Reimagining Boston – a collective effort
|Tan Chui Hua|
Like many top cities in the United States, Boston faces complex challenges of housing, public transit, and climate-readiness. What stands out about Boston’s journey to become a more liveable city is how its stakeholders come together to partner the city to build a better, more resilient home.
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The city of Boston © Jorge Salcedo/shutterstock
Known for its top-tier universities, research centres, and consistent ranking as an innovative global city, Boston, capital of the state of Massachusetts, has been steadily climbing the ranks of liveable cities as it remakes itself and addresses critical issues from housing to environment sustainability .
Underpinning the city’s gradual transformation is its first citywide plan in over 50 years, Imagine Boston 2030, and a whole-of-society approach which sees the city working closely with the private sector, non-profit organisations, and communities to innovate and implement solutions together.
The making of Imagine Boston 2030 reflects the collective approach in Boston’s journey of transformation as well. Over more than a year, the city engaged its citizens through open houses, street and online surveys, community workshops, forums, and industry roundtables. Published in 2017, the masterplan pulls together the aspirations and ideas of more than 15,000 Bostonians.
Housing a growing city
Mayor of Boston, Michelle Wu (right) © Darius Boamah Photography/shutterstock
Access to affordable housing is one of the top concerns among Bostonians and an ongoing challenge for Boston with its population growth and increasing median costs for homes and rentals. The city has committed to creating at least 53,000 units by 2030, which it is on track to achieve.
The city tackles the housing issue through a multi-pronged approach. Firstly, when market-rate housing developments have ten or more units that require the city to vary zoning requirements, they have to build a number of affordable housing units in return. These units may be part of the development or be built elsewhere. Developers may also opt to pay a sum to the policy fund managed by the city instead. To date, over 6,000 income-restricted units have been created or preserved through the policy.
Secondly, developers who wished to build higher than allowed in the zoning requirements are permitted to do so if a percentage of the apartments are made affordable in return. Thirdly, city-owned land parcels for affordable homeownership development are released regularly. Development proposals are evaluated based on their contribution to social equity and environmental sustainability, and number of affordable units created.
Fourthly, the city also invests directly in affordable housing developments. For instance, in 2022, the city awarded USD $40 million to 14 such projects. Says Mayor Michelle Wu, “… having a safe and stable home is critical for the health of our families and communities. These housing awards represent significant investments in neighbourhoods across Boston, making them stronger and more accessible for our residents.”
Lastly, the city constantly explores innovative solutions to the housing challenge via its Housing iLab. Through experiments, surveys, and collaborations with different stakeholders, the lab explores and puts forward ideas such as developing housing within public buildings, compact living, and ‘plugin homes’, i.e. small, easily-assembled houses for backyards.
The city also partners Boston’s non-profit organisations and communities, who often take a leading role in supplying affordable housing. In the neighbourhood of Dorchester, home to Boston’s largest senior population and a significant Vietnamese community, the Vietnamese American Initiative for Development operates several affordable housing projects, including an upcoming development for low-income seniors.
The redevelopment of Mission Main, a city-owned income-restricted cluster of 38 blocks built in 1940, is another example. Poor design and management led Mission Main to become run-down and a crime haven over time. In the late 1990s, the Mission Main Tenant Task Force, a non-profit formed by residents, partnered two companies to redevelop the site. The new Mission main with 459 affordable units was redesigned to be fully integrated with the larger neighbourhood and with community amenities such as playgrounds. Since its launch in 2002, the development has seen crime rates drop drastically.
“Having a safe and stable home is critical for the health of our families and communities.”
Mayor, City of Boston
Another key concern that emerged during citizenship engagement sessions was having reliable, efficient public transport, which also ties in with Boston’s aspirations to be carbon-neutral by 2050. In 2016, more than 5,000 transportation ideas were gathered from citizens and Go Boston 2030, the city’s long-term mobility plan, was launched in 2017. It established the city’s aspirational targets such as reducing commute time by ten percent and expanding access to transit for all neighbourhoods. 58 projects are detailed, with 30 projects already in implementation as of 2022.
A key long-term goal for Boston is to ensure that its employment hubs will be well-served by public transit. While Imagine Boston 2030 has mapped out new commercial growth areas for the future, Go Boston 2030 identifies current transportation gaps to be addressed. The neighbourhood of Seaport, for example, is projected to gain over 10,000 jobs in the next decade. However, the metro running through its core is already serving at capacity and only connects to one other metro line. The city plans to build new transit and cycling connections from densely populated neighbourhoods, and create new routes that connect transport hubs to Seaport.
Since the launch of the plan, Boston has been making progress in becoming a walking- and cycling-friendly city with a growing bicycle sharing network and dedicated cycling lanes. Besides capital investment, the city also actively promotes walking and cycling among Bostonians, such as by hosting fun rides and events to advocate safe and responsible cycling. To encourage walking, the city works closely with residents to create traffic-calmed streets. Neighbourhoods have also been pro-active in the creation of tactical plazas, where the city funds residents’ applications to reclaim underutilised transportation infrastructure and transform them into temporary public spaces such as parklets and outdoor dining areas.
Creating a liveable Boston together
Outdoor market at Faneuil Hall Quincy Market in Boston © littleny/123RF
For Bostonians, the city’s long-term liveability hinges upon addressing critical issues such as climate change and long-term economic competitiveness. While the city government takes the lead in developing solutions, Bostonians, from communities and non-profits to private companies, have been collectively contributing to Boston’s transformation.
As a coastal city, Boston is particularly vulnerable to the impact of climate change. The Green Ribbon Commission is a network of Boston’s key business and civic leaders, and a private-public partnership established to accelerate climate action. For instance, one of its sectoral working groups, the Commercial Real Estate Working Group, convenes leading Boston property owners, developers, and real estate organisations to meet climate goals such as capping building emissions.
On a grassroots level, community groups are crucial in catalysing local climate action. South Boston’s community association, South Boston Neighbourhood Development Corporation, partnered a private energy company to install rooftop solar panels on the buildings it manages, on top of switching to more energy-efficient cooling systems. The association also works closely with several community groups and local youth to host conversations and events centring on climate change.
Boston’s private sector routinely works with the city on initiatives that enhance its economic health. A Better City, a non-profit membership organisation representing over a hundred businesses, regularly lends a technical perspective to the city’s projects. A recent case is the city’s proposed USD $90 million redevelopment of the obsolete Allston Interchange into a new gateway that provides sustainable mobility options while enabling the creation of a new neighbourhood. A Better City thus commissioned a study to help the city understand the economic benefits of the project, such as the creation of developable land parcels and a robust transit-oriented market.
Finally, the city’s leadership recognises that the key to Boston’s sustainable transformation lies in its ability to nurture new generations of civic leaders. The city thus runs the SPARK Boston programme to empower young adults from diverse backgrounds to come together, plan, and act for Boston’s future.
As a growing global city, the challenges Boston faces, whether it is housing shortage or long-term economic performance, are significant and multifaceted. Boston’s openness to crowdsourcing ideas and partnering diverse sectors of stakeholders to seek and innovate solutions, however, stands it in good stead to meet these challenges head on and emerge a stronger, more resilient city. O