Planning Boston’s Future
By: Sam Yoon
For a city to thrive and grow it needs an economic development and planning strategy that is focused on the future, that seeks out innovative ideas – and acts on them. And as the old proverb goes: “Without a vision, the people perish.”
The planning process in Boston is not working – and it is not working because there is no long-term vision coming from City Hall.
Internal squabbling, a lack of new ideas and stale leadership are choking the city’s development.
Let’s look at just some of what is happening in Boston:
Downtown Crossing – which should be the thriving center of our city – is a contradictory compilation of half-baked, half-finished, and half-thought-out plans.
Billions of tax dollars have been invested in the Big Dig in our city, yet the Menino administration is only now examining how to best use the reclaimed city land. Because of an absence of ideas from City Hall, developers are making the decisions on what the Greenway should look like, and we are squandering the opportunity to re-unite downtown and the harbor in the best possible way.
We have one shot at fixing one of the most important avenues in the state – Massachusetts Avenue – but the administration has mismanaged this effort so badly that they are locked in a bitter lawsuit with the very people whose input in this project is badly needed.
This is not because Boston lacks talent or know-how. Many of the world’s leading urban designers, planning experts, architects, and engineers are concentrated within a few miles of City Hall. Boston should be a shining star of new ideas and new energy. Instead it has become a black hole: talent and dedication goes in – but concrete results never emerge.
Our public works department is in the dark ages. Our transportation department is still more focused on moving cars than people. We have two separate agencies responsible for planning. One has accountability, but no power. The other – controlled by the Mayor and the developers who pay for it – has power, but no accountability.
Here is what we need to fix it:
Eliminate the BRA and create a real Community Development & Planning agency
Boston is the only city in the United States without a planning department separate from its redevelopment authority. The Boston Redevelopment Authority has outlived its usefulness and it should be disbanded. In its place, we need a comprehensive city planning agency which is accountable to the public, not just the developers and the Mayor. Boston’s development should benefit the entire city and that requires a public process, not a political one.
It is high time to stop being defensive and secretive – let’s open the doors and invite in people with fresh ideas to participate in planning for a new, forward-looking Boston.
Leadership with Vision
Not only do we need the right structure and people in government, we need a mayor with a guiding vision. Smart growth, clean technology, energy efficiency, green jobs, and sustainable design – these are not just campaign slogans. They are the principles that will guide the rebirth of a vibrant, new Boston. Over the last 16 years, cities from Europe to Asia embraced these ideas enthusiastically, but Boston mostly slept. We need to wake up – and wake up now.
We have so much pent up creativity in this city – from citizens and developers; planners and architects; housing experts and labor activists. We cannot wait any longer to put them all to work. We have the talent, we have the people and – as the economy strengthens – we will have the resources. We need to be ready. And we need new leadership.
Transportation isn’t just cars
The Menino administration has finally started to introduce limited measures that will make the city more bike-friendly. But gestures are not enough. The real problem is that we have an outdated transportation department and mixed up planning. If we want to be the cleanest, greenest, 21st century city in America, then we must get this right. Street design that moves people – on bike, on foot and on rapid public transit should be the focus. Cars are just one part of the breadth of transportation solutions and Boston should be leading the way.
Real Teamwork brings real change
Lack of cooperation remains our greatest stumbling block. Right now city government acts in isolation. City agencies don’t talk to each other. The city doesn’t coordinate closely enough with the state. Even though Boston itself is intricately linked to other cities and towns, we don’t coordinate with our neighbors – and we suffer as a result.
When you visit forward-thinking cities around the country and the world, you can clearly see that Boston is at risk of being left behind.
We are behind in affordable housing. We are behind in swift, efficient and modern transportation. We are behind in spreading the benefits of information technology. We are behind other cities that are leaping into the world of clean, green design.
It’s time for Boston to stop meandering along. We need to encourage innovation and reward cooperation. Fresh ideas and new leadership will build a 21st century city. And we cannot afford to wait another four years to get started.
*For more information, visit my website at www.samyoon.com