A Street-Smart Vision for Boston

Jacob Wessel, A14, steers toward a more equitable future for the city’s public spaces
Jacob Wessel, Boston’s public realm director, talks about a safer, more accessible future for the city’s streets.
As public realm director for the City of Boston, Jacob Wessel reimagines streets not as mere conduits for cars but “as places that can be safer and more accessible to people of all backgrounds and incomes.” Photo: Alonso Nichols
July 30, 2021

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Name: Jacob Wessel, A14

Occupation: Public realm director, City of Boston

What that means: Supervising changes to the city’s streets and sidewalks to make them more people-friendly. “I’m someone who folks call at City Hall if they want to close a street to cars. We’re not saying we’re ‘closing streets,’ because we’re actually opening them to tons of different types of uses.”

In other words: Think of restaurants being able to use parking spaces and sidewalks to accommodate COVID-safe outdoor dining. Or the pre-pandemic Open Newbury Street events, where the chic shopping corridor would become a pedestrian walkway.

Why it matters: More than a third of Boston households don’t own cars, “but most streets don’t seem to be designed with that in mind,” Wessel says. “We’ve got a lot of work to do to reimagine those streets as places that can be safer and more accessible to people of all backgrounds and incomes.” In part that will involve reducing reliance on cars and promoting greener transportation, with steps like increasing tree coverage, expanding pedestrian zones, and adding public seating areas.

Seeing is believing: Wessel sets up pilot projects to demonstrate what’s possible, “so people can say, ‘Oh, this is just like what I saw around the corner the other day.’” To help folks visualize a new project for Roslindale Square, for example, Wessel and his colleagues erected a makeshift version for a week, using duct tape, milk crates, and wooden dowels. Some experiments may fail, but he embraces that.

How he got here: A political science major at Tufts, Wessel started at Boston City Hall as a neighborhood liaison in the Mayor’s Office of Neighborhood Services. Among his duties was working with the city transportation department on a street project, and “I sort of learned the nuts and bolts of roadway design." In 2016, he ran the first Open Newbury Street event—“it was quite contentious at the start, but it became a smashing success,” he recalls. That led to the creation of the role of public realm director about three years ago.

When the pandemic hit: During 2020, the number of vehicle miles driven in Boston dropped by 26 percent, according to transportation analysts. As traffic on the notoriously clogged roadways started to ease up that spring, the time seemed ripe for changes that would not only help the city through the emergency, but also might be sustainable for the future.

Don’t stand too close to me: Wessel and other city staffers asked how streets and sidewalks could accommodate people who didn’t want to be too close to each other. What could the city offer to folks who weren’t comfortable taking public transit, without forcing them into cars? And what could it do for those who still needed to use the T—"the essential workers, the most vulnerable people coming from our poorest communities”? The answers ranged from adding pop-up bike lanes to expediting the installation of long-planned bus lanes.

Nourishing the restaurant scene: With most restaurants relying on takeout or outdoor dining, Wessel’s office developed a takeout zone program to change parking regulations and make it easier for customers to come and go. And it helped 500 outdoor dining spots go up throughout Boston. “Our previous outdoor dining program was mostly restricted to sidewalks, and the places that have wider sidewalks are the wealthier, whiter neighborhoods in Boston,” Wessel says. “By opening up parking spaces as a place for restaurants to easily deploy outdoor seating, we’ve been able to open up the opportunity for outdoor dining in neighborhoods like Dorchester or Jamaica Plain.” Local control over outdoor dining has been extended to April 2022 by the state legislature and the governor, and city staff is prepping for these changes to be made permanent, Wessel says. 

Easy does it: The city made applying for the outdoor dining permits simple: The process was entirely online, with no fees. “When we had the restaurants submit diagrams, some of them came in literally scribbled on the back of a napkin, which was our intention.”

Whose space is it, anyway?: Going forward, Wessel says, the streetscape will need to address at least three major needs: combatting climate change; promoting economic opportunity, particularly for small businesses that have taken a hit during the pandemic; and advancing social equity. “We can rethink the way in which space is allocated, who it’s helping, and who it’s making things more difficult for.”

Close to home: Living in Boston’s South End, Wessel gets almost everywhere by bike, a far cry from the car culture of his native Los Angeles. Pedaling through the city has been helpful in his job. “I try to be a user of the projects that I work on,” he says. “That’s the beauty to me of working in local government.”

Helene Ragovin can be reached at helene.ragovin@tufts.edu.