Creating Places People Want to Visit

Cities can make low-cost changes to breathe new life into old spaces.
August 28, 2018
Once considered a place “hostile to humans,” small and low-cost changes have made Boston City Hall a more vibrant place to visit. Shutterstock
By Lisa Wong  |  Senior Fellow, Governing Institute
Lisa Wong is a senior fellow with the Governing Institute and former mayor of Fitchburg, Mass.
Dynamically Planned

Boston’s City Hall has a history of receiving negative criticism. The building has been cited as an example of “brutalist” architecture and the surrounding plaza – a sea of brick -- has been deemed one of the worst public spaces in the country. Fast Company magazine called it “hostile to humans.” Former Boston Mayor Tom Menino actually wanted to demolish the building and move city government to the waterfront. Current Mayor Marty Walsh was a proponent of this idea and during his campaign talked about selling the building to a private developer.

Today though, small changes have made the plaza a much more attractive and vibrant place to visit. There are numerous picnic tables and colorful Adirondack chairs where tourists and workers now sit to sun themselves or have lunch. And an artificial green space holds simple games such as hula hoops, paddle boards, ring toss, chess and cornhole.

New and popular events have transformed the way people use and think about the space. In the spring, the plaza hosts a music festival called Boston Calling that attracted 40,000 people in 2018. The Boston Winter festival offered a giant outdoor skating path, holiday shopping market, food and a beer yard and brought 300,000 visitors of all backgrounds.

These popular events and the attention to attracting viability on a day-to-day basis has changed the conversation around the plaza. The state recently renovated the subway station stop at City Hall, creating a beautiful glass sculptural enclosure that is almost beacon-like. And talk of relocating, demolishing or selling City Hall has effectively stopped. In fact, the city is finally moving forward with a long-planned renovation of the plaza in 2019.

The five-year plan is expected to bring trees to the foliage-challenged place and create more gathering spaces. The details are not yet final, but big ideas like a seasonal sandy beach, gondolas and Ferris wheel have all been floated. There are plans for restaurants, a beer garden and outdoor dining options, both permanent and semi-permanent.

Whatever the final product is, there are some smart moves that the city made. First, Boston focused on creating activities that people demand. Second, the city experimented with temporary, and in some cases, very low-cost projects to gauge what works and doesn’t work. Third, the city created partnerships with private and nonprofit entities to program the space. Finally, by showing people what a reimagined place could be, it changed the conversation and support for a major, more permanent and costly renovation. By doing so, Boston City Hall Plaza is transforming from brutal to beautiful -- from a study in what not to do with public spaces to a major iconic attraction of which the city can be proud.