Many Bostonians of color find one of the city’s crowning jewels, the Seaport District, a hostile and unwelcoming place, a new survey has found. Fortunately, there’s still time to fix this. 

The Conservation Law Foundation and the well-respected MassINC Polling Group surveyed 953 Boston residents online about their attitudes towards the city’s waterfront between May 24 and June 9. Results were weighted to known population parameters on age, gender, race, neighborhood and educational attainment. 

The survey revealed a stark divide in this minority-majority city: only 6 percent of white people feel the waterfront is unwelcoming compared to 24 percent of black residents and 20 percent of Latino respondents who feel unwelcome in waterfront areas. These attitudes appeared to have a predictable result: 65 percent of white residents have visited waterfront areas three or more times over the last year, compared to 44 percent of non-whites.  

It’s unfair, as the CLF did in its announcement of these results, to lay these uncomfortable statistics entirely at the feet of developers and architects. As this paper has repeatedly pointed out in this space and elsewhere, corporate Massachusetts is still very white and male, thanks to centuries of slavery, discrimination and bias, both conscious and unconscious. It’s not too surprising that one of the places where Boston’s economic boom is most on display feels so exclusive and excluding to many.  

Many things will need to change before a worker who cleans the offices at a Seaport corporate headquarters will feel like she has just as much a stake in the neighborhood as the CEO for whom those gleaming towers are a physical expression of the riches and power at her command. 

The CLF’s Bradley Campbell is absolutely right, however, when he called for developers and the city to do better. No one should feel excluded from any public place, but the Seaport should be held to a higher standard. Its impressive development only exists because of significant public investment.  

What’s to be done? 

First, the city, architects and developers should improve wayfinding and more subtle design cues in new and existing buildings that push people away. Does a piece of public realm invite people in or wall them off? Are retail storefronts and restaurants – especially lower-cost options – hidden behind a forbidding wall of glass, or is there an obvious, welcoming doorway? Nearly two-thirds of respondents in the MassINC survey said more affordable dining options would bring them to the Seaport more frequently. 

Hopefully, WS Development’s giant Seaport Square project will add enough cultural resources to broaden the Seaport’s appeal, and hopefully its architects will take MassINC’s troubling statistics to heart as the project’s design is refined. 

Going forward, neighborhood stakeholders should seize this massive opportunity for better placemaking. Plan more and more regular events by and for specific cultural communities. Make sure event and institutional marketing tries harder to engage communities of color about all goings-on. Organize more free events. Bring in and promote more low-cost draws that can anchor the neighborhood in the eyes of those same Bostonians who would ordinarily feel excluded. 

The public didn’t spend millions to enable Seaport development just to create a playground for the rich. 

The Seaport Has a Problem. Let’s Fix It

by Banker & Tradesman time to read: 2 min