Metro, Boston

Word on the Street: Panelists Envision the Future of Urban Space

Boston is a city full of motion and activity. It’s a global hub for research, entrepreneurship, arts, and culture. Boston’s allure is no mystery, and every year the city welcomes the best and brightest from around the world to collaborate on cutting-edge work. With this reality comes a critical caveat to consider: how an increasingly congested city with poor mobility conditions will adapt in a way that ensures a productive but sustainable future. Although this is a pervasive issue that concerns many of the major urban centers in the United States, there are a number of university research labs, government innovation initiatives, and lobbying groups in Boston that have made it their goal to find robust solutions today for the future.

On a frigid Thursday night inside the Sackler Auditorium of the Tufts University School of Medicine, researchers and advocates for green transportation presented their progress to an audience composed mostly of Boston residents and academics. The speaker event was sponsored by Tufts Urban and Environmental Planning and Policy and hosted by the Tufts Social Impact Network, an alumni-led initiative that aims to create a valuable community of recent graduates involved in the social impact field. The lightning talk format featured five Boston-based innovators, tackling the problematic side effects of such rapid urbanization in Boston and around the country.

One of the speakers was Jacob Wessel, director of City Hall to Go in the Civic Engagement Cabinet for Mayor Martin J. Walsh, BC ’09. While most of his work is directed toward improving civic engagement through pop-up “City Hall to Go” events, he spoke primarily about the work of the City of Boston’s urban research arm called New Urban Mechanics. This group experiments with new ways to improve civic life through micro-housing projects, neighborhood traffic alleviation programs, and private sector research support.

The City of Boston’s impetus has been to get the public buy-in and present tangible, implementable solutions to problems such as housing.

“We really try to work on having the public touch and feel whatever the change is that we are seeking,” Wessel said. “The same thing can be said for some of the works that we are doing on our streets.”

The city is also exploring a smart city concept called Beta Blocks, which would designate one or two-block areas as testing grounds for infrastructure changes. This could allow, for example, urban planning officials to receive constructive feedback from testing area residents as to the impact of new park benches or garden spaces. Wessel highlighted the sidewalk as a key battleground for new ideas to be explored and weave feedback into the iterative process.

“While the picture of a large city on the postcard is nice, how you experience the city is on the sidewalk,” Wessel said. “I think walking and experiencing the public realm in that way is the great equalizer no matter how you get around the city. … Everyone at one point steps onto the curb.”

Regarding the City of Boston’s solicitation of public feedback, Rebecca Wolfson touched upon the progress, or lack thereof, made on creating more cycling infrastructure in the city. She is the executive director of the Boston Cyclists’ Union and the foremost voice in biking advocacy in Boston. Wolfson’s aim is to promote the use of bicycles as transportation alternatives to pollution-emitting vehicles, provided that there is a safe, regulated environment for cycling in the city.

At times, the dialogue with local government has been fueled by impatience, but Wolfson believes that this is necessary in order to get real change to occur.

“We make sure that there is the best possible infrastructure for biking,” Wolfson said. “We get members to speak up, attend meetings, send letters. The more people who start riding even though the infrastructure isn’t that safe yet, the more pressure there is to build it.”

The Boston Cyclists’ Union also focuses on increasing the biking modality share in Boston by improving access and offering services such as free bike repair pop-ups for individuals who find repairs cost-prohibitive.

The event produced a meaningful discussion of real issues that deserve the attention of government officials and the public. The solution will arise out of a persistent search for solutions that work for all stakeholders and dissociate the corrosive desires for private gain from common benefit for everyone. In the end, good things take time.

Photo Courtesy of Tufts Social Impact Network

November 18, 2018