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DANTE RAMOS

How Boston fails at public space

One of Boston’s most popular new public spaces, an outdoor theater near the Millennium Tower, isn’t a traditional park at all.
One of Boston’s most popular new public spaces, an outdoor theater near the Millennium Tower, isn’t a traditional park at all.photo by dante ramos

Parks are supposed to be relaxing. But lately, the whole subject has been giving Boston a headache.

Just look at the Seaport, where a broad dissatisfaction over how the neighborhood is shaping up has crystallized into a fight about parks. To some eyes, the city’s recent pushback against a developer’s unconventional public-amenities plan looks like valiant final stand: As a Globe headline put it this past week, “Is this the last chance to create open space in booming Seaport?”

Not far to the west, the Rose Kennedy Greenway has been struggling for steady funding as the state backs off past commitments. And over on Beacon Hill, the dispute over whether a $150 million payoff is worth a little more shadow on the Common has moved from City Hall to the Legislature.

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The underlying problem here is that we’re thinking about the public landscape the wrong way. Even as we proclaim our love for parks — to the point of getting worked up over mere shade — we’ve grown stingy about them. As the Seaport fills up, we’re creating only as much public space as the city can make other people build at their own expense.

Meanwhile, we haven’t thought hard enough about what we want from these spots. We presume that a park is a park, and the more there are, the better. We treat “public space,” “open space,” and “green space” as rough synonyms, even though each of those terms has different implications for who owns a given patch of land, who uses it, and which amenities sit on it.

This approach isn’t serving Boston well. Here’s what we’re missing:

Even in the Seaport, the situation is hardly dire. When I walked around the neighborhood the other day, lots of people were sitting outdoors and enjoying the summer weather — tourists, office workers, members of the construction trades. The memo explaining today’s conventional wisdom — that there’s no place in the Seaport open to use by everyone — never reached the people happily eating their lunches atop street furniture near the Massachusetts Fallen Heroes Memorial.

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There’s another memo about how expanses of grass, unmolested by shadows, are the indispensable lungs of the city. It never got to the people relishing the shade along a hard walkway leading to the harbor — and avoiding a well-tended lawn nearby, which went mostly unused under the hot afternoon sun.

With parks, you get what you pay for. Boston’s signature green spaces weren’t planned timidly, and they weren’t built on the cheap. The Esplanade and the beachfront parks in South Boston were built by a muscular public agency that filled in tidal flats to create recreational spaces. The Greenway was the fruit of the Big Dig, which — maybe you’ve heard? — required a bit of taxpayer money.

In the Seaport, small public spaces such as the fallen heroes’ memorial were built at private initiative, under complex agreements between the city and developers. But piecemeal extractions from developers — an acre here, half an acre there — will never yield a Seaport version of the Esplanade or Franklin Park. If the standard for a successful public space is that you can play a pick-up game of soccer in it, parks advocates are bound to be disappointed.

On the bright side, the Trustees of Reservations, a venerable nonprofit with a good track record, wants to build a big, grand, even “jaw-dropping” park somewhere along the harbor. That effort deserves strong support from the city. Voter approval of a Community Preservation Act real estate surcharge last fall creates a modest pool of money that could help this and other projects. The more impressive the park, the higher the price tag that Bostonians have to be willing to cover.

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Yet at all levels, public agencies have scaled back their ambitions. Public investments raised the value of land in the Seaport, and subsequent rezoning jacked it up even further. Sorely missing, though, was a systematic way to collect some of the financial proceeds to spend on parks, transit, and other benefits. But it’s not too late. A recent deal to dun landowners near the Greenway for the cost of maintaining that park hints at what could happen someday in the Seaport.

Lawns are overrated. Traditionalists scoffed when WS Development, which is developing a 13-acre portion of project called Seaport Square, proposed to replace a vehicular street and a small park with a grand staircase leading to a tree-lined pedestrian promenade. There’s also some pressure on WS to remove District Hall, a quasi-temporary, quasi-public innovation space, to make room for a long-contemplated park.

But wait a minute. Almost nobody uses the lawn right across the street from District Hall. Forcing WS to lay down sod on that spot might make sense as a penance ritual, but whom does it really help?

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For its part, District Hall, a sheltered space with free, reliable Wi-Fi, is a hive of activity year round. As it happens, my running friends and I use it as a water stop during the cold months, when the fountains along the Charles are shut off. Even on the grayest, bleakest weekend mornings, I’ve seen people in the lounge there, with laptops out, getting their work or their studying done. In a city where the winter is grim, and spring is almost worse, District Hall functions wonderfully as a public space. It’s just not green.

Parks exist because people sometimes need a respite from the constraints of city living. What’s oppressive in the Seaport, though, is the suburban-office-park vibe. Grass can be nice, but also meaningful are delight and surprise, and hustle and bustle. One of the city’s best new public spaces — the terrific outdoor theater seating atop an MBTA headhouse near the Millennium Tower in Downtown Crossing — involves no grass at all.

Sometimes, the fight is really about something else. The real problem in the Seaport, I’d argue, isn’t that people can’t get to the waterfront. It’s that there’s hardscape everywhere — surface parking lots, concrete sidewalks, overly wide streets. (A proposal by WS to plant vegetation and installing public art on the medians of Seaport Boulevard should soften things up.)

The fight over the proposed condo and office tower at Winthrop Square, and the modest new shadows it would cast on the Common, is a proxy for Bostonians’ ambivalence about taller, denser development. Also coloring that debate are anxieties about widening economic inequality — as if turning down the Winthrop Square money would somehow show Goldman Sachs and the Koch brothers who’s boss.

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Tradeoffs are inevitable. We need direct public expenditures on parks, but there are other worthy demands on the city budget. So are we willing to accept greater height and density in some spots as a way of raising money for parks citywide?

Another tradeoff: By relying so much on developers’ largess for public space, we’ve cut costs — but also submitted to private whims. Property owners today have an incentive to host farmers’ markets and outdoor yoga. Historically, though, owners of such spaces have often resisted public use and tried to wiggle out of their obligations over time.

I’m all for asking developers to create arts spaces, build out the Harborwalk, and leave something more to future Bostonians than row after row of boxy architecture. But if the Seaport’s public realm seems underwhelming, it’s not developers’ fault. It’s ours — for not knowing what we need, for demanding lawns we won’t use, for trying to get parks built at a discount, and then for feeling shocked and hurt when the results fall short of our ideals.


Dante Ramos can be reached at dante.ramos@globe.com. Follow him on Facebook: facebook.com/danteramos or on Twitter: @danteramos.