Walk the talk

By DAVID EISEN  |  January 17, 2007

 Great streets may require minimizing the misery of snow and trash and traffic, but they should also elicit enjoyment and audacity and experimentation. This is exactly what Moskow offers Boston, despite the city’s reluctance to take him up on it.

Hidden history
Ultimately, however, it is the City of Boston that must coordinate efforts to make its urban spaces as good as they should be. But as with so many bureaucracies, the struggle to prevent the worst often limits the drive for the very best, with a little red-brick paving and a couple of trees substituting for real ingenuity in the redesign of streets and sidewalks.

To be fair, making any structural change isn’t easy in a city as old and stratified as this one.

Although what is above ground may be what matters as we make our way through town, there is a whole world underground on which urban denizens depend. Right below the surface of the streets and sidewalks is an unfathomably complex array of wires, pipes, conduits, and vaults belonging to a vast assortment of utilities dating back decades and even centuries. Each system is run by a different department or utility, and each has its own needs, schedules, and procedures. Moving a curb, adding a streetlight or tree, or even just changing the paving requires ripping things out by their roots and reworking the urban infrastructure with a series of different players.

These improvements can turn into something of a comic opera, as paving is repeatedly jack-hammered open and replaced to access underground infrastructure while keeping the traffic moving. This is the 21st century; isn’t there a better way?

“In Paris”, according to Peter Smith, co-chair of the Boston Society of Architects Urban Design Committee, “an underground network of interconnected tunnels houses the sewers and pipes that supply the city’s water, telecommunications cables, and pneumatic tubes. That means the streets are not as disrupted as they are in Boston and other US cities by excavation and repaving.”


MAGIC MUSHROOM: Another Moskow design would shield smokers from wind and rain while sucking up their foul fumes.
It is a brilliant solution, one that Smith suggests could be integrated into the fabric of Boston’s streets, at the miniature scale of today’s technology rather than at Phantom of the Opera proportions. But the Paris tunnels date from the 19th century and earlier, when massive infrastructure improvements could be decreed. Without an imperial system it is hard to implement — and pay for — this kind of comprehensive approach to infrastructure, although Smith holds out hope that cleverness and common sense will ultimately prevail. Until then we will have to rely on more incremental approaches to improving our pedestrian experience.

Tim Love, principal of Utile, a prominent Boston planning and architecture firm, emphasizes the importance of collaboration in handling the complexities of urban infrastructure.

With the Big Dig mercifully near completion, a series of little digs, called the Crossroads Initiative, will improve the streets that cross the Greenway; Love is responsible for the urban design of the Broad Street component of the plan. “Urban planners, traffic planners, engineers, and utility companies need to work together to enlarge the possibilities for Boston streets, anticipating the outdoor-dining and innovative social programs, along with the cars and parking, that we want the city to accommodate.” Planners have to look ahead, Love says; “we don’t want to be back there digging it all up again in a couple of years.” Keeping the jack-hammering of the asphalt to a minimum may be a reasonable expectation, but eliminating it is unlikely as long as all those utilities run right below.

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