Occupying Boston’s Public Planning

Occupy Boston, New England’s newest city on the Rose Fitzgerald Kennedy Greenway, will be staying put for at least two more weeks; a judge has issued a restraining order against the city of Boston, preventing police from clearing out the protestors and their tents until after a December 1 hearing.

That order puts a kibosh on the Rose Fitzgerald Kennedy Greenway Conservancy’s November 8 letter to Mayor Menino asking the city to oust the protestors, largely on the grounds that a cancelled public food festival and the overshadowed Farmers’ Market have lost money (After all, we certainly don’t have any place near the Greenway in Boston where people could buy meals or sell vegetables  like Faneuil Hall, City Hall Plaza, or Haymarket; this public park is really our only hope for food.) Of course, the Greenway Conservancy is legally required to allow public protests on its grounds by state law, as I’ve written previously, so Menino did well to delay acting.

So we have a few days—precious moments!—left to dream about what this little city could be. At this point, the old Garden Under Glass plan for the Dewey Square park site is as dead as, well, plants that aren’t under glass in the winter, and it’s a bit cold to wander about with pen and paper sketching possibilities. Perhaps we could persuade some of the area’s interactive online landscape designers to help out, so we can plan from our comfortable homes.

I realize that central planning of the layout of the tent city is anathema to Occupy Boston’s principle of decision-making by consensus at their General Assembly—but there are ways to engage entire communities in planning. Exhibit A is Interactive Somerville, put together by Somerville’s Community Corridor Planning (CCP) coalition to help Somervillains think about the planning for the MBTA’s Green Line Extension. The interactive part is a map where users can post pictures of areas around future Green Line stops, ideas for improving the city, articles, videos, and data—and anyone on the web can see the same information!

And find it, which has always been my particular challenge; cities tend to file stuff by, say, the department involved (Planning, Board of Health, Fence Viewer) instead of by location. As we know from Dr. John Snow’s pinpointing the source of the 1854 London cholera outbreak in a feces-laden well, much is revealed by mapping. Given that the Greenway Conservancy’s letter stated that “sanitary conditions are deteriorating,” perhaps Occupy Boston should do some sanitary mapping before December 1.

But as the sales of millions of GPS units have confirmed, a lot of people hate maps. They hate reading them, they hate thinking about them, they hate just looking at them on a screen. There’s another solution for the unmapped masses; interactive planning “games” that look like a Second-Life walk-through. The difference is that the planning games are based on real places. The challenges players encounter as they look for apartments, or jobs, or a good restaurant in these games are the same problems residents have to solve in real life. Or, at least, they’re an interactive simulation of those problems.

Why bother with a game, when you could just walk out on the street and see the same things? Well, first of all, because people don’t see the same things on the street. Life looks different to ten-year-old kids walking to school, a 75-year-old retirees, a 35-year-old single mothers. What’s more, no one in those three groups is likely to show up to Planning Board meetings and puzzle over site elevations; they aren’t trained to read them.

Emerson College’s Engagement Lab has put together several games to help more people participate in urban planning.  Just a few blocks from Occupy Boston is the site of the Lab’s Participatory Chinatown, which has won a bunch of awards. From the Participatory Chinatown blog:

Physical deliberation, virtual interaction, and web-input are integrated into an engagement process that encourages residents of all ages and abilities to participate. No prior urban planning experience is necessary; interest is the only prerequisite for involvement. …Participants sit side-by-side in physical space and simultaneously co-inhabit a 3D virtual space where they engage in rapid prototyping and testing of urban design proposals.

What that means is that people sitting next to each other can try out different layouts, see how they work, and talk to each other about it! Fancy that!

It’s almost like having a Occupy-Boston style General Assembly about development around Chinatown… or it would be, if the group playing the games had any power to make decisions. It’s not clear to me what’s become of Participatory Chinatown’s results, but you can watch a video of the process here.

The group has also put together a less picture-heavy game set-up called Community Plan It, which is a bit more like Interactive Somerville–well, it has a map. Players collect tokens by doing something (I couldn’t tell what, exactly, from the web site), then spend them to promote values in their community, like open space or after-school programs. The Engagement Lab ran a Community Plan It game in Boston Public Schools earlier this fall. The results aren’t published, but you can watch a video of the process, accompanied by music from Death Cab for Cutie’s “I Will Possess Your Heart.” (A song titled “I Occupy this Space,” or perhaps “I Value Public Input,” might have been more appropriate, but you’ve got to let artists express themselves. Free speech is more precious, after all.)

So what would Occupy Boston look like if the protestors could plan their city, instead of waiting to see when they’ll be expelled? Would the General Assembly be located in the center of Dewey Square, instead of alongside the vent building? Would there be covered walkways, hexayurts that might survive the snow, a rainbow flag at the entrance, or perhaps even… green space? I don’t know. I have a feeling we won’t get to find out.


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