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Wait Your Turn for the Swings at Boston's Adult Playground

The wildly successful Lawn on D Street is a temporary park that took no tedious city planning. Should we let more urban design emerge organically?

Anthony Flint

Listen up, I know you’re excited and the swings look so enticing, but you’ve got to wait your turn. Never mind that you’re 28 years old.

Such is the scene at the adult playground, Boston’s latest urban activity sensation in the Seaport District. People are flocking to the three-acre site adjacent to the Boston Convention and Exhibitors Center, with its set of 20 lighted oval swings, bocce, ping pong, beanbag toss, Adirondack chairs, a sound stage, and open-air bar.

And the most interesting feature from an urban design perspective? The wildly successful Lawn on D Street, a partnership of Sasaki and Utile with HR&A Advisors, wasn’t planned years in advance. It wasn’t in the public-realm plan and it was part of no master plan. It wasn’t a fixed park conjured by a world-famous landscape architect, with built-in furniture and plinths and carefully studied circulation corridors.

(Anthony Flint)

The Lawn on D Street is all about the programming, and the programming—the music, the chairs, the swings, the IPAs in cans—is plunked down on a piece of grass. It’s not even permanent. The convention center, designed by Rafeal Vinoly, is set to expand there; it will soon be a construction site. The BCEC, Sasaki and Utile figured, why not test out some concepts for what should be the permanent park, further south on D Street towards residential South Boston?

The swings, like giant, glowing purple earrings, are a kind of interactive art installation, designed by Eric Howeler and Meejin Yoon of the Boston firm Howeler and Yoon Architecture. I have no data to support this, but my sense is that they are the setting of more shots on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram than anything at least since the silvery bean at Chicago’s Millennium Park.

The popularity of the Lawn on D Street is just the kind home run all designers hope for when they submit renderings showing happy humans inhabiting designed space. What I find fascinating is how fast this place became a smash success, and how utterly absent the concept was in all the decades-long planning that has painstakingly gone on for this part of town.

The Seaport, previously known as the South Boston Waterfront and also known as the Innovation District, is a classic reclaimed industrial waterfront, transitioning from bona fide maritime uses to condos, offices, research labs, museums, and, of course, bars and restaurants. The city was totally focused on making this new frontier a great place when I was at Boston City Hall for The Boston Globe in the late 1990s. There were hearings and plans and more plans.

Several economic cycles later, the roughly 1,000-acre area, across the Fort Point Channel from downtown Boston, not much has turned out exactly as planned. There was a lot of talk about walkability, but the transportation engineers got there first; the I-90 extension to the Ted Williams Tunnel, part of the Big Dig, ensured that the center of the district is, above all, a highway interchange. One of the first tall structures between Congress and Summer streets was a hulking ventilation tower. The streets are wide arterials with lots of left-turn lanes.

(Anthony Flint)

The anticipated civic vitality has been hit or miss. The Moakley Federal Courthouse (Pei Cobb) at the premiere site on Fan Pier—so named because the trains carrying molasses used to fan out there—has been the site of great theater, including the recent trial of mobster Whitey Bulger. But after 9/11, security concerns have effectively roped off public access. The Institute for Contemporary Art (Diller Scofidio + Renfro) is compelling but still isolated in a sea of parking lots, as is the otherwise lively communal space of District Hall, next door to the Our Lady of the Voyage chapel. The designated green spaces sprinkled throughout are beautifully landscaped, but sometimes feel like a highway median, and are similarly occupied.

The successes in the Seaport seem to crop up quite outside of any planning process. A case in point is the strip along Northern Avenue known now as Liberty Wharf, which is just absolutely packed every night, on a par with Newbury Street in Back Bay. There’s a great music tent down the block, but this wasn’t really anticipated to be the center of gravity for the Seaport. It just happened.

It’s important to note that what’s happening on the waterfront is somewhere between traditional planning and the chair-bombings and overnight parklets of guerilla urbanism. Jane Jacobs suggested that urban life can’t be orchestrated from drafting tables, but planners need not abandon pencil and paper entirely. The convention center team wouldn’t have discovered the possibilities of the Lawn on D Street without being immersed in the larger planning for the area.

But clearly, good planning and urban design these days needs to be more nimble. The more adaptive, slightly on-the-fly approach is being embraced in cities across the country, or should be. In Boston, the surface of the Big Dig, the Rose Kennedy Greenway, is another test case; there was extensive debate over what should go on top of the depressed Central Artery. But today food trucks, a carousel, and murals have been the smash hits.

I remember one hearing where someone actually suggested leaving a parcel of the Greenway as tasteful gravel and moveable folding chairs, as in New York's Bryant Park. Designers sometimes feel like they should be doing more, as if champing at the bit. But it’s OK to let things marinate and emerge more organically over time. In a patient search of discovery and experimentation, some really cool things can happen on a simple piece of land.

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