The Hub's Metropolis

Metropolitan Boston-Based Author & Urbanist
James O’Connell
Writings on History & (Sub) Urbanism




The Hub's Metropolis: Greater Boston's Suburban Development from Railroad Suburbs to Smart Growth

James C. O’Connell
(The MIT Press, 2013)







The Hub’s Metropolis: Boston’s Suburban Development, 1800-2010 is the first comprehensive historical overview of Boston’s suburban development, from the earliest country estates to suburban sprawl and the smart growth movement. This book provides historical context for understanding the region’s contemporary planning efforts that are addressing the challenges of low-density sprawl, climate change, and the global information age economy. The Hub’s Metropolis combines the perspectives of an urban historian and an experienced Massachusetts urban planner. A key element of The Hub’s Metropolis is illustrations and maps. The book has 60 maps and historic photographs, many of which have not been previously published.

Ten Periods of Boston’s Metropolitan Development

The Hub’s Metropolis examines ten periods of Greater Boston’s metropolitan development:

  • Traditional Village Centers and Proto-Suburbs (1800-1860)
  • Country Retreats (1820-1920)
  • Railroad Suburbs (1840-1920)
  • Streetcar Suburbs (1870-1930)
  • Metropolitan Parkway Suburbs (1895-1945)
  • Mill Towns (1820-present)
  • Postwar Automobile Suburbs (1945-1970)
  • Boston Redefines the Center City (1945-present)
  • Interstates, Exurbs, and Sprawl (1970-present)
  • Smart Growth Era (1990-present)

The book explains how each era of suburbanization produced a distinctive land use development pattern, which left its imprint on the landscape. Each period had particular characteristics related to the built landscape, transportation, real estate development patterns, housing styles, retail activity, and the treatment of open and public space. Transportation developments—the railroad, horse-drawn streetcar, electric streetcar, automobiles—have had a significant influence on the form of the metropolitan area, but each era of suburbanization has also been shaped by cultural attitudes about suburbs, the city, and social class. This book also discusses the respective roles of state, regional, and local planning and private enterprise in shaping each era’s land use patterns.

Boston’s Leading Role in Metropolitan Development

The Hub’s Metropolis describes how Boston has been a national pace-setter for many features of suburbanization, including country estates, railroad suburbs, streetcar suburbs, land use zoning, open space conservation, highway beltways, shopping centers, office parks, edge cities, and central city revitalization. Landscape architecture pioneer Frederick Law Olmsted promoted model suburban designs from his home and office in the garden suburb of Brookline. The Metropolitan District Commission’s park-and-parkway system, which was created around 1900, was the country’s first example of regional planning. The city of Boston is noteworthy for its vibrant central city, which suffered a painful postwar decline, but crafted a nationally-regarded revival.

Boston’s “smart growth” development, which is a response to the low-density, automobile-oriented development pattern that has long dominated, is examined in the closing chapter of The Hub’s Metropolis. Boston has become a leader in “smart growth” because it has an extensive regional transit system to build new development around. It is being forced to cluster development in already settled areas because it is one of the first metropolitan areas to be “built out” under existing zoning, and, thus, it has little open land available for new development.