Mashup Laboratory for Boston's City Hall Plaza

  • By: Paul Cote
  • for GeoWeb: Virtual Worlds as Public Infrastructure
  • a course at The Harvard University Graduate School of Design
  • April 20 2010

Since before it was built, Boston's City Hall Plaza has been the inspiration of many "What-If" studies by famous urban designers, students, and just about everyone. What if the Boston Redevelopment Authority had decided not to demolish old Scollay Square and to redevelop the South Boston Waterfront instead? Since 2008 when Mayor Menino announced a desire to move city hall to South Boston, and to once again redevelop City Hall Plaza, interest is renewed in developing proposals for this troubled relic of late sixties architecture. Occupying the heart of downtown Boston, a tower in City Hall Plaza has the potential to create view corridors that would make the city more legible and navigable to its residents and visitors.

This page provides a demonstration of how a tower in City Hall Plaza might bring new identity and legibility to Downtown Boston. A short video provides a quick assessment of how such a tower might tie together distant locations around the heart of the city: along the Rose Kennedy Greenway, Columbus Park and across to the Public Garden. The Eiffel tower has been used in this model (at its actual scale) as a placeholder for any tower of similar size. The Eiffel tower is an excellent example of a structure that was designed especially as a landmark. Likewise, while this project uses City Hall Plaza in Boston as a demonstration of a means of communicating ideas about places using through the GeoWeb, incorporating information contributed by public agencies and private firms and individuals. For more information about this project, see The Virtual City Collective.

Understanding the Visual Possibilities of City Hall Plaza

The Urban Designer, Kevin Lynch, in his book Image of the CIty (1960) looked at the way that people read the cities as networks of interconnected pathways nodes, barriers and landmarks. It was at just about this time that Lynch was involved with the design of City Hall Plaza in Boston. At that time, potential views of city Hall Plaza were obstructed by the large elevated highway known as the Central Artery. The video below begins with the view of City Hall Plaza as it exists today, as it is surrounded by the new Rose Kennedy Greenway that now occupies the deck over the new central artery that has been placed in a tunnel. The video then presents an scenario where City Hall is removed and replaced by a grid of trees, an iconic hamburger stand, and a large ornamental tower. The video proceeds to explore potential views of the tower indicated by a viewshed map produced with ArcGIS. FInally several spots are visited in the 3d model (provided by Google Earth) to simulate how the tower would appear at distant places across the city.

The View Corridor Study

The image that appears to be an explosion in the video at the top of this page is actually a representation of places from where specific parts the tower can be seen around town. Areas colored in green gave a good view of at least one corner of the lower platform of the tower. Places portrayed in yellow have a view of the middle platform. Places in red have a view of the top of the tower. For a deeper explanation of how this view study was made, and to download the GIS Dataset, see Studying Urban View Corridors

Put Yourself Into the Model

Our video provides a very scripted exploration of our scheme. To proponents of a project, the idea of turning over the controls to members of the public is not seen as desirable -- and until lately this has not been practical in any case, since very few members of the public had access to tools that would let them explore such a broad-scale model. With the advent of Google Earth -- a free browser and authoring tool for virtual worlds -- the expectations of the public for models that may be explored in real time may be changing. Anyone who wants to explore our proposal from any angle needs only to install the free Google Earth Browser and Click here to download our model. The following Video provides a qhick overview of how to set up our model and to use the GIS view corridor study to discover and adjust useful visual connections.

The Manuscript Model

While Google Earth provides the setting of the greater city that permits us to explore long distance views of our development scenario, Sketchup is the tool that allows us to do compile, modify and author fine-graned develoment schemes. Sketchup also provides an environment for more sophisticated rendering, analytical sections and shadow studies as demonstrated in the video below.

Shadow Study Video

The sketchup model is georeferenced so that this manuscriopt serves as a platform for sharing other georeferenced content, like the City Hall model (buy Google 3d Warehouse) and the context buildings surrounding the plaza that came by way of MassGIS. The georeferenced framework also provides a stage for us to position other models and our groundplan image which can all land perfectly in place when uploaded to Google Earth. YOu are welcome to use my sketchup model to stage your own experiments. Click Here to download my sketchup models and the photoshop files that were used to create this study!

Exhorting Civic Discourse on the GeoWeb

A theme of this project is exchange of information. Our model and its presentations has been made possible from the ideas, and the tools and digital resources that have been made available by others, and discovered by us through the world-wide-web. To close the loop, we are sharing the ideas, and the resources we have created and also a bit of the how-to documentation on this web page.. TO make the most of this we want to help others to discover this page. Especially those who have an interest in BOston City Hall Plaza, or in Urban Legibility or Virtual Cities. This goal has been promoted by making our resources abailable on related collaborative web sites, making sure in each case, to tag the resources with useful keywords and geo coordinates and references back to this web page. This strategy will increase the value of the work by increasing the liklihood that it will be discoverd by people who can use it.

Here is a listing of the places where our resources have been published in the geo-web:

References and Acknowledgements

Below is a list of references to the individuals and institutions that have contributerd to this model. Posting these references here will also promote the return of this page in search engine queries whwn people enter search terms related to these subjects.



  • The Massachusetts GIS contributed the building massing models and terrain model used in our sketchup model. The buildings are circa 2002 and the terrain model is dated 2005.
  • The United States Geological Survey provided the aerial photo dated, 2008.
  • The Google 3d Warehouse was instrumental in creating our hamburger stand model. The building was taken frmo Ice Cream Parlor by Zoungy, and the Burger by Sketchycat. The Eiffle Tower and City Hall Plaza models are credited to Goole 3d Warehouse.