An international shout-out for Boston planning efforts

Hub is the only US city recognized in 'World City Prize' competition

OUR NATION AND WORLD have experienced great trauma in the past two years: a global pandemic, the January 6th Capitol riot, an intense reckoning with past and present racism, and now a nightmarish European land war. As an Army reserve officer, I’ve been on active duty recently at the Pentagon, as that building wrestles with a tragedy in Ukraine that was unimaginable just a few months ago. While we continue to be gripped by these profound events, we all know we have work to do to make our communities, our cities, and the world better places. In this context, welcome news arrived in Boston this month from Singapore’s Lee Kuan Yew World City Prize. This major international award for urban planning and effective policy singled out Boston as the only American city deserving of special recognition in the latest prize competition. While Vienna took top honors, the Prize Council said the world should look to Boston as a model given its “holistic and cumulative effort on climate resilience, improving housing affordability and mobility options, and fostering civic participation.” It’s worthwhile to consider how the Council came to this conclusion. Professor Ed Glaeser, the acclaimed Harvard urban economist, nominated Boston for the prize in 2019, citing its forward-thinking efforts to address climate change in an older coastal city. An international nominating committee for the prize was interested, and its delegates visited to explore. The delegation asked to meet with the mayor, observing that it was important to understand, first-hand, the passion of a city’s leader. Then-Mayor Martin Walsh explained his response to worsening flood danger in a vulnerable city. With Boston Harbor expected to rise 40 inches by 2070, he insisted that the risk to human beings, property, and the region’s economic well-being required concrete action now. Mayor Walsh also discussed the need to increase housing production immediately, particularly income-restricted housing, in response to Boston’s rapid population growth putting pressure on the housing market. The delegation appreciated Boston’s sense of urgency in adopting policies today that protect the city and all of its people for the long-term. Delegation members engaged in a whirlwind of visits with people and places throughout the city, while learning from Boston Planning & Development (BPDA) staff the agency’s planning goals and the processes by which we approve development. They visited the Bruce C. Bolling Building, the new headquarters of the Boston Public Schools, in Roxbury’s Nubian Square. They walked through the locker room and onto the court of the Celtics practice facility in Allston-Brighton on Guest Street, once a gritty corridor now transformed by good planning. They visited high-quality affordable housing, the Rose Kennedy Greenway, and Martin’s Park in Fort Point, with its impressive resiliency features. Our visitors did not want to hear just from the BPDA. They had candid conversations with stakeholders throughout the city—businesses, non-profit organizations, civic leaders, institutions, and other City of Boston agencies. They discussed policies, public participation in decision-making, and results. The delegation explored how we engaged 15,000 residents to create Imagine Boston 2030, the city’s first general plan in 50 years. They learned about detailed neighborhood planning studies for 30 percent of the city’s land mass, as well as our policy requiring developers of public land to first explain how a proposed project advances equity and benefits diverse constituencies. (After the delegation’s visit, Boston became the first US city to update its zoning code to include fair housing requirements that address effects of past racial bias.) We pointed to new resiliency measures in the zoning code, directing developers to assess future flood risk and ensure that new development and infrastructure is resilient to future storms. Our work to increase Boston’s affordable housing stock featured prominently. Today, 10,000 of the residential units approved by the BPDA since 2014 are income-restricted, with pricing below market rates. Boston has the highest percentage of income-restricted housing (27 percent of all rental units) of any US city. We explained that since 2014, the city has experienced the biggest development boom in history, yielding record property tax revenues, 140,000 jobs, and funds to provide job training to 40,000 Bostonians annually through development “linkage” payments. Our planning and development decisions in recent years have helped to make Boston one of the most significant life science industry clusters on earth. In Boston, we’ll stay focused on planning, and shaping the built environment, for a future that benefits all. At the same time, it’s a bit of good news that the Lee Kuan Yew World City Prize cited Boston’s “visionary and strategic planning” as worthy of international attention, and emulation, in confronting important 21st century challenges.

Brian Golden is director of the Boston Planning & Development Agency, a position he has held since 2014.