THE STREET PLAN OF THE METROPOLITAN DISTRICT OF BOSTON
Arthur A. Shurtleff.
Landscape Architecture 1 (January 1911):71-83.Arthur Asahel Shurtleff (1870-1957) grew up in Boston, graduated in mechanical engineering from M.I.T. in 1894, and from Harvard University in 1896. For eight years he worked in the Brookline, Massachusetts office of the Olmsted firm of landscape architects, and during that time helped Frederick Law Olmsted, Jr. establish America's first four-year program in the field at Harvard in 1899. In his own practice that he began in 1904 he specialized in city planning work, certainly one of the earliest to do so in the United States.In turning over the leaves of an Atlas of the World, our curiosity is quickly aroused by the names of little-known cities with initial letters like Z, T, J, or X. We discover these outlandish places mapped on colored plates, adorned with titles and with scales of kilometers, leagues, or versts, and annotated with memoranda of romantic kinds. The imagination finds promising fields for excursion upon such pages, where streets of singular alignment, novel squares, strange bridges, and wharves, await its flights. Nevertheless, Jericho, Zwaga, Ithaca, Xanthor, and all their kin, cannot hold this childlike interest for long against the call of New Orleans, Washington, Bangor, and New York, which attract us by their every-day news and work; in their present we find a large field for experience, and in their future an undisputed realm for great human accomplishment.
His studies of the Boston area were carried out for the Boston Metropolitan Improvement Commission and the Massachusetts State Highway Commission as well as for several towns in the vicinity. It is from a longer section in the 1907 report of the Imaprovement Commission that the article below is drawn. Shurtleff also presented another abbreviated version of his longer study before the Fourth National Conference on City Planning, held in Boston in 1912. He then gave it the title "The Public Street Systems of the Cities and Towns About Boston in Relation to Private Street Schemes."
Shurtleff also prepared several campus plans, including those for Amherst and Wellesley Colleges and Brown University and for Deerfield, St. Paul's, and Groton among preparatory schools. In 1928 he became Chief Landscape Architect in the restoration of Williamsburg, Virginia, serving until 1941. Later he planned the outdoor museum of Old Sturbridge Village in central Massachusetts.
Probably to avoid confusion with Flavel Shurtleff, a prominent Massachusetts city planning attorney (but adding to a modern bibliographer's dilemma), he changed his last name in 1930 to Shurcliff. Under one name or the other he wrote many articles on planning. One of these, delivered in 1908 as an illustrated lecture before the American Society of Landscape Architects, summarized many of the urban design theories of German planners then under the influence of the teachings of Camillo Sitte. It is particularly valuable because the Transactions of the society for that year reproduced all of the illustrations used by the speaker. By that time he delivered this lecture Shurtleff had been elected a Fellow of the organization, and from 1928 to 1932 he was its two-term president. He also served on the Boston Art Commission, and in 1917 became one of the 52 founding members of the American City Planning Institute.
The Atlas shows New Orleans plainly enough in plan; but to comprehend the plan is a task of many phases. The map represents a history of river development, which spread inland to vanishing points where all parallel lines meet. It represents Southern thrift and extravagance successfully struggling with the Mississippi. It is a symbol of a point of view which can be understood only by living in New Orleans. Boston's map is also a symbol,--it is a representation of a shore development which spread inland in an amazing fashion, on first sight rather after the style of the Chinese; but, on examination, a principle of street planning is found which deserves to be better understood among gridiron-loving Americans. Certainly there is no more interesting plate in the Atlas than that of Boston,--or one that will more fully repay study, either by the lover of Yankee character or by the city planner.
Although the street systems of most American cities were deliberately planned at the start of building operations, they are not, therefore, without serious growing pains at the present day. With few exceptions, a rigid gridiron of streets was adopted for these layouts, because it offered a simple solution of the immediate problems of land sub-division, and required the least amount of surveying and recording. Extensions of such a system of rectangular streets were also so simple as to be almost automatic. Herein lay the crying fault of the gridirons of San Francisco, New York, Providence, and others; they spread like an eruption over hill and valley, regardless of gradient, site, or of strategic lines of communication, oblivious of monotony and blind to topographical opportunity. Nothing has stopped them but the sea or hard times. Baltimore and Washington were better planned. Their methods of growth have, consequently, been less obvious, and are today under a degree of control. Nevertheless, the layout of the heart of Washington--the plan for the very portal of the Capitol--is constantly in flux, after a hundred years of planning by the best men of two continents. We may well pause to consider, with curiosity, how matters fare with Boston and its Metropolitan District, whose street system was never planned, and which is still largely without human guidance.
Over one hundred years before Major L'Enfant and his distinguished patron had plotted a scheme for the City of Washington, the highway system of Boston and its environs was well established. Streets were built piecemeal, as they were needed, along the borders of the harbor, to give access to wharves, and to allow the subdivision of shoreward property into convenient homestead plots. Other roads automatically paralleled those at a further distance from the water, for approach to small farms. Inasmuch as the shore line of the village was racquet-shaped, the marginal roads and their inner counterparts also approximated this form, and constituted a series of circumferential thoroughfares, tied to one another and to the wharves by evenly spaced radials. Military maps recorded this scheme of ways early in the Eighteenth Century, for purposes of possible land and water attack in the seasons of bombardment, but with no eye to a control of the communities' growth by planning
Boston grew so rapidly that no anxiety was felt that it would languish for want of a plan, and gradually a Metropolitan District was developed. The topography of the environs of Boston is remarkably symmetrical, both in plan and elevation, with regard to an east and west axis. The shore approximates a parabola, from the limbs of which four peninsulas depend, arranged in pairs opposite one another. Upon the landward side, three rivers converge upon the focus of the parabola in symmetrical formation from the northwest, west and southwest. These streams make their way through a seaward-facing ampitheatre of hills, which abut upon the seashore near the roots of the major peninsulas. It is true that the floor of this great included basin is by no means level, and the curves of the hill-range and of the shore are not perfect; but the description suffices for a general blocking-out of the District for the purposes in hand. It will be seen that the founders of Boston were naturally led to settle at the focus of the parabola, because of its strategic control of the shore line for miles on either hand, and its mastery of three navigable rivers, converging upon the deep waters of a well-protected harbor. As a corollary, it naturally followed that the settlement became a point of radiation from which roads were built into the interior for the foundation of smaller dependent communities. No one knew in early days whether Boston and these communities could persist in the face of the hardships of severe winters, or whether the resources of the country could support the settlement for many years. There was no demand or use for a city plan. Nevertheless, such a plan, and an orderly one was, being evolved unconsciously by human contact with a
symmetrical topography. A map representing all the streets of the four hundred square miles of the Metropolitan District seems at first sight a hopeless maze of lines; but, if its main thoroughfares are classified into radial and circumferential elements, after eliminating all roads of a purely local character, a remarkable reflection of a unified topography is brought to light.
Diagram 3 shows the main thoroughfares radiating from Boston into its suburbs. The continuity of these roads and their remarkably even distribution is not the result of planning, but is a reaction of the topography which we have already examined. In order to follow river valleys or to avoid hills, these roads waver, but their main course never changes. Roads more convenient could not have been designed consciously on paper as parts of a great city plan for a million and a half persons.
To the degree that the minor villages around Boston were dependent upon that radiating center for their beginning and for their support, they were to the same extent largely independent of one another. An examination of the lateral highway connections of these communities perfectly expresses this relationship. Diagram 4 shows all the important circumferential connections of the map eliminating all radial thoroughfares and minor roads. To find a clearer record of insistent topographical influence would be difficult. In spite of their broken character, the concentric disposition of these roads is both astonishing and fortunate; for only by uniting these strands can convenient lateral circulation be effected.
For two centuries, Nature and man have collaborated to produce the elements of a good plan, which appears conscious in intention, but which is wholly automatic. To complete this great project would seem to be a simple undertaking,--a mile of road here and a quarter of a mile there would unite dozens of miles already constructed. Unfortunately, the District is not as unified politically as it is structurally, for it is an aggregation of forty cities and towns, each having its own local government and road control. Joint action is needed on the part of these individuals to complete a work which cannot be done single-handed. Nature cannot carry this project further. Only deliberate human planning can bring about such an obvious and necessary linkage.
The general characteristics of the street plans of the forty cities and towns tributary to Boston may be surmised from the examination which we have made above. Each community (with the exception of Cambridge, Somerville, Lynn, Chelsea, South and East Boston) has but one through street--a radial thoroughfare leading to Boston. No other continuous through streets exist in these places. Our study of the broken character of the circumferential thoroughfares would also lead us to expect few, if any, lateral through streets in these towns. They are generally lacking, and cross-circulation to neighboring towns is carried on only by round about offsets and detours at the main street. Consequently, many of these towns are now suffering from premature congestion, which can be relieved only by the creation of new channels for local circulation independent of those which are principally metropolitan in use. Diagram 5 shows in typical form the layout of over thirty of the communities
needing this revision of their plans to prepare them for modern growth, and to relieve the district thoroughfares of constriction and entanglements. Unfortunately, most of these communities are growing rapidly by the development of private land for speculative purposes by owners who build new streets with absolute disregard of their connection with other ways needing extension. So weak is the control of such operations by the authorities of the towns that the public is practically at the mercy of private rights. Boards of survey have been established here and there, but their powers are inadequate to bring about the needed results. Slowly, however, in other cities than Boston, the public is finding means to protect the general rights of the community against the constituted rights of the individual, and to conserve, rather than to waste, public opportunities of this kind.
To any student of the Metropolitan plan of Boston, it must be plain that a remarkably convenient system of main streets is in process of evolution, brought to its present state of advancement by natural agencies. Topographical tendencies, however, cannot cope with modern land values, or with interpolated bulwarks of masonry more determinative of road lines than the rock hills. Neither can natural forces, no matter what their unity, cope with the cross purposes of a divided community. Boston must unite, root and branch, to secure the benefits which Nature has tried and is trying to give.
Having indicated the general characteristics of the existing radial thoroughfares, and of the incipient circumferential thoroughfares, it remains to be shown that a combination of these two types of main roads, when perfected, would afford an efficient system of inter-communication for the district (Diagram 8). Diagram 7 indicates in a purely schematic way the
combination of a series of radial and circumferential lines comparable with the ultimate development of the existing and proposed thoroughfares of the district, with all local streets omitted. The absence of the more intimate connections which are actually afforded by these local streets places the diagram at a disadvantage; but it suffices to indicate the readiness with which a vehicle at any point, such as X, may proceed to any other points, such as A, B, C, D, E, by a variety of alternative routes. In fact, this combined scheme of radials and circumferentials, which the district has been slowly approximating, in a wholly unconscious manner, during the last two centuries, offers a system of intercommunication more direct than that which could be afforded by a rectangular gridiron similar to those which characterize the plans of most American cities. It should be frankly admitted, however, that a rigid gridiron scheme, like that of San Francisco, Chicago and Philadelphia, has at least one point of superiority over all city plans containing many diagonal lines, like the plan of Washington and Boston, of containing many curving lines, like Paris and Boston. This superiority lies in the fact that strangers may readily find their way in such uniform gridirons. To such strangers, the streets of Boston and the Metropolitan district promise forever to be a puzzle; but, on the other hand, these thoroughfares also promise to become more convenient for everyday use, more individual and freer from monotony than any other street system in America.
The powers of the several authorities controlling the highways of the district are as follows:
Each of the thirty-nine cities and towns of the district appoints officials of its own to take charge of its highways, with the exception of those which are controlled permanently or temporarily by the Massachusetts Highway Commission, the Metropolitan Park Commission, and the county commissioners.
In a few municipalities of the district, including Boston, boards of survey have been established, with powers which enable them partially to control the layout of streets designed by private individuals, and to prepare schemes for the extension the highways of the town. The powers of these boards are necessarily limited, because the municipalities are not financially able to take land at once by eminent domain, either for needed future roads or to correct the immediate faults of local land schemes. Under these circumstances, little more can be done by these authorities, without trespassing upon the personal rights of individuals, than to map the needed improvements, and to notify abutters that only by honoring the proposed road lines may they enjoy water, sewer and gas privileges from the town. Generally speaking, the local engineering departments are limited in the field of their activities, and lack sufficient authority properly to safeguard the convenient extension of the highways. So active is the private landowner to subdivide property and, after selling it, to bring its streets under public care, that municipalities have no money left for the proper improvement of old streets or for the extension of their main highway systems.
The Massachusetts Highway Commission is empowered by the Legislature, upon the petition of towns in any part of the state, to make improvements in the surface width or line of roads, and afterward to maintain these thoroughfares as state roads, independent of the town. Seventy-five per cent of the cost of this work is paid by the state, and twenty-five per cent by the county. The activities of this commission are chiefly directed to the improvement of highways in sparsely settled regions, and have not been exercised, except upon rare occasions, within the Metropolitan District. Upon petition, this commission also acts as agent to execute highway improvements for, and at the expense of, individual municipalities, but without afterward holding control of the improved way or being responsible for it.
The county commissioners have powers somewhat similar to those of the highway commission, with the exception that their field of action is limited to the county, and they do not retain permanent control of the roads they improve. The cost of construction of works undertaken by these commissioners is sometimes borne in part by the county, but more frequently by the town in which the improvement is made.
The Metropolitan Park Commission is empowered by the Legislature to build roads, primarily for pleasure and recreative purposes, in any part of the Metropolitan District. They also maintain and police these roads. One-half the cost of construction and maintenance is assessed by apportionments upon the several cities and towns comprising the Metropolitan Parks District, and the other half upon the state
The park commissioners of Boston, and of the several cities and towns of the district, have control of the roads in their own municipal parks and parkways only, or in the immediate vicinity of such public recreation spaces.
The Boston Transit Commission is appointed by the Governor of Massachusetts and the mayor of Boston. The duties of this commission are largely confined to the design and construction of subways in the city of Boston. The commission has studied the congestion problems of the city, however, and has made suggestions for their solution.
Selected, scanned, edited, provided with headnotes, and formatted as a web document by John W. Reps, Professor Emeritus, Department of City and Regional Planning, West Sibley Hall, Cornell University, Ithaca, New York 14853, USA. Tel: (607) 255-5391, Fax: (607) 255-6681, E-mail: email@example.com To Top of Page To Homepage To Homepage