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Downtown View: New Mayor, Ponder Civic Design

Paris has street signs. New York has yellow taxicabs. London has everything—phone booths, distinctive taxis whose drivers possess “The Knowledge,” double-decker buses, and Bobbies.

What does Boston have that comes in multiples and offers a distinguishing image for the city? Maybe three things: bland advertising kiosks with sometimes out-of-date maps installed by J. C. Decaux—you’d think a French firm could do better than that. There are the taxis—all white, which mean they look the same as most other cars. How about neon green? We also have the ubiquitous buttons that pedestrians must push if they want a walk sign. None of these nonentities qualify as civic design.

Civic design here is ugly, or maybe non-existent. In an era where a clever person can put a camera, a phone and a computer into a sleek rectangle less than three by five inches and call it an iPhone, there is no excuse for degradations to our city.

Take the four-foot tall metal monstrosities that pass for traffic boxes. They have muscled their way into Boston’s historic districts, blocking sidewalks and attracting graffiti. They enable City Hall to adjust the traffic light cycle if there is a problem, and they probably can do things I don’t even know about. City Hall folks have said there is a lot of equipment inside.

So what. That’s no reason not to make them smaller or as beautiful as an iPhone, if you’re not going to bury them underground. In some neighborhoods artists have tried to make them interesting, but in historic districts, the keepers don’t want undue attention drawn to them.

Park benches, street signs and street lights are all random. Before Cambridge Street was redone, now almost ten years ago, someone counted 13 different kinds of street lights on that thoroughfare. Paint colors are also a muddle—the city will paint a bridge a nice color of green and then they will paint railings next to it a clashing color of gray. Wouldn’t it be easier to order all paint in only one color? In fact color has a lot to offer in civic design as London has taught us with red booths and buses.

You might ask why civic design is important, and that’s a fair question at a time when Congress is ready to take us into economic darkness, and Boston’s schools need help.

But good civic design has benefits. It makes people happy to see their city well-designed, and happiness is always good. Good civic design creates a sense of place, satisfying in a country cluttered with shopping malls that look exactly alike from San Francisco to Miami. It’s good for the economy, attracting tourists who want to visit a city different from the one they live in, and attracting new residents who want to live in a city with a strong sense of itself.

Some neighborhoods in Boston have identifying markers. Beacon Hill has gas lamps and brick sidewalks. The Back Bay has Victorian mansions and magnolias. The North End has tenements and restaurants. And certain markers—the Bunker Hill Monument, the Longfellow Bridge, Old Ironsides—give Boston a sense of place, but that sense doesn’t extend into other areas. London didn’t stop with Big Ben or the Eye, but instead has incorporated common elements that let you know where you are, no question about it.

Naturally, I have some suggestions to remedy this problem. I’ve had help from Mark Favermann, whose firm specializes in urban design and public art. Mark suggested we start with signs that use the same colors, typeface and shape.

Actually, he pointed out that Boston’s signs, as banal as they are, don’t even help people understand how to get from here to there, so new signs could solve that problem too. My favorite sign is on Storrow Drive at Arlington Street, which points you to downtown. If you get off there, no other sign lets you know you must turn left onto Boylston to actually get downtown. To make matters worse, you’ll reach downtown more straightforwardly by getting off at the sign that says Government Center.

Favermann said that street furniture “could be a tool for civic placemaking as well.” Rather than ordering benches from a catalog, which is what he says city officials do now, the city could sponsor a contest for a “Boston Bench,” which could be installed everywhere a new bench was needed.

A simple practice of painting every bridge and every piece of metal the same color would also contribute to a sense of place.

“As the world becomes more urbanized and literally city-centered, there is a clear need for a city to differentiate itself, to give itself visible distinction and individual character,” said Favermann. “Such urban design elements can add comfort, information and even provocative surprise to the civic structure.”

There is one design that is constant throughout Boston, and it contributes to a sense of place. But the city is not responsible for it. The T is. It is the T sign itself, black in color and set in a circle outlined in black. When you see that sign, you know where you are.

Downtown View is a regular column by Karen Cord Taylor who founded The Beacon Hill Times weekly newspaper in 1995 and served as its editor and publisher until late 2007. She also founded and served as editor and publisher of the Charlestown Patriot-Bridge and The Back Bay Sun weeklies. Her column appears in those newspapers as well as the Regional Review, which serves Boston’s North End. These weeklies are now owned by the Independent Newspaper Group. She is the author of “Blue Laws, Brahmins and Breakdown Lanes: An Alphabetic Guide to Boston and Bostonians” and the co-author of “The Lady Architects,” a book about three women who practiced architecture in New England and elsewhere in the early 20th century. She lives in downtown Boston and blogs at