Land Matters: Can This Urban Plaza Be Saved? Should It Be?

I visited Boston’s City Hall Plaza in the company of one of our LA forums (“In Search of Public Space,” August 2001), and the place struck me as an urban design disaster—a featureless expanse of brick on which pedestrians look dwarfed and lost. Our forum included four big-city landscape architects and an expert on urban spaces from Harvard. Not one of them had a single good thing to say about it.

Their bad opinion is widely shared. Project for Public Spaces rated it the worst urban plaza anywhere, and while PPS is controversial among landscape architects, in this case it has plenty of company. Ever since the 11-acre plaza was built in the 1960s, Bostonians have repeatedly called for its demolition.

Imagine my surprise, then, to read an appeal by Boston architect and architectural historian Gary Wolf to preserve City Hall Plaza. In the Cultural Landscape Foundation’s e-newsletter, MoMoMa (, Wolf calls the plaza “a grand civic forum” and suggests that any perceived shortcomings could be remedied by “improvements” to the existing design along the lines of an arcade that was installed in 2001. (In my observation, it didn’t help much.) Mayor Thomas Menino has proposed more drastic solutions for the space, from building a hotel to setting up a wind turbine. I personally like the wind turbine idea, but why not a whole wind farm? It couldn’t make the place any worse.

Rather than proposing little tweaks to the existing plaza, a better line of questioning might be: How could landscape architects and others transform City Hall Plaza into a human-scaled, inviting downtown park for the people of Boston? One thing’s sure: Any satisfying redesign would require the demolition of much if not all of the existing plaza. As I write this, however, any suggestions may be moot. The mayor is trying to build political momentum to sell the whole place and build City Hall somewhere else

More broadly, are historic preservationists good at choosing their battles—or do they really think that every historic landscape, anywhere, should be preserved? Some modernist-era landscapes, for example, merit preservation, but many are cold, inhuman expressions of architectural arrogance—such as the “windswept plazas” of which City Hall Plaza is perhaps the epitome. In any case, doesn’t the preserve/demolish debate leave out the important third voice—those who advocate extensive redesign of failed places for human comfort, pleasure, and inspiration?

J. William “Bill” Thompson, FASLA

Landscape Architecture Editor /

When Parks Are Too Successful

New York magazine pretty much shatters the image of New York’s Central Park as an oasis of calm in that hypercharged city ( “The current situation is a New York City case study of the economic phenomenon known as the tragedy of the commons, whereby a shared resource is, inevitably, overexploited,” writes Gabriel Sherman. So what’s to be done to return some balance in such situations? Right now, it’s bordering on a not-so-civil war.


Mauling a Mall? Charlotteville’s Call to Action

Designed by American landscape architect Lawrence Halprin (1916- ) in the 1970s, Charlotteville, Va.’s downtown mall was the product of a community-oriented design process that included many of Charlottesville’s citizens and that aimed to respond to Charlottesville’s social history. It continues to serve citizen’s needs and serve as a vibrant, successful community gathering space.

The mall is one of a few surviving (and thriving) pedestrian malls in America created to revive a historic downtown after the demolition and displacement caused by urban renewal.

Now, proposed plans include alternatives that incorporate “cosmetic upgrades”–new design elements incompatible with the current design (smaller bricks, higher light fixtures, new fountains, new gathering spaces, 60’ high flag poles, sculpture bases, and semi-permanent enclosures for outdoor restaurant spaces, among others). 

Despite 10 years of planning this rehabilitation, a historic resource survey (and accompanying National Historic Register and Virginia Landmarks Registry nominations) that outlines the history, design components, and significance of the Downtown Mall has yet to be done. Without such a careful study, a proper rehabilitation cannot be undertaken.

Many are now encouraging City Council to consider this project as a rehabilitation of a significant landscape that requires proper research (in archival sources and in documentation of existing conditions) before the 2009 initiation of the project.

Thoughts? And actions? You can encourage Charlottesville City Council and the Board of Architectural Review to uphold the integrity of the original Halprin design by emailing If you live in the area, join the June 30 public discussion on the rehabilitation, sponsored by the city and held from 6:30-8:30 p.m. at City Space (5th Street NE on the Mall).

Related links:

Story on The Cultural Landscape Foundation site:
The proposed rehabilitation design: click on Alternatives
The architecture firm hired to carry out the design:
Halprin and the original design process for the Downtown Mall:

From Blight to Beauty

A recent online article in Plenty by Alexa Schirtzinger focuses on the concept of reclamation of trees felled by natural calamity…and the lessons that can be learned. The Chicago Furniture Designers Association is organizing exhibits of high-style furniture pieces made of ash, the normally utilitarian wood suddenly rendered abundant as the emerald ash borer wreaks havoc on North America’s standing ash trees. Which, of course, raises larger questions. The author notes, “Studies show that if urban timber (trees that succumb to disease or injury) were fully utilized, it could provide up to 30 percent of the United States’ timber needs.”  Anyone have any ideas on how to approach such an initiative?

National Park(ing) Day

It’s that time of year again as the intrepid among us begin to think of how to acknowledge National Park(ing) Day. This event, set for September 19 this year, finds folks across the country and around the world transforming parking spaces into temporary oases to underscore the need for integrating the natural world into our urban spaces. Do you think such guerilla type actions make their point or hurt the cause? And will you participate this year?

Check out this site to visit the past and consider the future.