Green(house)ing Government Center

The Boston Redevelopment Authority (BRA) held a symposium on Greening Government Center last week.  No, no one was decking City Hall with boughs of holly, or trying to sprout radishes on a brick plaza at 25°F, or even breaking out a few cans of spray paint. Instead, a panel of “creative design and architectural experts” presented “their visions on how the City of Boston and EPA can work to create realistic greening options for the area.”

Why? Because there’s money for it!  From the BRA’s blog:

“The symposium follows the announcement in September 2010 of Boston’s selection as one of five capital cities to participate in the Greening America’s Capitals Program and aims to foster a collaborative discussion surrounding the vision for Government Center.” That is, Boston will get funds to redesign Government Center from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) grant program intended to create “distinctive, environmentally friendly neighborhoods that incorporate innovative green building and green infrastructure strategies.”

Let us ponder for a moment the question of whether you can consider Government Center a “neighborhood” at all, given that the entire City Hall plaza consists of government buildings that empty out by 6 p.m., a fact which this symposium flier illustrates well. If you’d like to see a real neighborhood—complete with burlesque shows!—take a look at the old photos of Scollay Square, which was demolished to make way for Government Center in 1962.

OK, the moment’s up. What can we do about Government Center today? It would be hard to make it worse; it’s already in the Hall of Shame at the Project for Public Spaces, thanks to its bleakness, lack of seating, and disconnection from places people want to go (Faneuil Hall). The Boston Globe reported on the symposium, and one of the panelist’s remarks helped me understand how Government Center went horribly, terribly wrong:

“Alex Krieger, a Harvard professor and former chairman of its Urban Planning and Design department… pointed out that the architects who designed the plaza drew their inspiration from the Piazza del Campo in Siena, Italy.”

Aha!  The architects drew their inspiration from a brick plaza that A) is surrounded by housing with ground-floor cafes and bars, and B) ALMOST NEVER GETS BELOW FREEZING. Take a look at Siena’s weather. The average daily high temperature in January is over 50°F. In Boston, we call that May.

What that means is that Sienna’s good citizens don’t have to deal with icy, slippery, slush-covered bricks all winter. They won’t get the full effect of wind fresh from the Canadian arctic pounding on their chests, either. By the way, Somerville is considering abandoning brick sidewalks because they become hazardous to the elderly and mobility-impaired when they deteriorate.

What is to be done? The panelists suggested fairly obvious fixes to make Government Center more attractive to more people, according to the Globe: increased green space, seating and shelter from the elements and adding retail to increase foot traffic. Bill Taylor, landscape architect at Carol R. Johnson Associates, suggested several potential uses in this Boston Herald piece: coffee shops or a beer garden (I’m sure City Hall employees would love to have people getting drunk before they come in to pay fines), lighting and a skating rink in the winter, creating walking paths in the brick, trees, planting grass in the ampitheater.

Ah, but there is another answer. One of the commenters on Government Center’s Hall of Shame listing wrote:

“…in Chris Alexander’s book a Pattern Language—”Something Roughly In The Middle” is consistently an element of a successful large space. So maybe we should put something roughly in the middle and see what happens.”

So we need “Something Roughly in the Middle” that creates sheltered green space, where people can gather even on frigid winter days. How about if it looked like this?

Or this?

Those are illustrations from the Darwin Project and the Garden Under Glass conservatories. Sure, these gigantic greenhouses were supposed to be built on the Rose Kennedy Greenway—but it’s about time we thought outside the box, no? Or, in the case of Government Center, if we thought next to the box that is City Hall.

After all, Government Center is supposed to be a Green Growth District to “add vitality to the area and incorporate the latest thinking in sustainability.” Greenhouses add more green all year round! The only way you can get any greener in January is to use spraypaint—and that would make the bricks even more slippery.

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