Impacting Civic Spaces: Boston’s Public Space Invitational

| Michael Evans, Program Director with the Mayor's Office of New Urban Mechanics

Two years ago, Mayor Walsh launched the Public Space Invitational (PSI), a civic design competition that aims to make Boston’s civic spaces and infrastructure intuitive, beautiful, and delightful through deep collaboration between designers and City Hall. After evaluating 70 entries, the City of Boston awarded nine projects. PSI-winning teams built projects that brought a tidal vibraphone to the Congress Street bridge, provided pop-up learning opportunities on the Rose Kennedy Greenway, and activated the mezzanine of City Hall with brightly-colored skateboard tape.

During the first month of the Walsh administration, a time of transition in January 2014, we were inspired by Philadelphia’s civic design challenge. Our office had been involved with a number of public space interventions. We worked with Soofa to install solar-powered benches in our City’s parks. And with City Hall to Go, we redesigned a former bomb-squad truck to bring citizen services to every neighborhood in Boston.

We were looking to expand the way we sourced, funded, and implemented ideas in the streetscape. We thought that creating an open call for Boston’s creative community could achieve this goal. The only thing we needed was a name. It took a while, but we were particularly inspired by David Sim, Partner and Creative Director at Gehl Architects, and his commentary on reinventing public space in The Human Scale, a documentary about the future of urban design.

“I can’t force anyone to do anything or be anyone. But we can make invitations. We can invite people to walk. We can invite people to sit, to stay…invitations to a better everyday, a better way to cross the street, a better way to wait for the bus, a better way to live your life. That’s all we can do.”

After watching the film, we were really taken with the idea of inviting people to reimagine their public spaces. We coupled this with the idea of an Invitational, a term frequently used in athletic competitions. After a few word combinations, we settled on the Public Space Invitational.

The response to the call was exciting and a bit overwhelming. Designers were eager to collaborate with City Hall to improve the city. After choosing the nine winners of the first Public Space Invitational, the real work began. And we learned a lot. Team dynamics and optimistic budgets led to the quick failure of a few projects. We realized how difficult it is to fabricate durable installations for public space, especially on time and on budget. And we got a crash course in permitting and insuring projects on a bridge and in parks and the building we visit everyday, Boston City Hall.

The Portable Reading Room on the Rose Kennedy Greenway​
​Tidraphone on the Congress Street Bridge
​LightWell in the South End Library Park

A couple months ago, Mayor Walsh announced the launch of the second PSI and its theme: the City of People, Places, and Things.

YouTube Video

The Mayor’s Office of New Urban Mechanics, the Boston Art Commission, and the City’s Streets Cabinet are working with a host of external partners to explore the interplay of digital and analog ideas in the streetscape. We’ve divided the Invitational into three challenges: analog, digital, and a bonus challenge. Our analog challenge explores simple fixes with simple materials. These fixes could be paint in the street or lightweight structures that make a community more cohesive. For the digital challenge, we’re partnering with Microsoft Technology and Civic Engagement to look for projects that experiment with technology, sensors, and a generally connected world to improve the streetscape. We are seeking forward-thinking, human-centered creative ideas that highlight the Internet of People, Place, and Things. And finally, we’re partnering with MassArt’s Matthew Hincman, Professor of Sculpture, and the MBTA to rethink Mattapan Station. How can we make bus shelters more inviting, beautiful, and comfortable?

Since its launch, the Invitational has become a piece of a series of efforts by Mayor Walsh to engage and support Boston’s creative community. The City is working to bolster and expand the connections between City Hall and designers, and can’t wait to build on those collaborations.

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