Until recently, the outlook for Massachusetts’ Gateway Cities was bleak. These midsize urban centers had flourished during the 19th century industrial era, becoming “gateways” to generations of new Americans. But by the 1960s, they began to decline, as factories closed and the populations shrank. Still, many of the buildings—spinning mills, weave sheds, shoe factories—remained intact, even if often vacant.
Similar conditions can be found in industrial hubs across the country (think Youngstown, Ohio, or Flint, Michigan). Some refer to them as “shrinking cities” or “stagnating cities,” leading others to declare them on life support.
In Massachusetts, however, a series of recent government-led initiatives have quietly and steadily devised ways to improve life in these cities. These efforts point to a possible way forward for design professionals to engage with government, nonprofits, and the private sector as a crucial part of the solution.
The history of gateway cities
The term “gateway cities” was first used to refer to Bay State cities in 2007. A joint report by the Brookings Institute and the Massachusetts Institute for a New Commonwealth identified several cities across the state that “anchor regional economies.” The report called on state and local cooperation to revitalize these cities, and a flurry of government initiatives took up the call. In 2014, then-Governor Deval Patrick signed a bill that created the Transformative Development Initiative (TDI) under the auspices of MassDevelopment, a state agency tasked with promoting economic development.
The TDI focused its energy on reviving the downtown districts of the 26 Gateway Cities by partnering with public and private local entities and enhancing communication between local officials, small businesses, and nonprofits. They provided grants to initiate collaborative workspaces and small-scale public realm improvements. The program also began to hire design consultants to work in these districts, and to encourage and support others to do the same. (Full disclosure: My design firm, OverUnder, has been a consultant to TDI since 2016, but was not involved in any of the projects referenced in this piece.)
Today, there are clear indicators of a change in direction: new companies started, increased development, and, importantly, population growth after decades of decline. While each city’s particular answer is different, one major characteristic they shared was a willingness to engage design at all levels: from urban planning, to public space, to signage.
Urban planning & design
The downtown districts of the Gateway Cities witnessed significant growth in the 19th century, and many suffered from incomplete urban renewal plans in the mid 20th century. As a result, bringing new life to these urban cores required planners who could reassess what was there and what was missing and who could propose both medium- and long-term visions.
In Haverhill, a planning study was conducted on an area that sat at the edge of an intact downtown core, where several buildings and parcels lay vacant or underused, all within a block of the Merrimack River. As a result of the vacancy, neither the main street nor the river’s edge were well used by pedestrians. The study, led by architecture and urban planning firm Utile, proposed improvements that would directly affect the public, while allowing landowners to decide the use based on their understanding of the market (in other words, it was less important whether a building was residential or commercial, but that its ground floor contributed to an active street life).
Through a radically pragmatic approach, the study advocated for a walkable main street and the implementation of a boardwalk along the river. In recent years, a number of projects have been built—both new buildings on vacant parcels and renovations of older shoe factories—that have increased the downtown housing stock and retail spaces along the commercial corridor.
The city of Brockton has taken a slightly different approach, one that began by strengthening capacity within city hall, commissioning robust planning studies, and reworking local ordinances to encourage new downtown development. In 2014, the city hired a director of planning and economic development, the first in more than six years. A number of studies were commissioned, including the Brockton Downtown Action Strategy, completed by Stantec’s Urban Places Group. The study called for a plan to attract new businesses and encourage a broader mix of residents. Brockton’s city council supported these goals by enacting structures to finance public improvements, such as lighting, sidewalks, and landscaping. The initiative also incentivized downtown housing and reexamined zoning rules to make denser housing possible. Minimum parking counts were reduced for new developments—a logical and necessary improvement for a downtown that’s well served by bus and train routes. Today, the downtown boasts more than $165 million in new or ongoing development.
Public art & design
Other cities have chosen to support robust public art programs, spearheaded by locally rooted nonprofits, as a first step in changing perceptions. The North Shore Community Development Coalition is focused on Salem’s LatinX community, largely in the el Punto neighborhood immediately adjacent to downtown. El Punto suffered from negative perceptions from other parts of the city—and also from its own residents, who until recently saw little of themselves in the neighborhood. The CDC develops and manages affordable housing, runs youth programs, and provides support to small neighborhood businesses.
It also sponsors Punto Urban Art Museum as a tangible means to instill pride in the community. Most of their 75 commissioned murals are on the blank walls of a three-block area and within the back alley that bisects it. Together, they create a striking, densely visual experience that has drawn attention to an overlooked neighborhood adjacent to the more famed tourism district. For David Valecillos, director of design for North Shore CDC, cultural work—rooted in a social justice mission—augments traditional planning tools. The art “holds a mirror which shows that there is human capital here, and now it’s impossible to deny it,” he says. It has also raised the profile of el Punto, recently listed in Lonely Planet as the top place to visit in a city full of competing attractions.
Nearby nonprofit Beyond Walls has contributed to a reinvigorated downtown Lynn, a once thriving mill town with a historic reputation for vice. The nonprofit has hosted four citywide mural festivals in Lynn, with more than 60 large-scale installations as well as a lighting campaign to illuminate storefronts and underpasses. The project has been wildly successful, garnering national attention and funding, in no small part thanks to the entrepreneurial energy of founder and CEO Al Wilson, who previously worked for tech startups. The efforts seem to have paid off: Positive news stories are changing the city’s narrative, and (prior to the pandemic) local businesses were seeing higher revenue with the increased downtown foot traffic.
The organization is now leveraging its success to further reactivate downtown Lynn by redesigning public spaces that double as venues for the cultural events. Wilson attributes the success to a “three-legged stool of strong community support, the business community, and elected officials.” Beyond Walls has been approached by other cities to initiate similar efforts; in each, “all three groups are at the table.”
Graphic design & wayfinding
Graphic design has also played a role in repositioning the Gateway Cities, nowhere more so than in Chelsea, a city distinguished by its large Spanish- and Portuguese-speaking communities, as well as a remarkably intact core of historic buildings. In an effort to help stimulate the Bellingham Square Business District, TDI asked creative agency Visual Dialogue to help reimagine this key commercial node. According to the designers, the strategy sought to “focus efforts to make the biggest impact.” The results celebrate the Central and South American immigrant communities through a vibrant new graphic identity that has found its way onto murals, banners, and public street furniture. As part of the rebranding, a prominent but drab gazebo at the entrance to the district was transformed into a focal point for the new placemaking effort.
By combining graphic and urban design skills, these designers leverage the existing historic assets, as well as the vitality of a rising generation of small businesses and entrepreneurs.
Although the Massachusetts Gateway Cities experience may not have exact parallels elsewhere, it’s an approach that’s replicable. Other parts of the country—including the Wynwood neighborhood in Miami and downtown Greenville, South Carolina—have deployed similar strategies. What the Bay State experience shows is that the model is scalable, and that tremendous revitalization is possible, if government actively engages with local private and nonprofit partners, and puts good design front and center.
Rami el Samahy, an architect and urban planner, is a founding principal of OverUnder, a Boston-based architecture and design firm.