Public space is about people feeling welcome to use it. Setting aside land and calling it “public space” doesn’t mean that people will actually use it. Massachusetts’ Public Waterfront Act (commonly referred to as “Chapter 91”) helps ensure meaningful public access to the water – not just token spaces. This access is essential for public spaces to come to life.
A perfectly manicured green lawn in front of a glistening glass building in the Seaport may technically be public space, but that doesn’t mean residents and visitors feel welcome. Development has turned these neighborhoods along the Boston Harbor into playgrounds for the wealthy at the expense of ensuring access for all of Boston’s residents.
To reclaim some of the public land along the Harbor, CLF gathered the public to enjoy the space they’re entitled to: the front lawn of the InterContinental Hotel. The second annual Pitch a Blanket was a reminder that all residents have the right to enjoy public spaces like the Harbor – and that some buildings aren’t complying with the Chapter 91 requirement to provide welcoming spaces for the public.
There’s a reason why we chose the InterContinental: the hotel continues to rent out public space for private events and had been operating an outdoor bar in a public area, profiting off of land that belongs to all Massachusetts residents. Earlier this year, the Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) required the InterContinental to move its bar seating, but throughout this summer, we saw social media reports that showed the public lawn was being used for private parties.
We played a game of corn hole, toppled a Jenga tower, enjoyed some pizza – and more than one person actually pitched a blanket on the grass. The site felt more alive than it has in a year – since the last time we committed this act of “civil obedience,” as CLF president Bradley Campbell called it in 2017.
And what a difference a year makes. This time, hotel staff tried to be welcoming – unlike last year, where we were asked to leave the outdoor bar that the hotel had since closed. This year, as people began to congregate on the lawn, staff put out signs to indicate the green area was public space. They later joined our group, bringing out cookies and lemonade. Residents of the InterContinental’s condominiums also joined in the celebration of Boston’s open space and beautiful waterfront. We were happy to have a chance to talk with them about this unique asset, and we are looking forward to talking with them about how that they can make the space more active and welcoming to all of the city’s residents.
Beyond our event, we recognize that there is a long way to go before the space is active and inviting to all people, including underserved communities and people of color. The area that once held the InterContinental’s bar is now empty and uninspiring. The lawn is spacious but feels inert without people enjoying it. Imagine what those two public spaces would look like with signage and programming that encouraged members of the public to stay? It’s not that hard to do – nearby Atlantic Wharf has the kind of programming that isn’t just for the residents of luxury condominiums but for everyone. For Boston Harbor to truly be the People’s Harbor, more areas must wholeheartedly adopt this attitude.
And more people need to reclaim these spaces for themselves. For the second year in a row, our Pitch A Blanket Day was a success. Once again, we showed how much the entire city benefits when the public embraces and activates its space. But as we work to ensure that properties with Public Waterfront licenses are keeping their promises to the public, we are asking you to get out there and enjoy them, too. Boston benefits when its public spaces are vibrant places, and that can only be done by using them. So go ahead, enjoy the autumn by pitching your own blanket on the Waterfront.