Joe Urban | Sam Newberg, Urbanist

In Praise of Boston

Dateline: 9:52 am August 27, 2007 Filed under:

Our family took a weeklong vacation to Boston recently, and here are just a few of the highlights of that wonderful city.

Flower planters in Beacon Hill. Wandering through the narrow streets of Beacon Hill, I noticed that rowhomes often have flower planters hanging on their ground floor window sills, which happen to be at eye level for most people. This is a welcome splash of color in an already beautiful urban setting.

Flowers Brighten the City

Beacon Hill Street Scene

The Myrtle Street Play Area. Also in Beacon Hill, Ellis and I were headed back to our hotel from a laundromat, and we found this lovely little playground no more than 60 by 100 feet in size, wedged between brownstones. Complete with swings, a play gym, benches for parents to sip their lattes and plenty of secondhand toys, this city park is a welcome addition to a dense urban neighborhood. We easily spent an hour there. It must make city living with children infinitely more tolderable for nearby residents.

Ellis at the Myrtle Street Play Area

I was struck by the usefulness of historic buildings. The Old South Meeting House was just down the street from our hotel, and had a fruit and vegetable stand at its base and a used bookstore in its basement. The nearby Old State House has a “T” (the Boston transit system) station entrance carved in to the ground level in the back of the building. I find this wonderful, not only that so much of Boston’s colonial and revolutionary history is preserved, but that you can use it for a modern day urban function. It makes it harder for a building to be demolished when everyone uses it, which should serve as a lesson to preservationists.

Fruit Stand at the Old South Meeting House

The Frog Pond in Boston Common. It was 95 degrees when we arrived, and toting a one-year old on your back is hard work at any time. So it was wonderful to discover the Frog Pond, a pool nearly an acre in size with a constant depth of about 8 inches and big shade trees at its perimeter. What better activity than for Ellis to splash around while Jen and I take turns cooling off in the shade.

Frog Pond

Charlestown. The neighborhood immediately north of the Charles River and site of an early battle in the Revolutionary War, it is worth visiting simply for the view after climbing 294 steps to the top of the Bunker Hill Monument. The Charlestown neighborhood is a model for new urbanism, with its narrow streets, little parks, mix of uses and even color palette so often imitated in new development around the country. This is the real deal – there is even mixed-income housing!

Charlestown – New Urbanism’s Great Uncle

Faneuil Hall and the Quincy Market. With a one year old, sit down restaurants are tiresome. We often got takeaway from a Quincy Market vendor and sat on a bench to watch the world go by. Compared to the vacuous city hall grounds nearby, where you expect to see tumbleweed tumble by, the Quincy Market environs are a model for urban gathering places. Plenty of stores, restaurants, food vendors, outdoor performers, statues (some of them real people acting like statues), nearby attractions, shade trees and benches provide a place for locals and tourists alike to gather and hang out.

Quincy Market

The Big Dig. Grossly over budget. Pieces of ceiling collapsing. A construction headache for the city. Yet by removing an elevated freeway from their downtown and repalcing it with a tunnel, Bostonians have made a clear-eyed investment in the future of their city. The landscaping and planting of the “reclaimed” land is occurring, and it is lovely. In fact, it is hard to imagine a freeway was ever there. The stroll from Quincy Market to the waterfront or the North End, or from downtown to the Fan Pier area is no longer marred by an ugly freeway. The long term benefits are immense, and in this urbanist’s opinion, worth every penny.

There Was a Freeway Here!?

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