For a more vibrant Central Square – and to boost affordable housing – do urban design

As the city council prepares to make some big decisions on the future of Central Square, I encourage everyone to watch this fabulous new video by noted author Alain de Botton, "How to Make an Attractive City." 

de Botton explains the six key elements of successful urban development, and he concludes with a simple truth, in his words: "Beautiful cities have only ever been created when governments impose strict and ambitious regulations to keep the greedy private guys in check."

Here in Cambridge, some people look at the escalating crisis of housing affordability and conclude that things like urban design, public/private coordination, data-driven decision-making, and comprehensive zoning/implementation strategies are all obstacles to the production of desperately needed affordable housing.

In fact, nothing could be further from the truth.

Urban design isn't just about ensuring that new development is attractive, it is also the key to unlocking complex opportunities for affordable housing, public open space, and other amenities. In addition, it helps communities capture value that would otherwise be extracted by global real estate speculators.

Today's debate over the proposal by Normandy Real Estate Partners and Twining Properties is a case in point. At 4 pm, the council's Ordinance Committee will meet to discuss the Normandy proposal in the Sullivan Chamber at City Hall. I encourage everyone to attend this important meeting...

Normandy is asking the council to rezone a disjoined plot in the vicinity of Columbia Street, Mass Ave, and Douglass Street, at the former site of Quest Diagnostics by Lafayette Square, a key gateway to Central Square.

As it stands, there are at least four major issues with the Normandy Twining proposal:

  1. It creates a massive wall between the Area IV/Port neighborhood and Central Square.
  2. It favors parking lots over more desirable uses such as affordable housing and public open space.
  3. It relies on an "ineffective" 80/20 approach to affordable housing, which has already been deemed a failure in New York City.
  4. It rejects comprehensive planning and urban design in favor of a plot-by-plot, "piecemeal" approach to development.

At this afternoon's hearing, I will draw on my experience as an architect, urban planner, and urban designer to offer specific alternatives to address each of these issues.

Please watch the de Botton video, and then, join me this afternoon for this very important meeting.


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