When a post-industrial waterfront site in Boston became targeted for redevelopment by the city administration, the Massachusetts College of Art and Design and Design Museum Boston identified the importance of rallying Boston’s robust community of designers and artists to help shape the character of what the city calls the “Innovation District.”
The South Boston waterfront, once an industrial and maritime landscape, was recast a number of years ago as the “Innovation District." Just across the Fort Point Channel from the city’s Financial District and the South Station and across the harbor from Logan Airport, the district is well connected with the city and the region. It combines four neighborhoods: the Fort Point, Fan Pier, the Convention Center, and the Marine Industrial Park. Local government and business leaders are positioning the area to become a home for start-ups and other entrepreneurial activity. This change was heralded in 2006 when the Institute of Contemporary Art, designed by Diller Scofidio + Renfro Architects, moved into the district.
Today the area is a mix of constituencies, including longstanding residents, artists, designers, institutions, and entrepreneurs. It is seeing a surge in development for both housing and office spaces, particularly spaces that support creative businesses. This investment can be seen in the 1,100 housing units that are now under construction, including 100 “innovation units” (with another 300 soon to be developed.) These units aim to foster innovation by emphasizing shared common spaces and fostering connections to the larger community. Such development is not without a cost, however, and the city recognizes that the rapid growth coming to the area is elevating real estate values, making it difficult for some residents to stay.
Fort Point has traditionally been highly populated by artists. As the City of Boston undertook the transformation of the industrial waterfront into the Innovation District, many artists and designers felt like they were being excluded from the area that they had helped shape by working and living there long before it was a popular place to settle. City planners realized that in order to keep the area diverse in terms of tenants and land use, it was also necessary to create a dialogue between different interests so that stakeholders could appreciate the role of artists and designers in catalyzing economic development and creating vital communities.
The Massachusetts College of Art and Design (MassArt) and Design Museum Boston, a non-traditional museum with a decentralized network of physical and virtual exhibits, envisioned an Innovation District where artists and designers would have a central role in transforming the district into a vital and livable community. “We wanted to bring multiple communities together and make design a bigger focus in the development of the district,” said Sam Aquillano, Executive Director of Design Museum Boston. This transformation would take place not only by ensuring that they could live and work there, but also by conveying the role of artists and designers in creating cultural and economic impact throughout the area. The plan came in two parts. First, they would identify and plan activities that integrate the design community with other cultural and economic development activities. Second, they would work with businesses within the district to highlight the innovation value of connections to the design community. With active and passive programming in the form of exhibitions, events, town halls, and workshops, they forged these new community networks.
The Boston-based MassArt, the only public university of art and design in the U.S., oversaw the project. Its partner, Design Museum Boston, implemented the programs aimed at design education and conducted the public outreach. As the project started bringing together many different art- and design-related organizations and businesses, the Design Industry Group of Massachusetts (DIGMA) stepped in to help coordinate that chorus of different voices. The staff from the City of Boston were also committed to the execution of key projects that were reinforcing their efforts to revitalize the Innovation District: making important introductions, attending community town hall meetings, and facilitating installation and event permitting.
- Design Museum Mornings: a series of monthly gathering around creativity, featuring a 20-minute lecture and 20-minute discussion.
- UNITE: a quarterly event series for designers and non-designers to connect and show support for local businesses and the Innovation District.
- Getting There: Design for the Travel in the Modern Age: an exhibition exploring how designers have responded to changes in travel culture, economics, and technology from the 1940s to today.
- Life Impacted: An International Design Excellence: an exhibition held in the Innovation District showcasing the best product design of 2012.
- Street Seats Design Challenge: an international design competition and outdoor that culminated in an outdoor exhibition and walking tour.
The project had several elements, but the first step was to do an inventory of existing cultural organizations, creative businesses, and individuals that already existed in the district. Project organizers did this outreach by engaging in one-on-one meetings with neighborhood and cultural leaders. In these meetings, they had each group identify other groups and organizations for potential collaborations. The team would then propose and structure collaborations between different local organizations, making the case for the role of designers in their placemaking efforts. One such outdoor exhibition done by Design Museum Boston was “Street Seats: Reimagining the Public Bench,” which brought various groups together to create a neighborhood identity through public seating. Workshops, symposia, and other public programs also brought the community together with topics appealing to a broad cross-section of residents.
The project raised the profile of designers and design initiatives already underway in the area. By producing multiple exhibitions and hosting several events, the organizers initiated a civic dialogue about the place of artists in the community. As Aquillano says, “I think we were successful in bringing together the arts, design, business, tech, and entrepreneurial communities for the benefit of the area.” For example, the Street Seats Design Challenge and exhibition included a mobile app, so that in the future organizers will be able to measure the response by tracking visits to the app and website.
The program succeeded in bringing together groups that live and work in the same area but that may never otherwise have had a chance to interact. “We were the platform for some of these conversations to happen between different constituencies,” says Aquillano. “I’m not sure they would have come together otherwise.” Though the project made demonstrable contributions to the Innovation District itself, changes went beyond the immediate project scope. As Aquillano reflects, “you can see the results in other initiatives popping up from within city government and from private entities,” and organizers have seen increased focus on design, urban interventions, community activism, and public realm projects coming directly out of the City of Boston. These new initiatives include a community driven branding project led by Friends of Fort Point Channel, a new pop-up market, the American Field (opening in Fall 2014), and the Public Space Invitational, an opportunity to reimagine Boston’s public space led by the Mayor’s Office on New Urban Mechanics.