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How to humanize a $22 billion neighborhood built from scratch

The heart of this massive Boston project is a rock-strewn park by James Corner Field Operations, the architects behind New York City’s High Line.

How to humanize a $22 billion neighborhood built from scratch
[Image: courtesy of Boston Seaport by WS Development]
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The large-scale redevelopment of Boston’s Seaport district is part of a $22 billion dollar attempt to turn a working waterfront into a mixed-use urban neighborhood. Spread over 20 blocks on a former working harbor just outside of downtown, the district has long been slated to become an “innovation district,” with more than a dozen office towers, and space for residential and retail use. But making a neighborhood from scratch is not always easy. One of its key designers wanted to make sure it didn’t become an isolated dead zone.

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“The tendency for developments at this scale is the developer is always wanting to internalize the project, to turn it inwards,” says landscape architect James Corner, founder of James Corner Field Operations. “I always find those places bereft of urban life. They’re often empty and sterile simply because they’re not connected to anything.”

[Image: courtesy of Boston Seaport by WS Development]
It’s a common trait. Self-contained mega projects like New York’s Hudson Yards have been denounced for creating a sense of separation from their surroundings, and urban destinations like Baltimore’s Harborplace have been criticized for turning their backs on the neighborhoods that surround them.

Instead, the master plan for the Seaport district, designed by architecture and urban design firm Sasaki, focused on forging connections to its impressive surroundings—the waterfront and the city’s downtown. Opening this month, the first completed phase of the project is Harbor Way, a linear promenade and central public park that carve pathways through the site. Corner, whose firm is known for its work on New York City’s High Line, calls it “a pedestrian armature” that will connect the city to the harbor.

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Situated in between blocks of complete and nearly complete buildings that will make up this mixed-use district when construction wraps in 2024, Harbor Way turns what could have been a street into a pedestrian-focused civic and commercial space. Lined with trees, seating areas, and the frontages of stores and restaurants, it’s intended to draw people in and also help redraw connections to the waterfront.

[Image: courtesy of Boston Seaport by WS Development]
The harbor itself became part of the inspiration for the design, Corner says. Weather-beaten wooden planks form a central boardwalk along the promenade, and the ropes, chains, steel, and iron of the shipping industry influenced the hardscape that cuts through the district.

The linear promenade connects to a wider central green space that is intended to be used year-round, even through Boston’s generally frigid winters. Corner says the park space embraces the region’s climate, with evergreen trees to provide wintertime canopy and maples, oaks, and cherries for spring and fall color.

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[Image: courtesy of Boston Seaport by WS Development]
The more noticeable elements are likely to be the gigantic boulders that dot the park. More than 250,000 pounds worth of huge rocks have been trucked into the park as oversized accents. Corner says they are meant to surface the geology and topography of New England, which was shaped by glacial forces. Over millennia, massive boulders were carried by glacial flows and transplanted throughout the region as the ice melted, plopping them incongruously in woodlands and meadows. They are known scientifically as erratics. “These rocks geologically are displacements. They don’t belong there, and they’re very odd,” Corner says. His firm’s design sought to recreate this dissonance by accentuating the promenade and park with rocks “as big as we could find.” The effect is unexpected in a space surrounded by office buildings.

[Image: courtesy of Boston Seaport by WS Development]
It’s also part of creating a more compelling kind of project, according to Samantha David, president at WS Development, which is the developer of the project. “The question that we posed to ourselves was why would people want to go here,” she says. “We are certainly not cocky enough to believe that if you build it they will come. You need to build something great and then they will come.”

Year-round programming will also help, as will the retail and restaurants that are beginning to open along Harbor Way. Mostly though, the project aims to insinuate itself into its surroundings by creating connections beyond the ends of its new promenade. “It knits the development into the fabric of the city,” Corner says.