Walking up Lafayette Street with the cyclists, pleasantly surprised tourists, and the equally pleasant (but not surprised) natives, it was evident that New York was at the vanguard of turning threatening asphalt into remarkable experiments in public space. A Mayor with considerable disdain for the glacial pace of government and a disproportionate faith in what it can do to transform geography paired with a transportation commissioner who has considerable literacy in realpolitik and a Moses-lite attitude towards urban planning (without the highways) have taken roads and made them sidewalks. The simplicity of the transformation doesn’t negate its innovative definition, and other cities are starting to get the point—slowly.
Portland, Oregon, a sort of practice in progressive urban utopianism, would have legitimate reason to challenge a New York’s forward looking supremacy, but the Rose City does not have the same sort of entrenchment issues that New York, Los Angeles, or Chicago have. The ability for a city like Portland to have significant flexibility in its design separates it from larger cities; the bike paths and robust transit system a beneficent byproduct of that same latitude. More important than that, though, is a more apparent advantage: it’s small. Not all small cities are so easily transmuted though, and Boston in particular has stalled where there are significant opportunities.
Boston blurs the line between petite malleability and historical institutionalism—unfortunately progressive planning initiatives have been limited to fledgling bike path network and a new bike sharing network sponsored by the New England footwear brand New Balance. The city does do large-scale well though; the green hook of the Esplanade running along the Charles River and the engineering alchemy that resulted in miles of highway buried below a park.
Boston comes with its own set of quirks and planning idiosyncrasies, not least of which is its unorthodox—or organic—street map. There are neighborhoods like the North End and sectors of Allston and Brighton where the series of short darts from long thoroughfares represent a Jacobean ideal. In fact the North End, representing one of the only barrios with any community glue is experienced in getting road closure permits for public celebrations like St. Anthony’s feast in August. This transformation of major arterial roadways into a smorgasbord of street vendors and revelers shouldn’t be viewed as an annual departure from traditional ideas about roads because it’s exactly what a city like New York bases its brutally effective piecemeal approach on. You take a street, regardless of the traffic load it endures on a daily basis, and instead of talking to commuters you talk to local business-owners who would see their revenues rise if you inserted a makeshift park next door and a public space instead of a road. Those cosmetic changes are not without ancillary effects: real estate values rise, revenues go up, and traffic fatalities fall precipitously.
Boston has a chance to adopt the incrementalist approach that New York has put in play so effectively and gracefully. A road closure here, a public space there, a bike path yonder, and pretty soon the city has had a facelift and instead of a bisection of city space by cars you have a conflation of public geography. And pretty soon people start coming here for the space, not just the sports.