Co-sponsored by Boston College's Citizen Seminars and Boston Mayor Thomas Menino, "Boston's Legacy of Planning" brought together a panel of the present and former directors of the Boston Redevelopment Authority. Prof. Emeritus Thomas O'Connor (History) moderated the panel, which examined the BRA's role in the city's rebirth through the 1960s and '70s, and identified key resources - such as area universities and the city's diversity - for guiding Boston's development into the next century.
Before an audience of over 100, the panelists outlined what they felt should characterize that development, from revitalizing Boston's public schools to creating a technology infrastructure. Perhaps most importantly, said current BRA Director Thomas O'Brien, Boston should realize that its assets offer a significant competitive edge in building for the future.
"Cities can compete by cutting costs," said O'Brien, quoting former Labor Secretary Robert Reich, "but the trouble is there's always someone who does it better than you. The other way to compete is as a livable city. We have many intangibles that can take us through ups and downs, and one of these is our residential character. In other cities, 5 p.m. comes and they roll up the sidewalks, but here there is a 24-hour life. That's something which helps cities survive."
Introducing the event, University President William P. Leahy, SJ, said the experience of Boston and the BRA offered useful lessons in building urban communities.
"Cities are at the heart of our society and civilization," Fr. Leahy said. "We must have vibrant and vital cities in which people thrive."
Panelists described the reasons for the BRA's success in reshaping Boston. The agency was given substantial power - such as the ability to override obsolete city codes - and was able to gain grants and other funding for key projects like Post Office Square and Government Center.
"No other city has instrumentality like this for its planning and development," said Edward Logue, the first BRA director.
Local higher education institutions offer stability and a constant infusion of human and other resources, and should be major players in advancing Boston's development, the panelists said.
"They bring in many talented students to this area, and many of them stay after graduation, which contributes to the intellectual and professional capital we have here," said Robert Walsh, who served during the Kevin White administration. "They should be incorporated more fully into the planning process."
The BRA also needs to tap experts who can help the city include use of the Internet and other emerging technologies in its planning efforts, said Robert Kenney, a 1956 alumnus who headed the BRA from 1970-76.
"We need a broad-based approach, which considers our diverse population and neighborhoods," Kenney said. "That's what planning really is; it's more than just a lot of pretty pictures of what you hope the city will look like some day."
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