Re-Branding Boston: It Takes a Plan

If Boston is going to re-frame itself for the 21st century, we are going to have to see a large-scale vision of that future. It needs to get put out there for people to see and understand its benefits, as well as its costs. Such a plan needs to talk about infrastructure, the real scale of contemporary buildings, and what Boston should look like to us, and everyone else: What should one of the main centers for ideas and innovation in the entire country look like?

In my last post, I addressed how Boston has to move beyond its vision of itself as a historical tourist museum seen through the lens of a Bicentennial marketing manager. While it’s true that the planning for the Bicentennial left visitors with a much better understanding of the city’s colonial past, maybe the key takeaway from that successful event back in 1976 isn’t that our civic identity is forever rooted in the late 18th century — but rather that, in order to be successful, we have to plan.

The preparation for the Bicentennial was 12 years in the making. Plans for a celebration in a single city began in 1966 but eventually gave way to nationally coordinated local events. The plans coordinated physical transformation with marketing and celebrations. The planners had a vision of what they wanted and worked in a coordinated way to achieve it. The so-called “New Boston” occurred in much the same way; the stagnation of Boston in the latter days of James Michael Curley left the city in a depressed economic condition with little hope that things would simply get better of their own accord. So John B. Hynes began to transform the city. And he did so — with a plan. He had a vision for Government Center, and it guided the land-takings and long term development that took place there.

Now, not all of it was great. I have argued before that while a radical reinvention of the stagnant city of the 1950s was absolutely necessary, we learned a great deal about how to make such changes in the intervening years and, looking back, maybe we would have done a few things differently; for example, that period’s introduction of downtown mega-blocks with complex overlapping ownership is what undermines more comprehensive re-working of Government Center to this day.

But another unintended failing of some of those transformational projects, including the well-documented loss of the West End, is that we’ve become paralyzed when it comes to planning. We associate a plan with a top-down edict. It is one of Boston’s peculiarities that the only political idea on which those on the right and left agree is that planning is a bad thing. The right thinks it steps on property rights, and the left thinks it smacks of totalitarianism. So if you show them a plan, you’ll get a fight. Both the left AND the right will oppose a comprehensive plan simply because a plan will undermine the ability for individual players to overpower our collective interest.

But a plan is what we need. The BRA has started taking small steps in the right direction with its development plan for the parcels associated with the Greenway. It shows a vision of what they hope the district will look like. To be sure, it is not confrontational, and it is in no way a radical vision. But it is a step in the right direction.

Without a plan, we will continue to build the city piecemeal, one public meeting at a time. That’s a good way to avoid political opposition, but no way to shape the future.