What will Boston — and Other Cities — Look Like in 2030?

A Conversation with John Alschuler

January 4, 2016

Principal, NBBJ

I recently moderated a panel discussion about Imagine Boston 2030, the city’s first comprehensive planning effort in more than 50 years. One of our participants was John Alschuler, chairman of HR&A Advisors and the lead consultant for Imagine Boston. I’ve known John for a long time, and he agreed to introduce us to the challenges Boston faces as it embarks on this major initiative — challenges that are shared by many other cities across the country.

The following remarks have been edited and condensed from our discussion.


Can you recap how Boston got where it is today?

Boston began a decline in the 1950s along with many American cities. But it lost 30 percent of its population base; Philadelphia and Baltimore only lost 20 percent, and New York only 10. It’s not complicated to figure out what happened: Boston was more heavily dependent on manufacturing in an era in which manufacturing imploded, and the effect of race on Boston was more damaging than in many other cities.

In 1990, things began to change. Boston gradually recovered at a pace similar to other older, industrial northeastern cities. And then about five years ago, bam! The rate of growth became remarkable. Boston’s peers were no longer Baltimore or Philadelphia but San Francisco, Seattle, Denver, New York City — the places in which the economy of innovation, knowledge and lifestyle creates exponential gain.

And the rate of growth over the last five or six years has been extraordinary. Boston’s population grew by six percent, its economy by seven. And it’s a highly productive economy: the productivity of a worker in Boston today, compared to the productivity of the average American, adds $24 billion to the regional economy. Now the challenge is managing velocity.


What is the biggest challenge Boston will face over the next few decades? How does that challenge differ from other, similar cities?

The first thing is fundamentally creating an inclusionary city. This expansion creates benefits that are not widely or evenly shared — it benefits those who are capable of participating in a highly sophisticated economy.

I think a lot about Boston in the context of San Francisco, a series of fiercely territorial, very proud neighborhoods that are committed to their built form and that have made it difficult to expand housing supply. They’ve preserved their building stock, but it’s being occupied by a very different group of people than occupied those buildings 20 years ago. You don’t need a Ph.D. in economics to figure out what happens when a rapidly growing, high-income population meets a relatively static housing supply — housing price goes up dramatically, as much as 30, 40, 50 percent.

So Boston will have to grapple with two of its great historic strengths: the beautiful character and quality of life of its neighborhoods, and its pride of place. Those things can’t stand in the way of accommodating a growing city. It has to be an inclusionary pride of place, or we’ll preserve the physical city for a different group of people, which is what’s happening in San Francisco. The interesting question is, what are we trying to preserve, and how do we balance quality of life and neighborhood character with the city’s role as a place of inclusion and community?


Why does Boston face such difficulties with transportation and connectivity?

Boston’s transit system, the T, is designed for a very different economy than what is developing over the next 20 to 30 years. The new employment nodes — the Seaport, Kendall Square, Longwood — are not what this transit system was designed to serve. For a variety of reasons, the jobs aren’t where they used to be. That’s an enormously healthy thing, but the transportation system has to be modified to get people where they want to go, without taking three buses and two trains to do so.

One painful index that I think will develop is the relationship between income and travel time to work. Unfortunately, I have a feeling it will be the inverse of what you want — that the poorer you are, the harder it is and the longer it takes to get to work.


How can cities like Boston best utilize their waterfront?

There are many aspects of dealing with a city’s relationship to water. In New York, Philadelphia and Washington, DC, a new generation of waterfront parks and open spaces have created new neighborhoods, new jobs and new sources of civic life that Boston has yet to accomplish.

But Boston’s challenge of living with water is different than other cities in two respects. First, Boston has a greater percentage of its economic assets at risk with climate change and sea-level rise than nearly any other American city. It’s a port town, so its historic assets, including some of its great universities, are awfully near water, placing a higher percentage of the city’s productive capacity at risk. Second, around three percent of Boston’s population lives in communities that are highly threatened by sea-level rise, and half of them are low-income, without the means to provide adequate protection for themselves.

The waterfront can be a greater, more widely shared stimulant to development, so that new houses and office buildings can be built with open spaces that people love and share, and that add value to the buildings. Right now, individual developers rush to get ahold of key waterfront sites to add value to their own property, as opposed to an organized planning framework in which many more people can get access to the water and share the resource more broadly, creating in the aggregate much greater real estate value and much greater economic stimulus to the community.


What is the role of civic government in this process?

Any plan, to have the benefits a city seeks, has to do two things. One, it has to be connected to the capital budget, to how the city allocates dollars for streets, schools, firehouses, parks — it has to be connected to a broader development agenda. Two, the city has to look very carefully at how it regulates and manages development. Zoning regimes in most cities have been in place for a very long time, but ultimately there must be a revision of the underlying process of entitlement and regulation so there is a set of rules and regimes that are connected to the plan. Boston’s mayor has committed himself to an open and transparent development process. He takes that commitment very seriously, and I think we’ve seen significant strides in that direction.


Are you optimistic about Boston’s future?

The great joy of Imagine Boston 2030 is that things we don’t believe are feasible today will be feasible in 2030. If you were doing a plan in 1980 or 1990, even in 2000, that would be a statement of faith. Today it’s not a statement of faith. It’s a statement of economics and a statement of a trend line. We have the gift of an imagination that wasn’t possible ten years ago. And that gives us an enormous opportunity.


Image courtesy of Rene Schwietzki/Flickr.

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