Boston redevelops its redevelopment agency: No more “destroy it and they will come”

When Martin J. Walsh was sworn in as the mayor of Boston, Massachusetts on January 6, 2014, he ushered in the city’s first new administration in 20 years. Boston is an establishment city. It’s home to some of the oldest institutions in the country, and traditions and culture run deep—and not always toward the future.

Walsh ran his campaign on the promise of progress. Central to the longtime labor leader’s ambitions was reforming the Boston Redevelopment Authority (BRA), founded in 1957 as Boston’s urban renewal engine and economic development corporation, and infamous for its abuse of eminent domain to bulldoze neighborhoods and displace people from their homes.

Speaking to Next City, Jim Campano recalls “one of the most infamous acts of America’s urban renewal era: when, in 1958, the BRA seized nearly all of the working-class West End neighborhood, evicted its 75,000 residents, and tore all the housing down to build middle-class apartments. It felt like they took part of you when they took your neighborhood.

This was actually fairly normal behavior for mayors and city planners at the time. Their philosophy was “destroy it and they will come”. The assumption was that all any redeveloper wanted was a blank slate: the concept of restoring and reusing historic buildings was discarded, if it even occurred to them.

As a result, scores of U.S. cities lost tens of billions of dollars of “restorable assets”, as they were called in the 2002 book, The Restoration Economy. Many of “urban renewal’s” victims, such as Hartford, Connecticut and St. Louis, Missouri, are still plagued by vast dead spaces that blight their downtowns, and that never attracted the intended redevelopment. The current movement towards community-led planning–and away from all-powerful planning and redevelopment agencies–is in no small part a legacy of this social and economic demolition.

In the Fall of 2016, the BRA was reborn as the Boston Planning and Development Agency (BPDA) with the help of the design firm Continuum. The agency’s new website is sleek and user-friendly; on the home page, it greets visitors with the message: “[This website] redefines what we do, why we do it and how we go about our work. While this website does not cover every single aspect of our complex organization, it provides tools that will ensure that we lay a strong foundation and live up to our responsibilities to the city and people of Boston.” In other words, it’s an apology for 60 years of failing to do just that.

The website breaks the BPDA’s new approach into four categories:

Engage Communities: To shape an inclusive Boston, we must engage a broader and more representative community—the people, businesses and communities of Boston, as well as our own employees. We must design new forums and communication tools that enable people to participate in ways that are natural to and convenient for them.

Implement New Solutions: To be a leader in planning and solve many of the challenges that 21st century cities face, we must leverage our deep expertise, tap into Boston’s innovative spirit and capture inspiration from around the world. We will identify new approaches and collaborate with partners to implement new solutions that positively impact the people of Boston.

Partner for Greater Impact: We have ambitious goals for the future of the city, but we can’t achieve them on our own. We will work together with each partner in the most appropriate way, in order to amplify everyone’s efforts, making the sum truly greater than its individual parts. In the end, the collective efforts of many entities will help shape the future of Boston.

Track Progress: To build trust externally and confidence internally, we will track our progress, and impact. We will start with the right measures, use appropriate tools to make tracking simple and translate the results into relatable benefits.

See full article in Next City.

See Boston Planning and Development Agency website.

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