One of the best things about great cities is that they adapt and change. Rail yards become new neighborhoods, and industrial districts become lofts, offices, and shopping centers. The ability of the urban fabric to evolve with the rapidly changing ways we live and work is part of the reason people and businesses are returning to the city core.
It is important, of course, for cities to be able to expand and grow. In Boston, our greatest accomplishments happen in spaces of every possible size, from a single desk at a co-working center, to an industry leading global headquarters. The future here would be much less exciting without places like the Seaport, which can accommodate large new buildings and important economic drivers like GE’s new headquarters. But, our innovation economy is built on small startups, and vibrancy is created when diverse creative types come together in a small place.
While downtown Boston is called the Financial District and the waterfront dubbed the Innovation District, the truth is the exact opposite. The financial and legal community is moving to the waterfront where they can have views and large, shiny new office buildings, while start-ups, software, and creative companies are migrating downtown.
Why? Well it seems that our part of the city (we’re in Post Office Square) offers authenticity and options that new neighborhoods don’t have. The fine grain of smaller, older buildings mixed with larger floor plates create options for businesses to grow, without having to leave behind the amenities their employees value. The small blocks, squares, and parks create opportunities for synchronicity in not knowing what or who is around the corner. And, of course, the creative economy appreciates the visual interest that happens when you mix the old details and quirky spaces with the new.
We’ve gotten really good at figuring how to update traditional, Class B buildings with new systems and identities, and the market has embraced the value that can be created by rethinking what they have to offer without losing the best of the past. Sometimes that means renovation, and sometimes it means reinvention – like adding a modern addition on top of a classic building like at Congress Square.
The benefits of this way of thinking shouldn’t be underestimated. By reknitting close but disconnected neighborhoods back together, we make the city more pedestrian friendly to residents, workers, and visitors alike. Think about how physically close Quincy Market is to Post Office Square, but how far they seem today due to one dead block along Congress Street. Once that stretch of road is enlivened by Congress Square’s shops and restaurants, the connection between the two areas will be reestablished. Or consider how much more sustainable it is to repurpose existing buildings into modern offices, hotels, and housing than it is to tear them down and rebuild.
So, the future of downtown lies in imaginatively taking advantage of what is great about the past, and bringing it forward into the future. It’s really not so different from how the creative economy has taken the pieces that have made the traditional economy great, and modified them for the future.