The Global Urbanist

News and analysis of cities around the world

Boston, Boylston Street, and the healing of an urban wound

The logistical operations and the spontaneous memorialising that followed the bombing of the Boston marathon illustrates how the healing of a city mirrors the healing of a bodily wound. Unlike the body however, the marks left behind may be of the city's own designs, namely in the form of a permanent memorial. A memorial which Sam Valentine argues is now needed to restore dignity to the act of remembrance.

Sam Valentine

Sam Valentine

Cities: Boston

Topics: Emergencies and reconstruction, Architecture and urban design, War and terrorism

While certain aspects of all cities might lend themselves to comparisons to living organisms, when it comes to geography and urban form, Boston has been inspiring such anatomical analogies since its first days of settlement. The original isthmus — now obscured by a Bostonian tradition of scraping hills flat to thrust out new land — can be seen labelled as the "Boston Neck" on maps as far back as the early eighteenth century. The peninsular "head", historically the regional hub of thinking, planning and calculating, today still seats the Massachusetts State House, Boston City Hall and the financial district. Branching out from this upper torso to the west and south, a network of primary arteries carries the people and resources that keep the city alive.

Boylston Street

Prominent among these arterial trade routes is Boylston Street. In just two miles of run, Boylston connects Boston's knotty downtown grid to a series of landmark parklands and the neighbourhood of Back Bay, engaging many of the city's most photographable urban features before dissolving into the inner western suburbs. In the Back Bay alone, Boylston wraps around America's oldest surviving victory garden and is carried over Frederick Law Olmsted's Emerald Necklace on a bridge designed collaboratively with HH Richardson. Continuing east towards the city core, a traveller takes in an improbable confluence of architecture: McKim, Mead and White's Renaissance-revivalist Boston Public Library adjoins Philip Johnson's late-modernist addition; the stark, mirrored face of Pei, Cobb, Freed and Partners' elegant John Hancock Tower backdrops Richardson's Trinity Church, and a jumbled wall of grey and brown low-rise façades is interrupted by a glassy, glistening and green-roofed Apple store.

At moments, the Boylston Street roadway resembles a steady-flowing (and largely impassable) river between two disjointed shoreline, but it is along these margins — Boylston's pedestrian plazas — that some of America's richest urban life takes place. Neither impressively detailed nor satisfactorily maintained, what lies underfoot is an irregular palimpsest of brick, concrete and asphalt. (Although pavements were the last thing on anyone's mind when last year's bloody news coverage made its rounds, the hodgepodge of pavements was consistently visible in these photographs.) Activated by both mainstream and high-end retail and restaurant storefronts, colleges, a convention centre, and residential units, the straight and wide sidewalks, nothing to take for granted in Boston, function as promenades.

Exchanging warm greetings, smiles, nods or just pursed-lip acknowledgement, thousands of Bostonians cross paths on these promenades every day. Colleagues and neighbours catch up on each other's lives. White-collars rub against blue-collars. Sharply dressed young women avert the glances of admirers of all ages. Tourists gaze at the locals while the locals gaze right back. In my mind, these stretches of sidewalk — never much wider than twenty feet — represent a perfectly imperfect slice of American city life. It is only fitting that here, between the granite curbs of this particular city street, has been perennially emblazoned the finish line of the Boston marathon.

The past 13 months have offered no shortage of news coverage on the 117th Boston Marathon, its cultural significance, or the acts of both terrorism and heroism that have come to define it. For better or for wworse, I spent race day last year idling away with Autocad polylines and Photoshop layers at the office. I did not see the race nor did I feel the explosions; first-hand observations of the bombings are not the focus of this article. However, beginning with the first siren wail I heard in the distance, the days and months following the attacks have offered unique insight into the physical, emotional and cultural impacts that stem from an urban trauma.

If you are willing to entertain the earlier analogies between the city of Boston and the human body, consider where the attacks occurred: on Boylston Street's pedestrian plazas on their most energetic and crowded day. If Boston indeed has a head and a neck, then the twin blasts at 2:49pm on 15 April 2013 left a gaping wound in the heart of my city.

The biology of healing

Modern medicine defines a wound as any bodily damage resulting from external violence or mechanical agency. In mammals like us, beginning at the very instant of injury, an extensively studied healing process commences. While this process is complex, intricate and comprises innumerable cellular-level steps, scientists generally describe it in four overlapping phases. The first phase, hemostasis, is a period of urgent and chaotic response. Platelets, those already at the scene as well as those continuously arriving through the bloodstream, work quickly to seal off ruptured blood vessels and prevent further damage. By congregating and adhering to tissue at the site of the wound, these cells cause coagulation, which staunches bleeding by forming a coating we call a scab. Platelets simultaneously release cytokines, chemoattractants that essentially call for backup to other cells and signal the rest of the body to prepare for the next stages of healing.

With blood loss largely under control, the next phase of healing starts up as specialist cells, including neutrophils and T-helper cells, migrate to the wound for defence. During inflammation, neutrophils rush to identify, surround and destroy remaining threats such as debris and bacteria. Together, neutrophils and T-helpers partially reverse the work of the hemostasis phase, opening up and expanding the constricted blood vessels to increase the porosity required for tissue repair. To the human eye, this period of high cellular activity is observable as the wound grows in size and becomes a place of pain, redness and swelling.

During regeneration the focus shifts from damage control and repair to actual regrowth. Beneath the thickening scab, the first steps of real healing have begun as fibroblast cells travel to the wound and begin to lay the groundwork for new connective tissue. New, red tissue grows to replace what was damaged, and the injury is gradually pulled together, decreasing the surface area of the wound. By the end of this phase, damage is still identifiable by scarred tissue, but full skin coverage and most function has been restored. The scab sloughs off.

The final stage of healing is a long road. While the previous phases can be measured in minutes or days, the final phase of healing — maturation and remodelling — is best measured in months and years. Beneath a surface of scar tissue, fibroblasts continue their work, doing their best to improve the flexibility and tensile strength of the new tissue layers. In truth, the scar will never possess the strength and pliancy of the original skin before injury, but years of gradual improvement can bring scar tissue up to 80% of original strength. Function is restored on the surface, but beneath the scar, important steps towards healing are still ongoing.

Choosing one's scar

It takes only a dash of imagination to notice the parallels that arise between Boston's response to the marathon bombings and the body's phases of healing. In both individual actions and overall timeline, the correlations are fascinating, but it is ultimately contrast, not equivalence, that I find most compelling. The comparison exposses a significant point of divergence: unlike the body, a city chooses its scar.

Urbanistically speaking, Boston has made the collective choice not to bear scar tissue. Do not misunderstand me; I am as grateful as the next Bostonian to see Boylston Street back up and running. Almost as soon as the police barricades came down, people returned to those blocks on Boylston. A year later, another Boston Marathon has come and gone, and the healthy street life — workers, students, shoppers and tourists — has returned in full force, honouring the victims and defying the attackers. Boston has demonstrated that the vitality and function of Boylston Street will not be sacrificed over the cruel actions of two individuals.

There is however another side to this story. While it is often said that it was the "street" that was bombed, there is no fair comparison between the damage done to concrete, glass and steel and what was inflicted on the flesh and well-being of the people on that street. Friends, families, well-wishers and survivors themselves travel to Boylston Street to leave flowers, written words, stuffed animals and candles in vigil. But these acts of remembrance scattered along the sidewalk wash away with the rain and snow, bleach in the sun, and have resulted in no permanent, legible urban memorial. It is time for Boston to reflect on an appropriate and respectful scar for its injury.

Developing a memorial

Location may be one of the most important criteria for a permanent victims' memorial. Crossing cultures and millennia, humans are instinctively concerned with "sacred ground". Through graves, kurgans, stupas, tombs, tumuli and many more manifestations too numerous to name, mankind holds in reverence the body and the land that it has touched.

The demarcation of the site is key to the emotional effectiveness of a memorial. In American cemeteries, the headstone and footstone are placed at the extents of the body, and the precision of this delineation is sometimes all too moving at a child's grave. The marking of sacred ground is defining such contemporary memorials as the Flight 93 National Memorial in Stonycreek Township, Pennsylvania. Whether with a literal fence or a flush-set marker, boundaries offer a mourner the choice of intimate connection with or respectful avoidance of a sacred patch of ground.

Materials and form should be equally conscious of the victims' needs and the unforgiving urban environment. There are important lessons to be learned from the spontaneous memorial that sprung up in the days following the tragedy. On one hand it is clear that the elements and urban conditions quickly take their toll on all but the most durable, resilient materials. However it should not be missed just how important the emotional connections of touching, writing and tactilely interacting with the memorial was to those who visited.

Developing themes for a Marathon memorial will be a unique challenge. It is natural to focus attention toward the three killed on Boylston Street, but for each fatality there were almost a hundred others injured. Any treatment will need to serve as a place for grieving but also as a living memorial for each of those who survived physical and emotional trauma to make progress along their challenging path to recovery.

Unsure where to stand

It is surprising what a web search turns up, even 13 months after the tragedy. There is excellent coverage on the spontaneous memorial and the forward-thinking archival effort that is preserving and exhibiting its materials. As far as a landscape-based memorial goes, however, the prevailing (if not only) publicised proposal is a footbridge renovation that was floated a year ago. Inspiring as this "gateway" bridge might be, it seems too distant (a three-mile walk) and too tangentially related to address what is really needed at ground zero on Boylston Street.

Here on the sidewalk, where people were murdered, blood was spilled, and lives were irrevocably changed, visitors do not know where exactly to pay their respects. Even two weeks after the blast, signs of the explosive forces were challenging to discern from the standard patina of an urban sidewalk, and with each season, the epicentres fade even farther into the camouflage of a city sidewalk. On a recent visit to Boylston Street, I was troubled to see the same behaviour that I witnessed there a year ago. Without identifiable loci, visitors to Boylston Street, bearing flowers, handwritten notes or other mementos, subtly but uneasily shuffle their feet, unsure where to stand or where to place their tokens of remembrance.

Sam Valentine is a landscape architect with Richard Burck Associates in Somerville, Massachusetts and an instructor at the Landscape Institute at Boston Architectural College. He reflects on garden elements and materiality at, with his strongest interests in the democratic, public-realm landscapes of the city.