enthusiasm of a kid knee-deep in Legos. “You see the patch
of dirt where that truck is backing up over there?” he asks excitedly
as he presses his face to the window. “Well, all that area over there
will be a great big park, probably twice the size of Post Office
Square, and it will be surrounded on four sides by cafés, shops, Asian
food stores, a library—that kind of stuff. You see what I mean?”
“Kind of,” I reply.
“I know, I know,” says Margulies with a hint of frustration.
“Looking at all this highway spaghetti, it's hard to envision what I am
talking about, but just try.”
As it turns out, I am hardly the first person who has failed to
comprehend Margulies's plan. This comes to light when I ask why his
hill town isn't being built right now. After all, wouldn't the Big Bury
have gone well with the Big Dig? Workers could have simply taken the
dirt excavated from the new tunnels and used it to form the hills.
“This is true,” Margulies concedes. “But quite frankly, during the Big
Dig's planning stages, this was never conceived of as valuable land.”
In fact, the problem with considering the merits of almost any major
urban project is initially one of vision. It's hard to look out at a
wasteland or an existing landscape and conceive of it as something
entirely different. Eventually, after the better part of an hour in
which Margulies patiently explains and reexplains his vision to me, I
begin to see it. Slowly the roadways vanish, the parks sprout, and the
skyscrapers rise from the earth. Then a bigger problem, the kind that
keeps urban planners awake at night, presents itself—namely, would it
work? Would this dreamy vision of the future prove to be a place where
it really was nice to live, work, and hang out?
At moments like these, it's important to remember that there was a
time not long ago when Boston's now defunct elevated Central
Artery—a.k.a. the Green Monster—was itself the basis for a dreamy
vision of the future, in which commuters escaped the snarl of urban
gridlock by whizzing above it all on soaring skyways. At the time, this
idea was hailed as groundbreaking. In fact, in 1944 the Boston Society
of Architects held a competition in which it judged 90 proposals for
reshaping Boston, and first prize went to a team from Harvard that
proposed building 12 to 15 separate highways that would plow into the
center of the city. This now seems patently foolish, but in 1944 no one
seemed to realize that those elevated highways would be nothing but
eyesores that destroyed urban neighborhoods and encouraged flight to
the suburbs. And this is the problem with big engineering projects:
They can quickly turn into big mistakes. We've got to try to think more
presciently. Otherwise we'll be building Green Monsters again and again
and again in a doomed Sisyphean struggle.
In defense of his project, Margulies offers several arguments. The
first is that it is a “smart growth” development, which means it taps
into a network of existing infrastructure, including T stations and
public utilities. Margulies's hill town would also be a “24-hour
community,” complete with apartments, offices, shops, and restaurants,
which means that at 9 p.m. on a Tuesday the place won't be a ghost
town. One of the governing principles will be greenery, with an
abundance of lawns and overflowing roof gardens. Best of all, asserts
Margulies, the design for the community was influenced and shaped by
the ideas of residents from Chinatown and the Leather District, who
will be living next door to it.
The only problem with all of this is that Margulies is not a
developer. He is an architect. And while his plan looks good on paper
and seems sensitive to the surrounding community, there is no guarantee
that anyone whose motive is profit will want to build it. Until the
developers weigh in, the plan will be nothing more than a SimCity-esque
After weeks of talking with urban planners, I follow the dream of
many a cyberdork and call up the headquarters of Electronic Arts, the
legendary gaming firm that makes SimCity, Madden NFL, and other games.
I end up speaking to Mike Cox, an associate producer of SimCity 4. Part
of his job—and it has to be one of the better jobs out there—is to play
SimCity again and again and again to determine how challenging it is.
On one such afternoon not long ago, Cox had an urban planning epiphany.
“I got my city to the point where it was big and beautiful, when I
realized that I had to dig a big hole and put some of my roads
underground,” recalls Cox. “And I knew that parts of the city had to go
to clear the way for this project, but I knew it was the thing to do.”
When I ask him how his computerized version of the Big Dig turned
out, Cox says it was quite successful, but then he adds this caveat:
“The beautiful thing about SimCity is that before I take that plunge on
a big project, I can save the game, so if it is a disaster and it takes
too much time, I can abandon it and go back to my starting point.” Cox
pauses and chuckles. “I don't think Boston has that luxury.”
Cox is right.
The beauty of SimCity is that you can build your own version of the
Big Dig, hit the time accelerator, let 60 years fly by in a few
minutes, and then see whether people like it. There is something
enormously appealing about this possibility, and for decades—ever since
MIT professor Jay Forrester pioneered the field of computer-simulated
city planning in his 1969 book, Urban Dynamics —urban
planners have been trying to come up with a highly realistic simulator.
But no one has managed to do it. And until someone does, we may just
have to take the plunge. “, “
>Information City One vision of Boston's future calls for the
electronic networking of streetscapes, using technology to project not
only advertising but traffic infor-mation and even maps on glass
façades of buildings. If there is traffic in, say, Kenmore Square,
traffic signals beyond the congestion would turn green to relieve the
pressure. Cars would communicate with parking meters, which would guide
them to the nearest open spot.
>The Yellow Line This new transit branch would loop around the
city like a giant “C,” connecting the existing lines and doing away
with the need to go downtown to change trains. It would start in
Dorchester at the Red Line, curve toward Harvard's emerging Allston
campus and then to Cambridge, and meet up with the Orange Line in
The Big Dig Survey
Was the Big Dig worth it? What should we build next? We commissioned
Atlantic Research & Consulting, a division of Find Market Research,
to survey Bostonians about their post?Big Dig opinions.
How has the Big Dig changed your life?
Made airport commute easier: 43%
Made Boston prettier: 23%
Made commute shorter: 13%
Made commute longer: 11%
It hasn't changed anything: 29%
If the state had the funds to launch another Big Dig?size project, should it?
Don't know: 11%
If money were no object, which of the following should be done to improve the quality of life in Boston?
New subway line: 66%
Networked traffic signals: 52%
Burying highways: 30%
Garden over Storrow Drive: 24%
Modernizing the Pru: 10%
How often do you think about moving away from Boston?
What's the worst thing about living in Boston?
Cost of living: 27%
Other responses: “Racism,” “segregated communities,” “schools,”
“unfriendly New Englanders,” “too many students,” “not as diverse as
New York,” “summers are too short,” “bars close too early”
Why does it take so long to get things done here?
Poor management: 5%
City layout: 3%
Same as other places: 13%
Don't know: 12%