Boston is a unique blend of people, neighborhoods, and businesses. At the same time, Boston also faces problems that other cities have tackled. As we consider options for the direction of the BRA’s new organizational identity, we want to support what we’ve heard from the public and from the BRA’s other stakeholders with some external research.
Below, we’ve shared insights into other cities that are all exemplary in their own way. We’re still thinking through how they’re relevant for Boston and we’d love to know what you think—please comment below!
Protecting and Preserving | For a city with deep historical roots, growth and change can feel like negative forces at work. Paris has undergone several large scale modernizations and renovations over the past 150 years, and some of the efforts to change the city have fraught reputations. At the same time, it could be said that the tension between the historical and the modern has actually made Paris what it is today. More specifically, the city’s commitment to historical preservation has forced new development to be smarter and more sustainable. A preservationist agenda can be restrictive, leading to stagnation, but it can also serve as a useful check and balance on development.
Trying new things | Singapore takes a “research and development” approach to urban design; its UrbanLab conducts urban planning research and shares its findings. The city’s profound commitment to serving its people (the Singapore civil service is considered one of the least corrupt in the world) ensures that no one feels like a lab rat in an urban experiment. Another example of a city at the cutting edge is Copenhagen, often considered a gold standard in urban design. The city has come so far that its thought leadership often takes the form of consulting for other cities, from Jan Gehl’s architecture/design firm that offers human-centered city solutions to Copenhagenize, a firm that advises cities on how to be more bikeable. A lot of factors have contributed to Copenhagen’s liveability, but the way the city prioritizes the quality of life of its residents seems to drive its success. In both cities, truly sustainable innovation is motivated by a deep desire to serve the city itself.
Smart growth | When other North American cities grew rapidly around highway systems after World War II, Vancouver hesitated. A citizen protest around a proposed freeway development evolved into an organized political movement that would shape urban planning in the city for the next several decades. Vancouver still grew quickly, but its strategic approach to planning for density became an actual urban design tactic: “Vancouverism.” On the other hand, a city like Busan, South Korea takes “smart” to the 21st century, aiming to become one of the world’s most digitally connected cities. To tackle urban issues like access to job opportunities, it has partnered with several private sector consultants and innovators to develop apps and other smart city technology that it pilots and scales.
Transitions and transformations | There was a time when Medellin, Colombia was largely known for crime and drug cartels, but a series of innovative mayors have made the city into a safer, more equitable place. This transformation was largely possible due to a unique partnership with an outside company. A quintessential American evolution story is Detroit’s ongoing transition from an embattled car capital to a thriving, innovative, future-focused urban space. One of the engines behind this is the Detroit Future City Implementation Office, an entity that has faced criticism for its efficacy while garnering praise for its branding and communication strategy (which represent a marked departure from traditional approaches to city planning).
Approaches to community engagement | There is no doubt that the BRA’s current approach to community engagement leaves lots of room for improvement (see our recent post for more). It is interesting to note, however, that the BRA actually leads more community meetings than comparable entities in other US cities. The New York City Planning Agency, for instance, does not conduct development review community meetings at all. On the other end of the spectrum, the city of Philadelphia has created a “Citizen Planner Institute” that offers a seven-week course in urban planning and design, with the goal of empowering community members to participate in an informed way. Many cities are re-thinking community engagement, considering traditional, inventive, or experimental methods.