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The Hub's Metropolis

The Hub's Metropolis: Greater Boston's Development from Railroad Suburbs to Smart Growth

James C. O’Connell
Copyright Date: 2013
Published by: MIT Press
Pages: 344
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  • Book Info
    The Hub's Metropolis
    Book Description:

    Boston's metropolitan landscape has been two hundred years in the making. From its proto-suburban village centers of 1800 to its far-flung, automobile-centric exurbs of today, Boston has been a national pacesetter for suburbanization. In The Hub's Metropolis, James O'Connell charts the evolution of Boston's suburban development. The city of Boston is compact and consolidated -- famously, "the Hub." Greater Boston, however, stretches over 1,736 square miles and ranks as the world's sixth largest metropolitan area. Boston suburbs began to develop after 1820, when wealthy city dwellers built country estates that were just a short carriage ride away from their homes in the city. Then, as transportation became more efficient and affordable, the map of the suburbs expanded. The Metropolitan Park Commission's park-and-parkway system, developed in the 1890s, created a template for suburbanization that represents the country's first example of regional planning. O'Connell identifies nine layers of Boston's suburban development, each of which has left its imprint on the landscape: traditional villages; country retreats; railroad suburbs; streetcar suburbs (the first electric streetcar boulevard, Beacon Street in Brookline, was designed by Frederic Law Olmsted); parkway suburbs, which emphasized public greenspace but also encouraged commuting by automobile; mill towns, with housing for workers; upscale and middle-class suburbs accessible by outer-belt highways like Route 128; exurban, McMansion-dotted sprawl; and smart growth. Still a pacesetter, Greater Boston has pioneered antisprawl initiatives that encourage compact, mixed-use development in existing neighborhoods near railroad and transit stations. O'Connell reminds us that these nine layers of suburban infrastructure are still woven into the fabric of the metropolis. Each chapter suggests sites to visit, from Waltham country estates to Cambridge triple-deckers.

    eISBN: 978-0-262-31406-0
    Subjects: Architecture and Architectural History, History

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-iv)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. v-viii)
  3. Preface
    (pp. ix-xii)
  4. Acknowledgments
    (pp. xiii-xiv)
  5. 1 Metropolitan Boston’s Layers of Development
    (pp. 1-10)

    The scale of Greater Boston is enormous. According to one survey, Greater Boston ranks as the world’s sixth largest metropolitan area, with 1,736 square miles.¹ According to the US Census Bureau, the Boston-Worcester-Manchester MA-RI-NH Combined Statistical Area (CSA) has a population of 7,427,336 living in 385 communities, which makes it the country’s fifth largest CSA. The vast region can be difficult to comprehend.

    Boston’s metropolitan landscape has been 200 years in the making. This book identifies nine layers of suburban development, each having a distinctive pattern of development:

    Traditional Village Centers and Proto-Suburbs (1800–1860)

    Country Retreats (1820–1920)


  6. 2 Prelude to Suburbia: Traditional Village Centers and Proto-Suburbs (1800–1860)
    (pp. 11-16)

    In 1800, there were no suburbs around Boston. The surrounding communities of Cambridge, Dorchester, Roxbury, and Concord were independent towns that traded and interacted politically with Boston but did not fulfill commercial or residential functions that were an urban extension of Boston. Towns of eastern Massachusetts were engaged in farming and maintained limited trade with the port city of Boston. They were a hinterland but were in no way suburban.

    Because there was so little trade and manufacturing during the colonial era, New England farm towns lacked active centers. The town center was the meetinghouse, as townships were established as...

  7. 3 Country Retreats (1820–1920)
    (pp. 17-40)

    The first people to establish suburban residences were wealthy Bostonians seeking respite from the crowded city. Maintaining their house in Boston, they developed second-home estates in the pastoral countryside, where they created carefully manicured landscapes. There was no concerted planning involved in establishing rural retreats. They were the individual initiatives of wealthy families pursuing leisure interests. The villa owner was entirely responsible for developing the country estate and maintaining the open space that surrounded it. Local government played a scant role in providing infrastructure or shaping land uses until later in the century. Country estates had a permanent effect on...

  8. 4 Railroad Suburbs (1840–1920)
    (pp. 41-68)

    On April 7, 1834, the first railroad train ever to depart Boston headed out on the Boston & Worcester Railroad line. The directors of the new railroad took along several dozen local notables to experience the transportation novelty. The train terminated its journey at West Newton, where the tracks ended. The makeshift station was Seth Davis’s Tavern, a brick building that still stands and houses Sweet Tomatoes Pizza.

    West Newton, called Squash End at the time, was an unlikely railroad stop. The company’s investors had wanted to route the rail line through Watertown and Waltham, which boasted a flourishing textile...

  9. 5 Streetcar Suburbs (1870–1930)
    (pp. 69-88)

    Many middle- and lower-middle-families gained their entrée to suburban life via streetcars. The horsecar and the electric streetcar opened up large swaths of land to development on the edge of the city, helping to reduce the cost of land and, subsequently, housing. An array of single-, two-, and three-family houses on relatively small lots clustered near transit lines. Streetcar suburbs became vehicles for social mobility. Immigrant groups moved from the inner city into the two- and three-deckers. Emerging middle-class families moved to streets with single-family homes. Streetcar suburb neighborhoods like Dorchester and Cambridge became way stations between the inner city...

  10. 6 Metropolitan Parkway Suburbs (1895–1945)
    (pp. 89-114)

    A major shortcoming of the streetcar suburbs was the lack of green space. Frederick Law Olmsted designed the Emerald Necklace parks to compensate for the lack of open space in Boston’s neighborhoods. He also advocated for a regional park system, which his protégé, Charles Eliot, planned. Boston’s metropolitan parks carved out an unprecedented public realm for nature conservation and recreation, departing from the predominant mode of laissez-faire development, which conserved little green space. The parkways formed a network of landscaped greenways, which conveyed residents to parklands and paved the way for automobile commuting. The metropolitan park-and-parkway system produced a distinctive...

  11. 7 Suburban Mill Towns (1820–2012)
    (pp. 115-134)

    Industrial cities and towns have long been components of metropolitan Boston. There have been two types. Some have been extensions of the city of Boston, dating back to the early nineteenth century. First, small-scale manufacturing sprang up in the abutting towns of Cambridge, Everett, Quincy, and Somerville, creating an urbanized continuation of Boston. The other, more typical industrial community was the self-contained mill town, which developed next to rivers to make use of waterpower. They ranged from the classic mill cities of Lowell and Brockton to the smaller factory villages of North Easton and Maynard. Investors built not only mills...

  12. 8 Postwar Automobile Suburbs (1945–1970)
    (pp. 135-180)

    At the end of World War II, Boston and the rest of America’s cities were poised for a suburban explosion. The Great Depression and the war had created a pent-up demand for people seeking new housing outside the central city. The result was suburban flight that drained Boston and other cities of people and businesses. Suburbs became the primary vehicle for improving the standard of living for middle-class and working-class Americans, just as they had previously served the privileged.

    The postwar suburban template bore the imprint of government, more so than any period of suburbanization. The most consequential undertaking was...

  13. 9 Boston Redefines the Center City (1945–2012)
    (pp. 181-200)

    During the post–World War II era, the city of Boston reached a low ebb vis-àa-vis the suburbs. The suburban tide seemed inexorable and urban decay endemic. Boston was forced to take stock of its weakened condition and decided to launch a series of revitalization initiatives. The issue remained in doubt for many years, but Boston ultimately reinvigorated its role as metropolitan hub. The city pioneered several planning paradigms—urban renewal, Modernist architecture, historic preservation, waterfront reclamation, greenways, curbing highway construction, and supporting public transit. The city and state undertook major planning and infrastructure initiatives, while tens of thousands of...

  14. 10 Interstates, Exurbs, and Sprawl (1970–2012)
    (pp. 201-224)

    The signal event of the early 1970s for metropolitan development was the completion of the Interstate Highway System. Interstate-495 was the most consequential route for Greater Boston, circling on a radius almost thirty miles from downtown and spreading development into Central Massachusetts, Southeastern Massachusetts, and Southern New Hampshire. The region’s spiderweb of highways, which also included the Massachusetts Turnpike (Interstate-90), Route 128, Route 3, Interstate-93, spurred land-use patterns that were even less dense than those of the 1950s and 1960s. Businesses, developers, and public officials wanted low-density, auto-oriented development because it was easy to build and was most likely to...

  15. 11 The Smart Growth Era (1990–2012)
    (pp. 225-252)

    As auto-dependent development spread across Southern New England, people became alarmed at how it consumed broad swaths of farmland and forests. Cookie-cutter subdivisions multiplied. The proliferation of commercial strips, with attendant traffic congestion, troubled residents desirous of preserving the small-town qualities of their communities.

    As a national phenomenon, William H. Whyte dubbed this condition “urban sprawl” inThe Exploding Metropolisin 1958. One of the first responses to sprawl occurred during mid-1960s, when Lady Bird Johnson addressed the shabby state of the nation’s strips and roadsides. At the time, billboards, junkyards, and litter lined the nation’s highways. The First Lady...

  16. 12 Postscript: The Coming Era
    (pp. 253-260)

    Two trends that could dramatically affect the region’s landscape loom ahead: the ongoing digital revolution and climate change. The effects from digital technology will be significant, although they are still under the radar. Digital data are providing feedback for managing metropolitan life, such as improving the flow of vehicular traffic or allowing transit riders to track the real-time availability of buses and trains with hand-held devices.

    The plethora of applications introduced by smartphones demonstrates the advent of the “smart city,” as smart people at MIT like to call it. One of the world’s leading think tanks for creating smart cities...

  17. Exploring the Metropolitan Landscape: Recommended Sites by Community
    (pp. 261-268)
  18. Notes
    (pp. 269-294)
  19. Index
    (pp. 295-326)