• 11.01.10

Boston’s City Hall Plaza, One of Country’s Worst Public Spaces, to Get Green Makeover

Maybe the project can show the way towards renovating the country’s surplus of barren public spaces.

Boston’s City Hall Plaza, One of Country’s Worst Public Spaces, to Get Green Makeover

Boston’s hostile-to-humans City Hall Plaza may soon get a tree — and perhaps, even more than that.


The EPA, in a gesture that will forever endear them to Bay Staters, has selected the frigid and loathsome brick-scape around City hall as one of five winners of its new Greening America’s Capitals campaign. The winner of a preliminary screening will work with the agency and the city of Boston in November to try and come up with a plan to soften the barren, 7-acre wasteland that surrounds the terrifying Brutalist monument, Boston City Hall, surely one of the least-loved buildings in America.

When it was built in the mid-1960s, the Kalmann, McKinnell & Knowles project was supposed to be a grand gathering place for civic celebrations. The city had to wait until 2004 for the Red Sox to make the space even marginally appealing. When the hometown teams are lackluster, the red brick desert has utterly no redeeming social value. Indeed, it was the backdrop of the famous, hideous Pulitzer Prize-winning photograph of a thug attempting to impale a black man with an American flag during the busing crisis that shook the town in the 1970s.

During January and February, the plaza is colder and less friendly than the Arctic tundra, with nary a bush or tree to stop the bone-rattling wind off the harbor.

Am I sounding a little bitter? I used to work on the other side of the plaza, and had to cross the beast from the Government Center subway stop every day. It was one of my first lessons in design disasters on a grand scale.


Since then, with the leveling of I-93 (which had been another bonehead design debacle) as part of the Big Dig, the city’s downtown is undergoing a pretty fabulous rebirth. It’s now easy to walk from Quincy Market to the North End, and on to the harbor. On summer nights, the area is vibrant and full of life. There’s even talk of extending Hanover Street, the North End’s main drag, through the plaza, to connect it with the rest of downtown. It’s a triumph of human-centered design.

Sadly, no plans to demolish City Hall itself. But if they planted a giant redwood forest in front of the thing, it might just pass for ‘acceptable.’ Think big trees, charretteers!

[Via Architects Newspaper; Image: The hulking, terrifying roofline of Boston City Hall, by Eflon; The Soiling of Old Glory by Stanley Foreman, via cliff1066?]

About the author

Linda Tischler writes about the intersection of design and business for Fast Company.