BRIDGES, ROADS & HISTORIC PRESERVATION: Combining Respect for the Past with Preparation for the Future in Transportation

We create ourselves and our society with what we’ve inherited from the past – from genes to hierarchies, from culture to social status.  Most important are the stories, the myths, we’ve been given that help give meaning to the physical world and prepare us for an unknowable future.  As those stories float between generations, among their anchors are the historic artifacts surrounding us in the built environment which embody our collective heritage and trigger our personal memories.

But obsessively preserving the past can be a barrier to dealing with today’s realities or preparing for tomorrow’s challenges.  While architects and preservationists seem to have come to some mutual understanding, it seems that the same is not true in the transportation sector.  As we begin dealing with the physical collapse of the infrastructure built for the passing automobile age, we face potentially damaging, and stupid, fights over what to do with its still-in-use artifacts.  To what extent can we change historic bridges and roadways so they can safely and efficiently serve pedestrians, bicyclists, and buses as well as the cars they were designed for?  To what extent can we acknowledge that the environment surrounding an old bridge has changed since it was constructed so that retaining walls that once served to hide polluted rivers can be changed to allow passers-by to see the now-beautiful water?

Some of these issues will need careful analysis and long discussions.  But for the bridges currently being rebuilt through the state’s Accelerated Bridge Program, the time is now.  It is going to be hard enough to create a 21st century transportation system without fighting over the value of dysfunctional relics.  It is going to be important enough to remember where we’ve come from without mindlessly ripping things down.  We need to talk this through.  Soon.

A Love/Hate Relationship

I am a big fan of historic preservation.  I also hate it.  Too often, it is used to impose the aesthetic choices of a privileged few on the rest of society.  Or it is an arrogant celebration of the achievements of past elites by equally self-congratulatory current elites, focusing on the artifacts of “great men” rather than honoring the struggles and contributions of ordinary people “from the bottom up.”  Still, no matter how incomplete, it is part of the foundation on which we build today.

I’m known for stopping at roadside historical markers and I like old buildings — although I also like well-done new ones as well. Fortunately, after a half-century or so of struggle, building developers and preservationists have found ways to work together.  A host of city, state, and federal laws have forced the profit-driven development industry to respect artifacts of past cultural achievements.  Many preservationists have learned that a project’s economic viability, and even its use of new technologies, can contribute to its ability to honor the past. Many in the preservation community also acknowledge that the juxtaposition of old and new is part of what makes an historic city a vibrant, interesting place to live.  Some of the compromises seem silly – old 19th Century stone front walls sticking out of ugly glass and steel skyscrapers – but some are brilliant, such as the Liberty Hotel’s transformation of the old Charles Street Jail or the addition to the Boston Children’s Museum.

However, peaceful coexistence between preservation and transportation has not yet been achieved — a fact that’s become painfully clear during recent fights over the material used on sidewalks (brick looks old but is hell on wheelchairs), and as the state moves towards final designs for several of the Charles River bridges, from the Longfellow to the Anderson.  Part of the reason for the emergence of this issue is that our automobile-era infrastructure is reaching the end of its functional life. Several bridges already have closed off lanes or protective netting underneath.

In a way, historic preservation is being used as a foil by transportation planners unwilling to lose the car-centric design of these old facilities.  When advocates push to make things better for bus riders, pedestrians, people on bicycles, or even car drives they are often told that “the preservationists will never let us change that” or “I’d love to, but it would simply take too long and cost too much to go through the permitting process.” It reminds me of the way corporate hiring managers used to tell unsuccessful white male applicants that their hands were tied by affirmative action.

Part of the problem is lack of transparency.  There are a half-dozen or more different preservation laws or regulatory systems at the city, state, and federal levels each with its own criteria and processes – Boston’s Landmark Commission, Massachusetts’ Historical Commission, and the national Department of the Interior.  Different things, even different parts of the same thing, can have different types of protection.  But for all the bureaucratic complexity and unintelligible in-crowd jargon (similar to the unintelligible jargon that obscures transportation policy discussions and, for that matter, nearly all  professions), it often seems that resolution of high-profile issues ultimately gets decided based on what some political heavy-weight wants — which isn’t automatically bad, but then why go through all the preceding trouble?

Moving Forward

Maybe we can do better — at least in the majority of routine decision-making situations.  What we have to avoid are creating monuments to past inadequacies that condemn our children to underperforming infrastructure.  We have to at least get to the same point in transportation design that we’ve come to in building architecture.  What is needed are in-depth conversations between transportation advocates and preservationists exploring how to understand each other and work together around three key issues:

  • Content:  What elements of a bridge or road are of a level of significance that they should be preserved or rehabilitated, what can be changed using period-appropriate styles or materials, what can be replaced in ways that reference their predecessors using new materials and contemporary design, and what can be simply ignored?  Similarly, how to evaluate the importance of changing the structures to provide required or desired improvements in the safety, accessibility, functionality, and user experience of the facility?  And how to deal with the trade-offs between the two given the realities of a particular bridge or road?
  • Process:  how to negotiate those trade-offs in a more predictable, faster, less costly and complicated manner.
  • Context:  Beyond the unique circumstances of each road or bridge, what is happening in the surrounding environment?  For example, what do we want the Charles River basin to be like in 50 or 100 years?  How can we incorporate anticipated changes in the cost of energy, the vulnerability of the area to climate fluctuations, evolving regional demographics and transportation patterns, the connection between environmental/quality of life improvements and the ability to attract (and keep) the workforce needed to keep things going, and the institutional expansion of Harvard University, Boston University, MIT, and Mass General Hospital for whom the basin serves as a collective front yard?

At the end, there needs to be a clear statement of what can’t be changed, and how to deal with the transportation inefficiencies that causes; what can be changed a little, and how that can be most acceptably done; when and how its ok to combine old and new, again with guidelines of how to do it; and finally, under what circumstances is it best to simply rip down the old and replace it with something that fifty years later will itself be worth preserving.

The Immediate Crisis

Coming to this new consciousness in both language and regulatory procedure will take a long time requiring many discussions and lots of painful projects.  But for the bridges now being rebuilt under the state’s Accelerated Bridge Program, decision-time has already arrived.  We need some expedited method of dealing with, for example, the ugly inefficiency of the Western and River Street bridges (and their surrounding roadways).  Their added-on light poles are smack in the sidewalk.  Their heavy concrete walls make it impossible to see the river — an understandable approach in the 1920s when the pollution and smell made everyone want to turn their backs on that open sewer.  But today, after spending nearly half a billion dollars cleaning up our waterways, when there is general recognition that the Charles River is a significant historic, cultural, recreational, aesthetic, and economic asset to this region — how come not one bridge allows you to sit down in the middle and enjoy the view?


Some relevant previous posts:

AVOIDING “NIMBY” – Navigating Between Fear and Greed

THREE LEGS OF A HEALTHY BUILT ENVIRONMENT: Smart Growth, Active Transportation, Human-Scale Architecture

THE COMPLEX INGREDIENTS OF LIVABLE CITIES: Complete Streets to Interior Design, Transit to City Planning, Art to Education

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