places., plans and policies
Comments 2

if you build it will they come? creating urban amenities

So, this was going to be a post about the Bumpkin Island Art Encampment. But I didn’t get there.  Let’s just say, do not trust Boston Harbor Cruises to get you to anywhere you need to go.

That aside, my friends and I had an incredible picnic on George’s Island (complete with red snappers from Maine) and afterwards spent some time walking around  the waterfront and Rose Kennedy Greenway.

The Greenway is often cited as, essentially, what is wrong with urban planning.  Big empty space, uninspired design, poorly conceived maintenance systems, flagging state support and consistent failure to realize extremely lofty goals for large, new civic buildings such as a museum.  And I agree with a lot of these assessments — a lot of the time, the Greenway just ends up feeling like empty public space.  The lesson?  Just creating a space, however attractive or well-located and well-marketed, doesn’t mean that people will use it.  But people were using the Greenway, and its attendant spaces, quite a bit on Saturday.  It was a BEAUTIFUL day, and no one seemed daunted by browning grasses or lack of marquee museum projects.  So what make a successful public space?

Here’s what I think: a great place has things to do and things to see. In other words, they have good programming.  This doesn’t meen you need to be constantly having festivals! performances! events!, but it means that without things that keep people coming to a place, free things that keep people coming to a place, it will quickly become dead.  And once people come, more people will come just to be in the company of other people.  Practical resources (public maps and signage, information kiosks, public bathrooms) can be just as successful as games and fun things to see and do.  All of these things are free, public amenities that daw people to spaces and encourage them to spend time and use them.  Here are some examples of amenities on Boston’s waterfront that are doing their job really well:

Games!  There are hula hoops, croquet, horseshoes, all over the grass. People of all ages were playing with them!  Cheap, temporary, and easy to execute.  Good decision.  Of course, we have to hope that the games never meet the fate of the chairs.

Food carts.  The Globe recently reported that the Greenway is attracting food carts as an easy, inexpensive solution to their lack of programming.  As a result, the Globe coined the Greenway “Boston’s immigrant food trail”.  How cool is that?!  All of a sudden, a totally unique — and unexpected — amenity has been created.

Maps.  Tourists and out-of-town visitors always need wayfinding to help them see where they’ve been and where they are going.  Incorporating maps into the design of a space (here on the ground) encourages people to stop and think about their surroundings.  Note: contrast this use to the food-truck use, in terms of orientation towards tourists and local residents.  Food trucks can be used by both, but become an amenity for local workers who need cheap, quick lunches just as for urban strollers and visitors.  Creating amenities that appeal to different categories of users encourages more people and keeps the space lively throughout the day.

Water features.  Boston has just experienced the second-hottest month in history. Water features attract children and families day after day, from diverse parts of the city and tourists.

So the Greenway seems to be finding ways to do more with very little, and attract visitors and residents without any large fanfare or big plans.  And the area also features other amenities that draw and keep people (not to mention the fact that people just like to be near the water):

Everybody loves watching these sea lions swim in their tank outside the Aquarium.  It’s free, it’s fun!

Haymarket.  Whatever you think of it, it’s a unique Boston resource.  Combine that with the food trucks and the proposed Boston Public Market, and we’ve got a great food destination going on around the Greenway.

Unique resources.  Destinations for tourists and residents of all kinds.  Free things to watch.  Stuff you need that you can get in a cool place.  This is the stuff of a good public place.  Another thing, not mentioned much here, is culture and history.  Nearby Faneuil Hall receives thousands of visitors a day, attracted to its historic setting, public performers, dining and mid-range shopping.  The Freedom Trail effectively ends at the Greenway.  Historic buildings and places create destinations and also a “sense of place”, the idea that people know where they are and have attractive and meaningful surroundings where they choose to, say, picnic or stop and read a book.  The Project for Public Spaces has recently joined forces with the National Trust for Historic Preservation to make clear the power of combining placemaking with preservation. It’s exciting to think about where that kind of thinking — and the kind of creative solutions taken by the Greenway — will take our public spaces in the future.



  1. Alex R. says

    The Greenway always seems to be busy when I’m there. I always wish it weren’t so narrowly hemmed in by big roads and chopped up by all the crossroads. Maybe one day there will be a nice cushy bike path alongside it.

    I really appreciate your observations here. I especially think good streetfood fosters a vital streetlife and I hope for more of it in Boston!

    Citygarden, a park in downtown St. Louis, provides a great example of how important water features can be. Visitors can play in the fountains. Also, all of the sculptures are climb-able. So, even in the thinly populated downtown, the place is always busy with families.

    • Diana Limbach says

      From what I understand, the idea of “chopping” the greenway up with streets was supposed to knit the greenway into the existing street fabric, so that you could see and go all the way to the waterfront. I agree that it was a good decision not to just create another barrier on the site after eliminating the central artery. However, walkability is always an issue. There are way too many car bottlenecks in the area, it’s true.

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