COVID-19: The Recovery will Happen in Public Space

When "Lighter, Quicker, Cheaper" Is Not Enough

Oct 21, 2015
Dec 14, 2017

We spend a great deal of time here at PPS talking about a Lighter, Quicker, Cheaper (LQC) approach to public space problems. We believe LQC offers great options for communities when the dominant top-down planning approach makes implementing any changes, no matter how small, nearly impossible. Community-driven experimentation is a key part of the Placemaking process, and we’ve seen LQC solutions have a huge impact in Detroit, Buffalo, and other cities around the world.

But what happens when a problem is too big for these low-cost, speedy solutions?

The "red brick desert" in the 1970s | Photo from Boston City Archives via Flickr

Boston’s City Hall Plaza is one of those big problems. Opened to the public in 1968, this public space emerged from an era when the prevailing model was big, brutal, empty expanses surrounding civic buildings (think Albany’s Empire State Plaza, or San Francisco’s United Nations Plaza). We’ve dedicated some space on this website already to criticizing City Hall Plaza - it’s in our hall of shame, and it’s number one on our list of underperforming public squares.

It was encouraging, then, to learn that the mayor’s office in Boston has been experimenting with some simple changes to make the plaza more inviting (such as artificial grass, adirondack chairs, and lawn games). However, these efforts to put what the New York Times has called a “kelly green band-aid” on this gaping wound in the heart of the city, are insufficient. Better than the brick, but not by much. “Putting out a little fake grass and some Adirondack chairs (...) it’s pretty weak,” agrees PPS President Fred Kent. “That’s just at the very fringe of anything that’s going to have a major impact. [The plaza] really needs a major overhaul.”

Experiments to make the plaza more inviting  | Screenshot from Boston CBS Local (July 8, 2015)

What would that major overhaul look like? PPS can offer some overarching principles, but the answer needs to come out of a comprehensive Placemaking process - one in which the entire city comes together to create a vision for its defining public space. After all, we aren’t the experts, the community is.

But we do believe that a good place to start the process is by studying the history of the space. The city of Boston has strong connection with its past, and incorporating this history into the vision for this plaza will help give it the kind of  character and identity that is so sorely lacking in the current space. City Hall Plaza is nearly indistinguishable from any number of near-vacant plazas in cities throughout the world. Its replacement needs to be uniquely and proudly Boston.

Though you’d never know it by looking at the space today, Boston City Hall Plaza was once a lively (if a bit seedy) district known as Scollay Square. In a process that rivaled any of the major mid-20th century urban renewal efforts in scope, the city knocked down 1,000 buildings - displacing 20,000 residents in the process - in order to create Government Center, a hodgepodge of poorly connected civic buildings and bland public spaces. In fact, one of the reasons today’s City Hall Plaza is so vast is because there was too much space and too little desire to move businesses downtown (which is hard to imagine today, given Boston’s skyrocketing real-estate prices). In the space they couldn’t fill with government buildings, they created what is now known as the “red brick desert.”

Scollay Square before and after urban renewal | Image from Ben Ledbetter via Flickr

Perhaps we’re picking too much on this small greening effort at City Hall Plaza. After all, anything that brings people into the plaza for any reason is an improvement. But this is a prime example of how placemaking and LQC are often mistaken as an outcome, rather than a process. Putting out some chairs and astroturf isn’t placemaking, it’s window dressing. Worse, it’s an excuse for politicians and city leaders to avoid the long and sometimes difficult placemaking process. This is where the distinction between LQC placemaking and other similar low-cost efforts comes in. The core of LQC projects is that they are created with rather than for a community.

Sometimes LQC is enough. Sometimes it’s a great intermediary solution while mobilizing for a larger project. And sometimes, as we hope will be the case for Boston’s City Hall Plaza, it can be a catalyst that drives a larger Placemaking process. But no matter what the solution is, it needs to come from the community.

Scollay Square in the 1800s | Photo from Boston Public Library via Wikimedia Commons
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COVID-19: The Recovery will Happen in Public Space