Urban Design

Cambridge Urban Design Background

What is urban design? This term means different things to different people. To some, it is a decorative art, concerned with making a city more attractive with landscaping, special street lights, banners, dramatic artwork, and the like. To others, it is nothing short of every aspect of how a city is put together, including the design of streets, parks and open space, and how buildings look and feel. In Cambridge, the urban design effort has built on the latter proposition, that urban design is part city and transportation planning, part architecture, and part landscape design.

There are many specific issues that a particular urban design project needs to address, but a generalized set of principles needs to be considered for most projects in Cambridge.

  • The context (the history of the place, the character of the set of uses, relations to abutters) is very important and every project should be conceived with attention to its contextual relationships.
  • A major concern in urban design review is how the project meets the ground--especially on major thoroughfares, there should be active uses, rather than blank walls or empty spaces, wherever possible.
  • The scale and character of the new project should be carefully conceived, whether to create a new landmark, to be more of a "background" building, to complement or to contrast with neighbors.
  • Access to and around a building must take into account pedestrians and bicyclists as well as the automobile.

Urban Design Plans for Large Districts

The City’s earlier plans for the East Cambridge Riverfront and Cambridgeport Revitalization were published with design ideas for how each of these large districts could be rebuilt to the benefit of the community. Guidelines for the architectural design of new buildings, ideas about how open space should be allocated, plans for alleviating traffic and encouraging transit use, and recommendations for where and how much new housing should be built all add up to the “urban design” for these areas.

After decades of development, over 3 million square feet of new development with 9 acres of new parks is the result of the East Cambridge Plan, and in Cambridgeport, over 2 million square feet of new development with some 4 acres of new parks define new mixed-use districts in the city. Similarly, as the recently planned North Point, Concord/Alewife, and Kendall Square/Central Square areas evolve in coming years, we look for strong urban design implementation that will make these places excellent examples of urban design at all levels, from building form and architecture, to the details of active streetscapes and open spaces.

Design Review of Buildings

The Planning Board has granted some 270 special permits since its first one in 1979. A “special permit” generally allows more than the base zoning, in exchange for public benefits, including design review to encourage higher quality design. While a few of these special permits have dealt with very small projects, many have been for major new buildings, and quite a few have been PUD, or Planned Unit Development special permits, for projects that include phased development of several buildings and open spaces, and that can take a decade or more to develop completely. The buildings are typically subject to design review, both by the Planning Board and by City urban design staff. Normally, a project will have been seen by staff, sometimes many times as its design evolves, before the proponent and the staff decide that it is ready for the Board’s review. And, typically the Board’s decision will require that there be ongoing review by staff subsequent to the decision to ensure that the final product is consistent with the plan that were reviewed and approved by the Board. If there is any change to the design concept, staff will have the applicant return to the Board for their further review and approval.

Design Review of Public Facilities

When a major public facility is being contemplated, the City administration sometimes brings CDD urban design staff into the design process for advisory input, in addition to the role played by the Planning Board and other official reviewing entities, such as the Cambridge Historical Commission or the Conservation Commission. In the case of the Walter J. Sullivan Water Treatment Plant, the Director of Urban Design was designated Chair of a special Peer Review Committee, which included other citizen architects helping to review the design being produced by the architect at the engineering firm responsible for the project. The result of this more extensive design review process was a focus on the landmark qualities and architectural image of the facility for the community, in addition to the essential focus on the utilitarian aspect of the building as a water purification plant.

The building that became the Robert W. Healy Police Station had been through the design review process at the Planning Board when the project’s ultimate use was not certain—initially, it had been planned as a facility for internet switching functions (a “telecom hotel”), but was subsequently purchased by the City to become the police station. Because the building is so close to the East Cambridge neighborhood, Planning Board design review had led to a building with a civic presence, which leant itself well to the Police Station, and urban design staff reviewed the transformations needed to make the Police Station viable in this location.

The Cambridge Public Library went through a decade of planning and design review before its success as one of the region’s most beautiful buildings, as proclaimed by the Boston Society of Architects Harleston Parker award of 2011. The Director of Urban Design helped the many citizens and officials by providing an urban design viewpoint, first in the Library 21 programming process, then in the Site Selection process, and finally in the design review process which led to approvals from the Planning Board and Historical Commission.

Design Review of Open Spaces

Over the last three decades of urban growth and change in Cambridge, about 100 acres of new parks, plazas, and playgrounds have been created, and are continuing to be built, on sites that had had other purposes, especially industrial in nature. There are some 25 million square feet of new buildings that have emerged in the development districts of the city —probably an unmatched amount of change for a city of 6.25 square miles with a population of 100,000. The new open spaces have been essential to help humanize the new environments. The larger ones of these spaces were first conceived in urban design plans.

Lechmere Canal Park and the other East Cambridge parks (9 acres) gave focus to the mix of uses envisioned in the 1978 East Cambridge Riverfront Plan. Danehy Park (50 acres) was a feature that was created from landfill excavate brought onto the old City Dump from the new Red Line tunnel, as explained in the 1979 Alewife Revitalization Plan. The 4 acres of open space in the 1983 Cambridgeport Revitalization Plan were essential to the organization of that new development area. North Point Parks (20 acres-- 6 on private land in the 2003 Eastern Cambridge Area Plan and 14 on public land in the 1995 New Charles River Basin Plan), are helping to turn the former “Lost Half Mile” into places for people (see also Transforming the Lost Half Mile).

Two successful new urban squares were conceived on former gas station sites at important roadway intersections. Lafayette Square was first illustrated to be an urban design feature at Main Street/Columbia Street/ Pacific Street/ Massachusetts Avenue in the 1983 Cambridgeport Revitalization Plan —it finally opened in 2008. Quincy Square was first shown at Harvard Street/Quincy Street/Massachusetts Avenue in the 1986 Harvard Square Development Guidelines—it finally opened in 1998. Each of these open spaces went through extensive community design review processes once the planning part of the urban design process had been done.

Other useful new open spaces have been created on sites that were reviewed as Planned Unit Developments. The second PUD issued by the Planning Board was for Charles Square in 1982—a key feature of that urban design is the entry plaza where there is now a regular farmer’s market, and this space is complemented by the courtyard on the upper plaza ringed by restaurants. Cambridge Research Park ( Special Permit #141 in 1999) now features the ice skating rink near the Genzyme Headquarters and connects to the new walkway on the northern side of the Broad Canal; this walkway finishes the access to Broad Canal that was started by the requirement in the City’s first PUD in 1982, which required that proponent to build the walkway on the southern side. Sometimes a long view is very important to realizing urban design visions, and one special permit can be complementary to another, over time.

From around 1980 to 2010, a major focus of the urban design effort has been managing large transformations of former industrial land. While much has been done, the process is not complete, as the North Point PUD has just begun to be realized, and the Alexandria plan for former industrial sites on Binney is only beginning construction. In the coming years, there will be much work on infill in places like Central Square, and particularly in Kendall Square, densification of the urban fabric near transit. The challenge will be to continue to evaluate new projects against a long list of criteria that are intended to keep Cambridge both livable and flourishing.

Urban Design Plans and Guidelines

A number of area specific urban design plans and guidelines apply to specific sections of the City or specific categories of development. 

Further information is available on these materials in the Zoning section of this web site.

For More Information

For questions and for more information contact Melissa Peters, Director of Community Planning, at 617/349-4605 or by email at mpeters@cambridgema.gov.