How We Tied Design and Community Together in East Boston

By Stephanie Weyer, PLA

“How can design engage, encourage, and support resilient communities?”

This question, posed by the Boston Society of Landscape Architects in its call for entries for its 2018 Design Challenge, reached out and grabbed my colleagues and me. We knew we had to submit.

Spoiler alert: we won. We were very excited to be a part of a recently installed quick-build design at the intersection of the East Boston Greenway at Gove Street. Our design process may have been quick, but it definitely wasn’t shallow. We were thinking big about how to reimagine a space, partnering with a community to inform our process and design, and together make a sea change with some paint and elbow grease.

The Challenge

An image of the East Boston Greenway partially submerged, due to rain and poor stormwater management in the surrounding areas.

The Design Challenge, a partnership between the BSLA and the Friends of the East Boston Greenway, asked for short-term changes and a long-term vision for a small section of the rail-to-trail corridor that will be a primary floodway as climate change impacts the neighborhood. In fact, the site is already impacted by clogged storm drains and eroding slopes from drainage issues at a nearby parking lot. It also featured aesthetics that tilted towards function over form, making it a great canvas for the design competition. The winning entry would see their proposed short-term tactical design realized with support from the community and funding from the Barr Foundation.

It takes a village

While Karen Fitzgerald, PLA and I took the lead on preparing our Design Challenge submittal, we got our entire Boston office involved from the start. We hosted an in-house charrette where our office split into three teams of planners, designers, and engineers to sketch out ideas that could invite some more life to this stretch of the Greenway. We looked to provide flexible event space, improve trail circulation and crossings for people going to and through the area, and address stormwater concerns.

With lots of ideas in hand, Karen and I set about combining the input into a cohesive long-term vision for the trail intersection that dealt with the drainage issues, reflected the community’s desires, and invited more use and energy to the space.

We called our whole proposal “TIES”— a play on railroad ties and connections to community, family, and heritage that are important to East Boston residents and visitors. Both our long- and short-term designs focused on providing means for community members to express themselves, their interests, and culture; strengthen the east to west Gove Street connection across the greenway; increase safety and comfort through greenway and intersection changes; and control stormwater. We tied these multiple ideas together with a ground mural.

We submitted our poster entry on January 15 and eagerly awaited the results.

No resting on our laurels

Given all the time and thought everyone had put into the proposal, we were thrilled to find out that we had won! The jury, made up of local landscape architects and representatives East Boston, appreciated our community-first proposal, and we were honored to see our poster displayed in City Hall during Boston Design Week, but there was no time to rest; design development had to begin right away.

Due to grant funding limitations, the deadline for installation was in June—just three months after the competition was announced. This meant that if we were to honor one of our key design principles of letting neighbors lead, we had to kick off community engagement right away.

We collaborated with the Friends of the East Boston Greenway (FoEBG) and their project coordinator, Michelle Moon of Civic Space Collaborative, and spoke with other area community groups and representatives. I was especially excited to work in East Boston, as I had helped organize a community scavenger hunt there years ago and loved getting to know a neighborhood that reflects so many ethnicities and backgrounds.

Meaningful community engagement meant making big changes

Toole Design staff members conduct outreach along the East Boston Greenway, in support of their award-winning concept design

At our first meeting with FoEBG to present our ideas, we heard feedback that did not match with the positive comments from the judges. Members of the FoEBG questioned the concept of a ground mural, expressed doubt about the level of maintenance required, and rejected other details they saw in the conceptual illustrations. In short, it was a quick transition from the high of receiving the award to confronting the reality that our ideas may not have reflected the community we wanted to serve.

East Boston residents are passionate about their neighborhood, and we were determined to improve the design in response to on their feedback. We coordinated long calls with community members and organizations; we worked with the BSLA and other partners who had been involved from the beginning; we tried to make all materials in both English and Spanish, at one point making bilingual coloring sheets for a kids activity that we ended up repurposing to develop and design the final mural. We had to use all our skills across disciplines to plan, design, and install a temporary design that worked well, looked good, and made people feel welcome in this space.

Some of the changes we made included minimizing the kinds of planting we’d do to only bank-stabilizing shrubs and small plants for planters. We reduced the size of the “exchange,” a structure we were making that would have cases for books, community art, and social seating with a shade overhead. We separated the structure into multiple small benches with cases and planters and coordinated with a community member to incorporate her group’s idea for a bulletin board into the site. We excluded a photography display after struggling with what content to include and how to put it together quickly and respectfully. Finally, we worked with the FoEBG to explore different materials and come up with a maintenance plan for the mural.

When we met again with FoEBG to show them an updated design, they still had some concerns. But they were pleased to see their thoughts informing changes to our design.

From Concept to Construction

My Boston office colleagues and I built some of the street furniture together at Karen’s house the weekend before build day, which was a great adventure in the realities of plywood. Build day, a Saturday, was a big lift—with taping, chalking, painting, planting, furniture building, sign placing, and kid corralling to be done! But we had help from the FoEBG, BSLA, Forms+Surfaces, Boston Transportation Department, Trustees of Boston, LivableStreets Boston, Gove Street Citizens Association, and more. Some of the folks who initially questioned our design had stuck with us through the whole process, and when the time came to make the design a reality, there they were, planting and painting.

A good amount of the hard work came from places we didn’t plan for, either! As we were setting up the day before, three kids from the neighborhood stopped with their bikes to ask what we were doing. We told them what was going on, and at 10 am the next morning, the official volunteer start time, they were there, dressed in painting clothes and ready to go. They stayed all day.

The verdict: it’s a hit!

Watching the physical change happen in real time was amazing for us, but it was even better to get the reactions from residents and passersby who were seeing a community space spring up in front of their eyes. One neighbor from the Gumball Factory condo building next door leaned out of her 4th floor window and yelled down to us about how great the colors looked.

Volunteers and community members pitching in to help paint the new pocket park on Gove Street in East Boston.

“I was such a grump for opposing this. It’s fantastic!,” she shouted. She even pointed out a spot we had missed with the paint!

A couple also rode by on their bikes and said they’d been riding on the Greenway for years and always thought this area could use some extra love. They told us how grateful they were to see it cared for. Others offered a simple “thank you,” and at the adjacent intersection where pedestrians and drivers often conflict, many stopped their cars for a second to take a look down the greenway. “It looks really nice!,” yelled one woman from her car.

This real-time feedback was affirmation that input from lots of different people, all across the neighborhood had made this project better.

The most beautiful part of this project was watching members of the community, as they painted, or dug holes, or installed street furniture, could see immediate value in their work. Build day was such a fun day, and it gave us very strong proof that this quick, labor-intensive, short-term design was worthwhile for the people who will use it.

There’s more to come…

This project was very much a rapid implementation design and process, but it pulled together multiple conversations about the site and its future. As we sought approvals and permits, we spoke with Boston Parks, the Boston Transportation Department, and East Boston neighborhood associations and community members, all of whom have ideas for this space.

This project closed off a dead-end portion of Gove Street for a week, re-starting conversations from years ago about closing this area to create a park. We helped propel conversations on current and future uses of the street space and greenway, to showcase how they intersect. We also tried, to the extent possible, to facilitate a conversation on what community members have done to manage site stormwater and what the City is doing to address stormwater concerns. We even designed a small signage series now on the greenway for this purpose. As much as possible, we used our tactical project to put energy and organization behind ideas people already had.

But for the present…

Our friend Jane, from the 4th floor of the adjacent condo building, sent us an email on the Monday after the installation that sums this entire project up nicely.

“Oh how I wish you had all been here [this morning]: it was exactly as you had dreamed it would be, but even better. Two streams of parents and children going to the two schools in opposite ends of Gove. One stream of people and children going toward Porter; Lots of people going to work, especially at the health center. Regular traffic, plus dog walkers.

ALL OF THEM exclaiming: “Wow! What is this!?” My favorite three-year-old shouted: COOL!

Frankly, I didn’t ever think the Greenway was bedraggled, but now when I see it in its community Cinderella at the ball mode…

See All Articles Next Article