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Reclaiming streets for people

Placemaking for mobility in Boston: Improving infrastructure for walking, biking, and gathering

Many of the most effective tools for building community through the public realm are both interactive and temporal. (Massachusetts Office of Travel and Tourism/Creative Commons)

By Nels Nelson, Senior Planner (Boston)

Stantec’s Urban Places group recently won a Charter Award from the Congress for the New Urbanism for the Guide to Placemaking for Mobility we created for the City of Boston. In this post, I’ll explain the thinking behind the Guide; in a second post, my colleague Jeff Sauser takes a look at a real-world application of the guidelines in Boston’s Chinatown neighborhood.

In Boston, efforts to improve infrastructure for people walking, biking, and waiting for a bus have led to new combinations of design features that make our streets and sidewalks feel like places to spend time in, rather than spaces to simply move through. It’s a case of turning diversity into community. “We’re empowering ourselves to extend the impact of our investments into the city’s social, cultural, and civic vitality,” says Chris Osgood, the city’s head of streets, transportation, and sanitation.

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Our most powerful opportunities are the places where people gather
The Boston Transportation Department maintains over 800 miles of roadway and 1,200 miles of sidewalks. These corridors are crucial infrastructure for channeling millions of people through the city, but they also provide Boston with hundreds to thousands of acres of publicly owned space. To support a new approach to this space A Better City, a downtown-oriented business group, asked us to create A Guide to Placemaking for Mobility. This policy framework empowers planners, designers, and communities to transform sidewalks, plazas, and incidental spaces created by road networks into vibrant social, cultural, and civic places.

Getting around the city is the primary way most urban residents experience the public realm, be it as a pedestrian, cyclist, or transit rider. While moving through the city, people also share space, interact with one another, express themselves, do business, and build community. Yet transportation planning tends to focus primarily on the movement of users rather than the experience of mobility. This thinking can result in spaces that often discourage social interaction or stifle the expression of a neighborhood’s unique character.

The Guide focuses on places and corridors, classifying them by their role in mobility (as “transit collectors,” “greenways,” or “hubs”).  It provides metrics for evaluating their success in placemaking (e.g., “Does this place encourage social interaction?” “Does this corridor feel inviting?”). Based on this evaluation, the framework then helps users identify opportunities to apply improvements in strategic locations to enhance shared spaces. The Guide encourages planners and citizens to brainstorm ways to improve the public realm with interventions ranging from time-limited programming (like “open street” events) to transformational projects (like conversion of roadways into open space).

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Boston, MA

Public realm design should focus on creating community
Boston needs new public spaces that invite citizens to come together as a community across many lines of division. Cities have historically created public realms that meet social, cultural, and economic needs. But as those needs change, the physical elements of the public realm remain; the resulting mismatch requires regular rethinking of the public realm. In 40 years, Boston has gone from an almost entirely white city to a “majority minority” city. Most measures show the city increasingly segregated by age, education, income, and race.

Today, Boston needs new layers of design that address this new mix. Public art and streetscape can invite people separated by differences to discover each other and their diverse stories. Interactive art, innovative streetscape design, and tactical urbanism can celebrate the rich variety of urban life. Permanent design or periodic events can turn the plaza at a transit station or even a sidewalk into a town square.

Public spaces are part of the journey
Any shared or public space people use on their journey through the city functions as part of the mobility system. These spaces include streets, sidewalks, bikeways, trails, highways, train stations, train car interiors, bus stops, and public plazas outside of transit stations.

Mobility can connect people to each other and promote a shared sense of place. In an increasingly atomized society, we need to capture the power of our mobility system to encourage pedestrians to interact, get to know each other, and share ideas.

Mobility corridors also offer valuable opportunities to learn about the places we pass through and the people who call these places home. The public realm should encourage interaction, social moments, and community building. The design of public spaces can tell the stories of the region, city, or neighborhood, focus attention on notable landmarks that illuminate the spirit of the area, and be inclusive and open to all.

Related item: Podcast: Community By Design – Experts discuss issues and trends related to the future of Urban Places: Creating Smarter Cities

Investing in a vital common ground
In the United States, both public and private resources for public spaces have grown scarcer in recent years. Major investment in the public realm—large federal- and state-financed infrastructure projects, from roads to transit systems—has given way to a local funding model. But that model comes with fewer restrictions on funding, which opens the door for cities to work to create community in innovative ways that evolve to meet changing needs and aspirations.

We should acknowledge here the debt owed to grass-roots activism that emerged across North America around the time of the Great Recession. Groups promoting direct citizen action for local improvements laid out two influential critiques of the then-conventional approach to creating public realm. First, like the proponents of complete streets (there’s a lot of overlap between the two movements), they argued that the standard approach focused far too much on moving cars and not nearly enough on people, their comfort, and how the public realm shaped the character of the city around it. Second, the movement argued for abandoning an engineering-first approach that made the public realm expensive to build and maintain and almost impossible to change in response to new needs. Instead, individuals (and, later, organizations) argued for field-testing designs to see how they worked, using temporary materials, and getting more community members involved in creating and testing design.

That new approach to design and creation of the public realm—particularly after high-profile experiments in Manhattan’s Times Square showed how well it could work—created a new model that many cities have embraced. Budget-strapped agencies can undertake or support tactical, low-cost, and easy-to-implement solutions. Places and corridors can be transformed without expensive infrastructure investments. Temporary or regularly occurring events can bring life to a space. Paint and furniture can turn an unremarkable surface into a lively social place. Interactive installations can bring people together who might never speak otherwise.

We think cities should expand the responsibility of improving the public realm to include diverse groups. A neighborhood organization, a business, or a local artist may be as appropriate a party to “own” design and programming of a public space as a government agency or high-profile design firm. Within government, individual departments can broaden their vision to include an understanding of good urbanism and recognize their leverage over the experience of the public realm and the overall success of urban places.

Also by Nels:

Nels Nelson, LEED AP ND, ENV SP, is a senior planner and member of Stantec’s Urban Places. This is the first of two blogs on the Guide to Placemaking for Mobility created by Stantec’s Urban Places for the Boston Department of Transportation. As noted, the Guide won a 2017 Charter Award from the Congress for the New Urbanism, which recognizes excellence in architectural, landscape, urban, and regional design that helps build more equitable, sustainable, connected, healthy, and prosperous communities.

This policy framework empowers planners, designers, and communities to transform sidewalks, plazas, and incidental spaces created by road networks into vibrant social, cultural, and civic places.

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