2021 Workshop

The Resounding Success of the Big Dig

Aerial view of the Rose Fitzgerald Kennedy Greenway, 2017. [Courtesy Greenway Conservancy]

The mega-scale Big Dig is Massachusetts’s three-decade project rerouting Boston’s major interstate highway, I-93, through an underground tunnel, in order to knit together a city segregated by ethnicity, income differentiation, and traffic congestion. Conceived in the 1970s, planned in 1982, constructed between 1991 and 2006, and finished in 2007, the Big Dig was one of the most expensive projects in U.S. history, costing nearly 14.8 billion dollars.1Nicole Gelinas, “Lessons of Boston’s Big Dig,” City Journal, Autumn, 2007. It entailed building the deepest underwater tunnel in North America and the widest cable-stayed asymmetrical bridge in the world. The finished project added 30 acres of open space to the heart of Boston, a collection of parks and plazas named the Rose Fitzgerald Kennedy Greenway that creates a ribbon of green space unfurling through downtown.2Brendan Patrick Hughes, “Boston,” The Next American City 26, Spring, 2010, 28-29, 4.

As a designer, I see the Big Dig and the Rose Fitzgerald Kennedy Greenway as successes, despite their problems.

The Big Dig was costly and lengthy, and has been widely criticized; what might have been a glamorous achievement has come to seem in some ways like a degrading failure. As a designer, however, I see the Big Dig as a success, despite its problems. The project’s gifts to the city include a series of open spaces and an improvement in traffic circulation, but more crucially, a benefit to Boston residents’ quality of life. It is important to fairly assess the merits of the Big Dig, and to consider how future projects might draw on its example.

The Central Artery, as the original I-93 freeway was known, was built in the 1950s. It cut through old neighborhoods, mostly home to Italian and Asian immigrants, and split the city’s central core, from the Financial District and the waterfront to the North End. Roughly 20,000 residents and businesses were displaced through so-called “slum clearance.”3Kayo Tajima, “New estimates of the demand for urban green space: implications for valuing the environmental benefits of Boston’s Big Dig project.” Urban Affairs 25, no. 5 (2003): 643. The goal had been traffic efficiency; nevertheless, by the 1980s, traffic jams along the I-93 corridor were problematic for ten hours out of every 24, and the accident rate was four times the national average. The freeway had become a major barrier to crosstown movement, and residents’ participation in local economic life was harmed.4See “The Big Dig: project background,” Mass.gov. The establishment of greenspaces has not only mended the urban fabric torn apart by I-93, but also imparted a livelier and healthier character to central Boston. The city is repairing its rupture.5Tajima, 643; Robert A. Brown, “Filling the cut: after years of planning, the Rose Kennedy Greenway is finally taking shape in Boston,” Urban land 65, no. 3 (March 2006): 65-68.

Big Dig construction, 1989. [Arnold Reinhold via Wikimedia Commons]

On the south end of the Greenway is Chinatown Park, designed by Carlo Johnson Associates of Boston in collaboration with the Massachusetts Horticultural Society. A pedestrian path following the natural waterfront takes you out of the city into nature. At Dewey Square Park near South Station — designed by Machado and Silvetti Associates — the Rings Fountain entices kids.6Heidi M. Hohmann, “City United, Park Fragmented,” Landscape architecture 100, no. 3 (2010): 33-36. Next comes what I consider the best part of the greenway: Wharf District Park, designed by EDAW. Here, the cultural center designed by Daniel Libeskind has become a Boston landmark.7Robert Campbell, “A walk in progress: a tour of the (more or less) finished sections of the new Rose Kennedy Greenway reveals that intentions have been met – and missed [Boston, Massachusetts],” Landscape architecture 98, no. 3 (1937): 28-34; Robert L. Turner, “It’s green and its controversial: a 25-block greenway covering the newly depressed Central Artery has its fans and its detractors,” Planning 77, no. 1 (2011): 25-27. In North End Park, designed by Kathryn Gustafson, a pergola shades benches looking to the afternoon sun; the fountain surrounded by magnolias refers to the canal that used to run through the district. North End Park’s food stalls attract picnickers — though the Greenway as a whole could be made still more appealing through expanded programming and investment, including performances, cafes, and ice skating.

It is not fair to judge the Greenway yet; even well-designed urban landscapes are organic and need time to fully flourish.

It remains true that the Big Dig has faced persistent criticism, starting with the project’s cost to Massachusetts taxpayers. The Big Dig was constantly over budget. Projected to cost $2.6 billion at the initiation phase in 1982, estimates increased to approximately $8 billion in the 1990s. The real cost of $14.8 billion was nearly double that. The Greenway was achieved with a staggering price-tag, and some critics feel that the outcome is not a repaired fracture, but simply emptiness.8See Gelinas; and J. Meejin Yoon, and Meredith Miller, “The Big Displacement: Public Works as Public Space,” Thresholds, no. 35 (2009): 50-55. I would argue, in answer, that even well-designed urban landscapes are organic, and need time to fully flourish. The Greenway stitches the city back together by facilitating connections between the harbor and downtown. Total vehicle hours expended by Bostonians dropped 62 percent from 1995 to 2003, providing $168 million per year in time and savings for travelers. Neighborhoods segregated by the old freeway have been re-joined into the city as a whole.

In sum, it is not fair to judge the Greenway yet, since the parks will have impact for decades to come. The Rose Fitzgerald Kennedy Greenway supports the health of city residents, eases congestion, enhances housing and commercial opportunities, and will increase social and economic growth in the long-term.9Virginia A. Greiman, and Elliott D. Sclar, “Mega infrastructure as a dynamic ecosystem: Lessons from America’s interstate system and Boston’s Big Dig,” Mega Infrastructure & Sustainable Development 1, no. 2 (July 2020): 200.American cities such as Cleveland, Dayton, and Washington D.C. could learn from this example.

Notes

  1. Nicole Gelinas, “Lessons of Boston’s Big Dig,” City Journal, Autumn, 2007.
  2. Brendan Patrick Hughes, “Boston,” The Next American City 26 (Spring, 2010): 28-29.
  3. Kayo Tajima, “New estimates of the demand for urban green space: implications for valuing the environmental benefits of Boston’s Big Dig project,” Urban Affairs 25, no. 5 (2003): 643.
  4. The Big Dig: project background,” Mass.gov.
  5. Tajima, 643; Robert A. Brown, “Filling the cut: after years of planning, the Rose Kennedy Greenway is finally taking shape in Boston,” Urban land 65, no. 3 (March 2006): 65-68.
  6. Heidi M. Hohmann, “City United, Park Fragmented,” Landscape Architecture 100, no. 3 (2010): 33-36.
  7. Robert Campbell, “A walk in progress: a tour of the (more or less) finished sections of the new Rose Kennedy Greenway reveals that intentions have been met – and missed [Boston, Massachusetts],” Landscape Architecture 98, no. 3 (1937): 28-34; Robert L. Turner, “It’s green and its controversial: a 25-block greenway covering the newly depressed Central Artery has its fans and its detractors,” Planning 77, no. 1 (2011): 25-27.
  8. See Gelinas; and J. Meejin Yoon, and Meredith Miller, “The Big Displacement: Public Works as Public Space,” Thresholds, no. 35 (2009): 50-55.
  9. Virginia A. Greiman, and Elliott D. Sclar, “Mega infrastructure as a dynamic ecosystem: Lessons from America’s interstate system and Boston’s Big Dig,” Mega Infrastructure & Sustainable Development 1, no. 2 (July 2020): 200.

About the Author

Mehraneh Davari

Mehraneh Davari is a Ph.D. candidate at Virginia Tech. Her research considers the history of sustainable urban design in U.S. cities. Mehraneh earned a Master’s degree in Information Technology Engineering from Amirkabir University of Technology, and an M.Arch from Miami University. Before undertaking her Doctorate, she spent a decade working in telecommunications, web programming, and architecture.