Cultural, social, and economic diversity in the United States is expanding. Nowhere is this demographic complexity more evident than in urban centers where people of different races, ideologies, religions, sexual orientations, and socio-economic origins find themselves sharing the same space. Boston is also shifting physically from population growth, development pressures, and a changing climate – shifts that both in the past and today dramatically alter the physical landscape.
The overarching theme for the Boston portal is Policy, Place, and Power in an Evolving City. In broad terms, this work focuses on a central challenge facing the city and region of Boston (and many other major American cities and metropolitan areas): balancing the pressure and need for continued development with legitimate concerns about how that physical growth dramatically reshapes the social and economic makeup of neighborhoods, including many communities that are home to large numbers of minorities and immigrants.

This theme encompasses topics that relate to the cyclical process of urbanization in Boston. Equal attention is paid to the policies that code high level planning agendas, the people who react and shift outcomes through organizing and civil disobedience, and the places that result from a collision of these planned and unplanned circumstances.

Three moments that particularly interest scholars and students associated with the portal are:


Land-Making and Demographic Shifts (late 19th century):  An era of extensive land-making culminated in the second half of the 19th century, giving Boston well-established, densely built neighborhoods like Back Bay and the Seaport. South Bay was created through the same process, with the exclusionary mission to keep middle-class Yankees in and new Irish immigrants out. However, it never became the urban neighborhood originally envisioned. We ask: What were the drivers for the filling of South Bay? Why did it take so much longer to fill than other areas? What were the infrastructural, economic, and social impacts of the slow pace of completion? How will the changing climate remake this and other low-lying manufactured land areas?


Urban Renewal and Community Empowerment (mid 20th century): Federal urban renewal programs swept through American cities between the late 1950s to early 1980s with the promise of rebuilding crumbling inner cities and forging connections with federally funded highways. What actually happened was the systematic destruction of immigrant and minority communities. Boston’s Inner Belt connector project required massive neighborhood demolitions, but was ultimately stopped by community action. A collaborative design process between the city and the community resulted in Southwest Corridor Park and an expanded public metro rail line. We ask: What were promises of renewal advocates, and what was delivered? Who were the beneficiaries and who paid the price? How was the project transformed from being destructive into a community asset?


Big Plans and Social Tension (early 21st century): The United States has a rich history of planning establishing enduring public realm infrastructure that was devised to respond to nature, support social cohesion, and drive market investment in both targeted and systematic ways.This is especially evident in Boston with the establishment of Boston Common in the seventeenth century and its incorporation into Frederick Law Olmstead’s Emerald Necklace in the late 1800s. Today, there is a renaissance of planning in Boston, only this time public infrastructure follows the market rather than the other way around. The failed Olympicbidof 2015as well asdozens of parallel, yet unintegrated city plans, demonstrate a disproportional dominance of economic development over environmental consideration and social needs–contributing to growing urban inequality. On the final, unbuilt link of the Emerald Necklace along Columbia Road, Boston has an opportunity to make grand gestures towards both public realminfrastructure and social inequality. We ask: what is the relationship between public plans and the private market? Who benefits and who suffers from major green projects? What are the spatial relationships between the urban elite and the urban poor?










Emerald Necklace, Columbia Road

South Bay

Southwest Corridor



Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study

Today, the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study at Harvard University is dedicated to creating and sharing transformative ideas across the arts, humanities, sciences, and social sciences. We encourage you to explore the people, programs, and collections that make the Radcliffe Institute a home to big thinkers, new ideas, cutting-edge research, and thought-provoking events that are free and open to the public:
The Radcliffe Institute Fellowship Program annually supports the work of 50 leading artists and scholars and has rapidly become one of the most competitive programs of its kind in the world, with an acceptance rate of only 4 percent each year.
The Academic Ventures program fosters collaborative research projects and sponsors lectures and conferences that engage scholars with the public.
The Arthur and Elizabeth Schlesinger Library on the History of Women in America documents the lives of American women of the past and present for the future, furthering the Institute’s commitment to women, gender, and society.

Boston Area Research Initiative

The Boston Area Research Initiative (BARI) seeks to spur original urban research on the cutting edge of social science and public policy. In conducting and interpreting this research, BARI seeks to forge mutually beneficial relationships among the region’s scholars, policymakers, practitioners and civic leaders.
BARI is an interuniversity research partnership at the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study at Harvard University. Funding for BARI’s activities is provided by the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, the National Science Foundation, and the Radcliffe Institute. Key institutional collaborators are the City of Boston and the Rappaport Institute for Greater Boston.