Public Works: Unsolicited Small Projects for the Big Dig

Boston, MA
Infrastructure, Mobility, Public Space
Credit List:
MAP Book Publishers, J. Meejin Yoon, Meredith Miller

The famously troubled public works project known as the Big Dig, in which an underground network of interstate tunnels was installed to replace the elevated I-93 highway, inflicted a prolonged period of controlled disorder on its metropolitan surroundings. Designed to stitch the city back together after it was cleaved apart in the 1950’s, the Central Artery Tunnel project has been a continuous, obstructive presence in the city, leavened only by the promise of an immense return upon its completion. For decades, the finest minds in the business pored over the problem of mediating the city’s demand for mobility and its loyalty to a historic fabric. The mass heroic effort—hundreds of booms and cranes, clam-diggers and cement-pourers, thousands of laborers and dozens of urban planning professors—was spent in service of a glittering finish-line that kept receding into the future. As construction finally comes to (some kind of) a conclusion, it’s time to assess the Big Dig’s big payback against its initial ambition: the promise of a restored public realm. 

Big Dig Extents

City, Accelerated 

One of the more dramatic shifts in public transport in Boston occurred when horse-drawn omnibuses with wooden wheels were superseded by horse-drawn omnibuses on rails. 

The 5-6 mph increase in speed was significant enough that people moved greater distances from commercial districts, and the areas just outside the city grew substantially—Boston’s first suburbs. The slight reconfiguration of the means of mobility contributed to a fundamental alteration to urban form.

Opened in 2003, the CA/t will certainly have greater effects on the city and public life than are possible to determine at present. 

Central Artery Completed in 1959, the raised highway soon heaved under traffic well over its intended capacity, so that crossing the 1.5 miles of downtown Boston took around 25 minutes.

Central Artery Tunnel
The average trip across Boston through the CA/t is now 2-3 minutes, about the time it takes to walk a long city block.


70% of Boston’s land area was artificially created. Second to San Francisco, Boston has the smallest footprint of any major US city. The incremental expansion of the urban terra firma used two operations: displacement, moving fill dredged from the Charles and the Harbor, and averaging, taking earth from high ground and distributing it across low marsh land.Increasing the municipal footprint is not the only end of these major public works, but also a means of preserving the economic lifelines of the city. 

Whether by clearing the sea lanes for marine commerce or by burying I-93 to expedite the transport of goods and people by highway, the history of Boston’s earth works demonstrates the transformative demands of mobility.

Displaced Matter

4.2 miles from Long Wharf in the Inner Harbor, Spectacle Island solved the question of how to dispose of the Big byproduct. Its proximity made it within practical range of the site of excavation but at a safe and unobtrusive remove.

Big Bucks

Compared to other large-scale public works, the Dig weighs in high on cost and length of construction period. (All prices have been adjusted for inflation.)

Tunnel Vision

Connecting the divided realms of surface park and buried highway, periscopic fixtures redirect sunlight below and reflect headlights up.

Seeing Double

Usercontrolled handles can be turned to activate the mirrors to relay a view of the skyline, a view into the tunnel or both at once.


Common outdoor surfacing materials–asphalt, hard court, and turf–compose the three facets of each unit. Their combinations create multiple surface patterns for daily or seasonal changes to programmatic needs.

The tripanels exploit the simple intelligence of modular image-flipping billboards, a conventional analog advertising technology but applied at an unprecedented scale. And in doing so, these panels triple the surface area of the Central Artery Corridor, creating a totally mechanized landscape that merges infrastructure with public program.

A graphic commentary on the largest and most expensive urban public work in modern U.S. History, Meejin Yoon and Meredith Miller, in collaboration with HYA, expose the process and subsequent effects of the Big Dig. The book is a critical reflection on city planning, bringing into question the effective distribution of public space versus public works. Containing essays and proposing fourteen speculative design interventions, the book is a suggestion on how to better reconnect the public’s experience with each expressway and park that resulted from Boston's Big Dig.