Becoming Boston

Making Tomorrow’s City Together

Deciding how to shape the geography of a complicated city in a vast metropolitan region means engaging with the politics of design, planning, participation, and democracy.

Many of the maps and plans in the exhibition, and in the library’s collections more broadly, show perspectives of the city as seen from “on high”—both literally and metaphorically. Historically, maps have often been in the hands of those with the power to reshape cities and regions, from military surveyors to municipal administrators. By the middle of the twentieth century, both politicians and community groups were demanding more opportunities to draw maps in a more democratic fashion, bringing people from all walks of life into the decision-making processes that determine how the city’s geographies look today and in the future. From the lines drawn for voting districts to routes for new transportation networks and plans for addressing environmental crises, Bostonians began to take a more plural approach to mapping the city. The computer revolution in cartography also introduced possibilities for mapping the city in new ways. As Boston continues to evolve, how will maps document and determine the future of this ever-changing city?

Plan for Boston

Boston Redevelopment Authority
Boston Public Library

By the late 1970s, protests over urban redevelopment—and the disappearance of federal money—brought most of the ambitious master-planned projects of the previous decades to a halt. Instead, Boston now focused on reinventing itself as a city which could take advantage of its legacy urban environment in a manner that would orient it towards an economy focused on services, education, research, and tourism. This planning map from 1986 divides the city based on “district character” evaluations that are based on each section’s historic phases of development. Boston’s neighborhoods, the text on the map argues, are each equipped with a unique “sense of place,” and promoting those urban cultural amenities became a central part of Boston’s strategy for changing its geography to meet the demands of the late twentieth century. During these decades, Boston launched projects like the revitalization of Faneuil Hall Marketplace (labeled here), the reinvention of the waterfront, and, most strikingly of all, the Big Dig that buried the Central Artery highway and replaced it with a chain of open spaces.

Southwest corridor development plan

Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority
Boston Public Library

For most of the first two thirds of the twentieth century, planners had desperately tried to figure out how to make an old city like Boston convenient for automobiles, which had quickly become the dominant mode of transportation by the 1950s. That meant slicing highways directly through the middle of the city, as with the Central Artery, and by the 1960s the state and federal government were working out massive plans to build additional highways throughout the area. Popular resistance, however, stopped the highway that had been planned through Jamaica Plain and Roxbury. This 1979 plan shows what happened instead: the state agreed to build a transit corridor in response to demands for a more participatory and citizen-driven approach to urban development. This pamphlet (which features a photo of the “People Before Highways” protests on its cover) promised not only transit access, but also housing, parks, and jobs. However, relocating the Orange Line to the Southwest Corridor had the side effect of depriving central Roxbury of its elevated rail line, and organizers today are still working to achieve more equity in the transportation network.