The architect of New York’s sublime Whitney Museum and the Pompidou Centre in Paris, Renzo Piano, once said of his major design projects that, “Each time, it is like life starting all over again.”

An inspiring notion, and yet cities with limited space for large-scale development don’t often get that fresh start. In Boston—the daily destination of Tradewind’s NY-BOS shuttle—urban planners and elected officials are studying their nearly completed Seaport mega-project and asking what contribution it will make to the city’s identity.

In particular is the question of whether this 1,000-acre micro-metropolis within the South Boston Waterfront fulfills the mandate expressed by another celebrated architect, Frank Lloyd Wright, who once said: “All fine architectural values are human values—otherwise not valuable.”

Not long ago the company that owns one of the project’s final puzzle pieces, a 23-acre parcel called Seaport Square, began publicly discussing design and development plans. An industry journal made note that the company, WS Development, was best known for building successful outdoor malls in the Boston suburbs—perhaps a dubious qualification in this instance. Seaport Square, the publication wrote with a note of urgency, “represents the last chance for the district to save itself from becoming a sea of generic office and condo buildings, and a playground only for those who can afford it.”

It inspires compassion—and perhaps mirth—when a major city undergoes its most traumatic growing pains 400 or so years after its founding. But Boston always resisted the notion of growth based on packing the skyline with steel-and-glass towers. For the old town to tear itself apart and basically grind to a halt during the 20-year ordeal of the Big Dig took fortitude and even fearlessness, but that project was all about roads, tunnels, and bridges. The infamous Dig was really a grid rebuild, centered on removal of a brutal, dysfunctional elevated highway inflicted upon us during the Eisenhower Interstate era—and blessedly gone from the streetscape as of 2004.

Courtesy of the Massachusetts Office of Travel & Tourism

Courtesy of the Massachusetts Office of Travel & Tourism

Once that urban engineering miracle was pulled off, America’s most venerable city started to feel its oats and get more global in its ambitions—eyeing Southie’s vast parking lots and crumbling railroad piers and sketching out a vision of tech-meets-commerce at what would become the Seaport—along the way even luring General Electric to become a prime tenant.

In point of fact, the Seaport has been a global proposition in more than ways than one. Russell Preston, a Boston-based architect and urban-planning specialist, says the $12 billion in Big Dig investment that miraculously connected South Boston to Logan Airport via underwater tunnel, plus several billion more in public infrastructure, attracted the attention of investor groups worldwide. These institutions and syndicates, seeing opportunity on the horizon, brought necessary private capital. However, their geographic dispersion and fixation on financial return would unintentionally subvert neighborhood-building as an element of the project.

“From the beginning there has been intense focus on turning those old South Boston parking lots and abandoned wharfs into buildings, such that people failed to recognize the potential of the spaces in between,” says Preston. “There’s a shift now, late in the game, toward finding design elements that might be able to tie the various parts together, in hopes of creating a place people will come to love—a neighborhood with a true soul.”

During the world’s long, slow economic recovery post-2008, vast pools of financial capital gradually formed, and they’ve been competing for a limited array of high-return super-projects to fund, especially in the U.S. and Europe. As Preston explains, this has caused large-scale commercial real estate “to become commoditized and reduced to numbers on spreadsheets for pensions funds and other global capital sources to review, as investment instruments.”

In the locality where a mega-project’s towers will eventually rise, planners and officials can of course task themselves with injecting a sense of community and human connection into the finished product, he hastens to add. But that’s often easier said than done.

Preston helped establish the New England chapter of the Congress for the New Urbanism, an architectural discipline committed to forging a beautiful balance between the built environment and human sensibilities. The woman credited with co-founding New Urbanism in the 1970s, Elizabeth Plater-Zyberg, was one of Preston’s grad school professors at the University of Miami. The concept’s core tenets included reversing the sprawl-producing, automobile-centric approach that had overtaken planning, zoning, and construction in the U.S. The idea was to pivot toward walkable, human-scale, mixed-use projects and thereby create neighborhood-style patterns of life featuring chance encounters between people as they go about everyday life. The list of New Urbanist projects and districts is long and impressive, but as the years went by it hardly came to represent a revolution.

Courtesy of the Massachusetts Office of Travel & Tourism

Courtesy of the Massachusetts Office of Travel & Tourism

“Why the New Urbanist view did not become the normal course of business for how we build our country is something that a lot of us would ask ourselves, on almost a weekly basis,” recalls Preston. But the CNU folks now pick their spots. Lately a sub-category called Tactical Urbanism has gained prominence, valued for how straightforward its executions can be.

“The term Tactical Urbanism refers to short, very quick interventions,” says Preston, “and it’s happening everywhere.”

An example can be found across the Charles River in Cambridge, where historic Brattle Street outside Harvard Square has a new bike lane created by moving curbside parking spaces several paces into the roadway and letting bikes have the newly created inner lane—when you park, you walk a few yards across it to put quarters in your meter.

Interestingly, while New Urbanism hasn’t become the rallying cry for municipalities and developers nationwide in the generation that it’s been around, enthusiasm for urban living has nonetheless mushroomed.

“Someone with my background and point of view is always going to want any new built environment like the Seaport to be the most vibrant neighborhood possible, and the place Bostonians most love to spend time,” says Preston. “But even if that doesn’t happen, the Seaport will still be a testament to the value of building new urban districts, even new cities altogether.” 

Spoken like someone who sees the next big urban development project as a thrilling example of life starting all over again.

*Featured image: John Hoey