A Year in Reflection, 2020 in Review

New Urban Mechanics
27 min readFeb 12, 2021

We look forward to a new year as we hold onto what a year of grief, change and upheaval has offered us.

Editor’s note: As always, this is an incomplete list of work and it goes without saying that none of this would be possible without our community, partners, and collaborators. Thank you all.

Even when 2020 was at its worst, our work never stopped. Instead, we pivoted to be in service of what was needed and tried to hold space for investigating what was possible. We marked 10 years of our team building relationships, learning by doing and exploring, experimenting and evaluating countless ideas and initiatives. We shared what inspires our team and set intentions to interrogate how our team might deeply engage in antiracist practice. As we dive into 2021, our team, like many others, acknowledges the continued challenges and unknowns locally, nationally and globally. There is much work ahead, but we’ll pause here to highlight some of what our team explored in 2020:

1. Knox, the cargo e-trike

The Environment Department released the City’s Climate Action Plan update in October 2019. We wanted to explore a prototype that aligned with that commitment. One thing the plan calls for is reducing municipal carbon emissions. The City’s “Central Fleet” of vehicles accounts for roughly 25 percent of our local government emissions. So we wondered a few things: If we added a cargo electric-assist trike to the fleet, would employees want to use it instead of a car or truck? How would residents perceive the City’s use of the cargo e-trike to reduce our emissions?

We used a grant to buy a three-wheeled, front-loaded, cargo tricycle with electric assistance. We wanted to help City employees lead by example while conducting City business. We hypothesized that for short-distance trips, the trike would be a reasonable replacement for a car or truck. That’s assuming that an employee needed to carry something for their work trip, making walking or taking the MBTA less feasible. We initiated the purchase of the trike in March 2020, before Boston declared a public health emergency due to COVID-19. The community meetings that we imagined employees would need the trike for moved to virtual sessions. We are being responsive to the moment and finding new, safe uses for the trike until public meetings return.

Collaborators: Boston Transportation Department, Environment Department, Public Works, Women’s Advancement, Property Management; Read Boston, Urban Adventours (bike shop); Amsterdam Bicycle company (bike importer); West End Museum; Bicycling History Collections at UMass Boston

Why did we do this? This prototype is an attempt to show that the City has the muscle and capacity to lead by example, walking the walk (or biking the bike, in this case) on the initiatives that we are asking of others. The trike also supports Go Boston 2030, the City of Boston’s comprehensive transportation plan. Go Boston aims to encourage mode shift away from single-occupancy vehicle trips toward low-emission modes of travel. These included walking, biking, and public transit. We hope to learn what benefits this zero-emission vehicle can bring through testing. For example, could savings be gained if we decide to add more electric-assist cargo bicycles or tricycles to the Central Fleet?

Lessons learned:
We are still learning from the prototype, but some early lessons are: employees seem to like using the trike for certain tasks; there may be value in having department-specific cargo bikes/trikes, in addition to an all-employee checkout system; naming the trike after Kittie Knox creates an authentic opportunity to engage residents when they see the stickers on the bike; we need better storage + charging options longer-term; training for employees is key!

What’s next for this work? We will explore department-specific implementations of cargo bikes and trikes. We will continue running the prototype into its second year (hopefully with a return to some in-person engagement so we can understand its full range of uses). We hope to lead a cargo (e-)bike petting zoo activity for staff and residents in 2021. Knox may also be involved in a City-led cargo bike permitting prototype in 2021.

How can the public be involved moving forward? Residents can ask departments about their CO2 emissions and what they are doing to embody the Climate Action Plan and Go Boston 2030. It would be great to learn from residents whether they would be interested in a municipally managed cargo bikeshare initiative. If you see Knox out on the streets, take a photo, talk to the City employee, learn more!

Where can folks follow along with the progress?

2. Digital Transparency in the Public Realm (DTPR) Signage for Sensors

How can we inform the public about the sensors and data-gathering devices which are located in public space?

We value the privacy and security of our residents. We think they are best equipped to evaluate what data we should collect as a City. We partnered with Helpful Places to test out open-source iconography for sensors in the public realm and start a dialogue on how to appropriately use technology. A common language is a first step towards a culture of transparent and contestable data management. The digital transparency in the public realm (DTPR) taxonomy was developed to quickly inform residents about:

  • The purpose of data collection
  • The technology used
  • Who is accountable for the project outcomes
  • What happens to the collected data

Our aim is to enable residents to actively take part in shaping our data collection practices. We want to ensure residents stay informed on the current technologies we use in the public realm and can provide feedback.

Collaborators: Department of Innovation and Technology, Helpful Places

Why did we do this? The City of Boston is currently considering many available “Smart City” technologies, in addition to evaluating the existing connected devices, “Internet of things,” and corresponding service contracts it has already deployed. Many of these technologies promise to gather and report valuable data which can improve city planning and operations. However, open questions remain about the nature of the data provided by these technologies and how it might be governed and used to inform decisions. As long as these questions lack urgency and relevance to residents’ day-to-day experiences, they are likely to remain unanswered. In this type of landscape, data misuse and inequities are allowed to exist, and opportunities for residents to leverage data for research, creativity, and advocacy are often overlooked.

The trust and engagement of Bostonians is fundamental to a functioning democracy and therefore also to any successful data collection initiative. While Boston and cities like it increasingly rely on new technologies and datasets to function and thrive, they and their partners must also take responsibility for promoting a shift in cultural awareness around technology, data, and related challenges. This means creating new policies to regulate and enforce accountability in data collection, providing more actionable and robust open data resources, and investing in engaging communication tools and public processes.

Lessons learned:
We learned that before we can create a system of communicating our values and aspirations around digital trust, the City of Boston first needs to think deeply about what these values are and how we are committed to upholding them. We also learned that it’s very hard to get people to understand or care about data governance and privacy through a single communication channel. That’s why the DTPR signage prototype is just one of many ways we hope to engage the public on these issues. Finally, we learned that stickers, while charismatic forms of signage, don’t always hold up to long term wear-and-tear on our City’s busy streets!

What’s next for this work? Continuing to prototype the signage system, improve its form and content, and develop other ways of connecting with the public on issues of digital trust.

How can the public be involved moving forward? Where can folks follow along with the progress? Stay tuned to the project website and raise questions about digital trust in your next community meeting because data is a part of almost everything we do now.

Photo credit: Kris Carter

3. TreeTect

Can we use very high-resolution satellite imagery to support and enhance our tree inventory?

We worked with an open source initiative, Green City Watch, to use Very High-Resolution (VHR) satellite imagery. We used this platform to remotely “detect” the locations of trees, as well as a few health indicators of those trees. We started with part of one neighborhood (Nubian Square in Roxbury) to understand what the technology was capable of in an urban context, and whether or how it might be a useful tool for internal and external stakeholders on a larger scale.

Collaborators: Green City Watch, Speak for the Trees Boston, Department of Innovation and Technology, Environment, Boston Planning and Development Agency, Parks

Why did we do this?
One of our local nonprofits, Speak For the Trees, has cataloged a third of Boston’s public street trees. However, there remain barriers to getting a more timely and robust picture of the full urban tree canopy. We were curious to explore whether the use of a novel technology could help us do so. We wanted to learn by doing. Often, urban tree inventories are incomplete even when they seem “done”. That’s because many of them focus only on publicly owned trees. However, in many cities around the world, between 50–70% of the trees and canopy cover is on private lands. A city may have limited jurisdiction over these trees but still be interested in community benefits healthy trees can offer.

Lessons Learned: The technology is feasible in an urban setting. We believe we could have gotten to species identification via satellite imagery alone if we had more time and budget. Perhaps we could build the accuracy of the algorithm in other Boston neighborhoods and simultaneously engage citizens in local tree stewardship. One application of this technology could help us identify new planting sites proactively, layered with requests we receive from residents via 311, building on the Streetcaster approach. We could potentially proactively identify dying or dead trees.

What’s next for this work? We hope the prototype results will be used in the upcoming Urban Forest planning process. It is also possible that we will use the open-source codebase to expand the analysis to additional areas of Boston.

How can the public be involved moving forward? We could imagine reviving the Adopt-a-Tree program from 2014, with these “likely tree locations”. We could also imagine co-running a machine learning/AI session with BARI or another university partner to train community members on this application of this technology. A final option would be to have members of the public contribute “hand annotations” to a citywide training dataset. This could be done on their own time, and at whatever frequency they want.

Where can folks follow along with the progress?

4. Digital Curbs

Should the city invest in creating a digital curb regulation layer and how can it improve city operations and minimize public frustrations with parking?

Since overhauling our parking payment technology in 2014, the City has been interested in bringing the signs and regulations into a digital era as well. “Can I park here?” is a common question in Boston. The answer is always the same “what’s the sign say?” That answer is the same for people working in the City’s planning offices, adjudicating parking tickets, or issuing moving truck permits — none of which have an easy way to look up what can happen when on a bit of Boston curb.

Following MONUM principles, this iteration of mapping our curbs started with a failed project known as The Boston Parking Atlas and Rules Census (B-PARC). This year, B-PARC rose like a phoenix through a collaboration with Coord and we tested a new tool by mapping over 50 miles of curb. We know that in a connected and autonomous vehicle world, digital regulations will become increasing important, and this is one step we can take as a city to be more prepared for that future. But we thought it might have great utility in the present as well. In this iteration, we are focused on collecting data to allow for better decisions as we plan streets with community members and we are laying the foundation for a future public realm that is devoid of parking signs and meters that clutter our sidewalks.

Collaborators: Boston Transportation Department, Department of Innovation and Technology, Coord

Why did we do this? For over a year we have been paralyzed by the sequencing of the components needed to develop a digital curb regulation database. In January 2020, DoIT, Streets, and MONUM decided to move ahead with a pilot with Coord and simultaneously begin to build an in-house asset management system. We set out to test and learn from using an off-the-shelf platform, like Coord. Does it work? Who does it work for? What is the value to different stakeholders? What are our barriers to using and sharing the data? By testing the tool and the process of generating the data, we hope to create concrete answers instead of theoretical ones.

Lessons learned:
It helps to have a summer fellow with good shoes. Nick Brenner (Summer Fellow ’20) walked over 50-miles of Boston sidewalks to help us take away these lessons in three buckets: use-case learnings, tool learnings, and future development learnings. Throughout the summer and fall we spent time leading workshops and sharing data collected with City stakeholders so that they could begin to envision how this would slot into their current workflows. We learned the strengths and limitations of the tool itself — which we pushed to its limits and broke more than once — creating opportunity for our partner to improve its functionality for us and the next city. Lastly, we now have a better sense of the features we would prioritize in a future procurement or in-house development project.

What’s next for this work? As this project wraps up, we will be detailing the findings from the research project to inform next steps that could lead to a citywide system. We are continuing to explore new uses of the platform, such as testing parking occupancy functions, a study method that is the backbone of our performance parking program, and looking at ways to improve loading zones.

5. The Public Space Invitational 2020

What happens to Public Space Invitational in a time when our interactions with public space are so different?

Our focus with Public Space Invitational has always been on shared spaces. However, in the age of physical distancing, many of us are now confined to our homes and find it increasingly difficult to connect with our neighbors. While we can no longer ask people to gather together outside, we explored new ways to bring the joy of being outdoors to places closer to home. We worked with six teams of artists to create and distribute customized window boxes, pots, and birdhouses with planted vegetables and herbs to families throughout the city.

Collaborators: The Trustees, TD Bank

Why did we do this? We think it’s important to continue to support artists and designers in physical, public projects, even if those projects cannot be displayed in public space. So finding an alternative way to go forward with the program was a key milestone for Public Space Invitational.

JennyMae Kho + Brianna Asbury

Lessons learned:
1) Direct support for artists is more important than ever.

2) It seems more powerful to focus on the creation of smaller, custom items that people can display at their homes throughout the city.

3) Let’s keep it simple and distribute beautiful art and plants to people.

Napoleon Jones-Henderson, Chanel Thervil, Brianna Asbury, Marcos Beleche, JennyMae Kho distributing plants at El Jardín de la Amistad in Roxbury

What’s next for this work?
We’re excited for another round of Public Space Invitational in 2021! You can find updates at space.newurbanmechanics.org.

6. Boston Food Access Network

How might we leverage a network strategy for community food resilience?

This project began as an internal collaboration between the Office Food Access (OFA) and the Mayor’s Office of Immigrant Advancement(MOIA) when they identified that because immigrant populations were very vulnerable to food insecurity, they needed a plan to make sure folks were fed. With funding from the Boston Resiliency Fund, they partnered with Fair Foods, a food rescue nonprofit, and identified a list of 18 community-based organizations (CBOs) that had deep relationships in their communities. The goal of this project was to create food hubs at trusted immigrant-serving nonprofits and connect these hubs into a wider Food Access Network, thereby addressing food insecurity through sustained collaboration.

Collaborators: Office Food Access, Mayor’s Office of Immigrant Advancement, Fair Foods, 18 Community Based Organizations that serve immigrant residents

Why did we do this? On an immediate level, many of the people we aimed to serve did not have any other lifeline for food support. Many folks did not qualify for SNAP resources or unemployment benefits. Furthermore, the political climate is such that many also do not feel safe accessing food from local food banks, fearing repercussions from the “public charge” law. It was important that we recognized the deep relationships that CBOs had with their communities, and that we amplified and supported the work that they were already doing. Although this is a moment of crisis, it hopefully sets the stage towards greater food sovereignty in our communities.

Lessons learned:
1) Network building gets people talking, and the more you get people talking, the more wisdom can be shared.

2) Trust can be a very important factor in the delivery of goods and services.

What’s next for this work? Working with CBOs to develop culturally competent ‘menus’ to help in facilitating cooperative purchasing.

How can the public be involved moving forward? Fair Foods always needs volunteers, as do the organizations doing food distribution. Donate to the Massachusetts Immigrant Collaborative.

Where can folks follow along with the progress?

Illustration Credit: Wandy Pascoal, Pat Falco

7. Future-Decker

What is the relationship that past or current residents have with triple-deckers? What gaps can this form and scale of housing attempt to fill in our current housing landscape?

The Future-Decker exploration provides an entry point to understanding the complexities of building middle-scale multifamily housing. By first taking a look at the iconic triple-decker, residents and other partners were asked to reflect on their experiences with triple-deckers in the City, as well as envisioning possible futures of this building type: the future-decker. In May, we pivoted our engagement due to COVID-19 and hosted Triple-Decker Thursdays conversations, informal virtual one-on-one conversations with residents about their experiences and visions for future-deckers in the city.

Collaborators: Boston Society for Architecture, Department of Neighborhood Development, Local Voices Network, Wentworth Institute of Technology, Environment Department, Egleston Branch of the Boston Public Library, and of course, Boston residents.

Why did we do this? We did this first and foremost to build relationships with residents as we embark on this greater exploration of demystifying the current multifamily housing development process. We were able to better understand people’s experiences with homes like three-deckers, while listening to residents’ housing wants and needs . Ultimately, the goal of this exploration was to provide a space for residents to name what they value when it comes to this scale and type of housing.

Lessons learned:
While there have been numerous lessons learned throughout this process, we are holding a key central question — who is impacted by this? This process has led us down collective memory lanes, where nostalgic conversations with residents have allowed us to capture the essence of their housing needs today. We’ve also learned, or rather were reminded, to make ensure that we name the injustices that stand in the way of equitable access to housing in Boston. From policies that still linger in construction practices, in zoning, to people’s perception of housing at this scale, which at times is what they would like to see in their neighborhoods.

What’s next for this work? As this work comes to a close, we are carrying our findings and partnerships into our efforts to help support the creation of neighborhood contextual affordable housing for Boston residents.

How can the public be involved moving forward? Please feel free to visit the future-decker virtual exhibition. It’s an open invitation for anyone who is interested in learning about this project, our goals moving forward, and to envision the future-decker — whether individually, with friends and/or family.

Where can folks follow along with the progress?

Photo Credit: Yifan Lu

8. Office of Food Access Chatbot

Is a simple SMS chatbot a helpful communications platform for the city to consider during a social emergency such as a pandemic? Will residents like interacting with this SMS chatbot more than leaving a voicemail and not knowing if anyone listens to their message? Does the nightly data pull from the chatbot ease the operational burden on OFA in delivering food to residents?

Early in the COVID-19 pandemic, we supported the Office of Food Access and the Boston Planning and Development Agency (who was providing operational and logistical capacity to the office) in creating a chatbot that allowed residents to request a grocery delivery from the city’s emergency food assistance operations. We were testing out whether this communication channel (resident-initiated SMS texting) was useful in a high-stress time like a global pandemic; and whether it could help a small (but mighty!) team like OFA handle an increased volume of inbound requests that were otherwise getting bogged down in voicemails and OFA’s email inbox.

Collaborators: OFA, BPDA, Jeff Rosenblum

Why did we do this? We wanted to use our budget to support departments actively tackling the pandemic. We had some experience with SMS texting with residents (via SafeBoard), and wanted to see if this was a potential use case for chatbots. OFA was receiving 100s more calls and emails a week than pre-pandemic, and they simply didn’t have the staff capacity to turn those voicemails and emails into action-oriented service delivery on the part of the city (i.e., delivering groceries within 2 days).

Lessons learned:
Generally speaking, residents really appreciated the chatbot service because it was clear, concise, and easy to engage with (not an app, not a website). We had more older adults engage with the chatbot than we thought we would. Though the chatbot was available in multiple languages, the initial message was only in English, so that might have excluded some of our userbase. Other departments have indicated interest in the usefulness of chatbots as part of engagement (BHA, BPDA), and OFA is interested in potentially using a chatbot again for the third peak of COVID.

What’s next for this work? OFA is exploring whether a chatbot will be useful for continuing to engage residents within the context of COVID-19.

How can the public be involved moving forward? Reach out to City departments if you are interested in the potential usefulness of a chatbot for engagement with the City.

Photo Credit: Olivia Yao

9. Welcoming Spaces for Recovery

How might we create welcoming, connective and creative spaces for people navigating substance use disorders and housing insecurity? What gaps and opportunities exist in our current design of these spaces? What does the recovery ecosystem look like in Boston’s future?

In 2017, we supported the development of a successful “low-threshold” space called The Engagement Center (EC) with the goals of making it a welcoming, connective and creative “third space” for guests. We’ve continued to build on our work with the Recovery Services team. From connecting them to- supportive industry partners to taking on design and research experiments in an effort to support their mission, our work has centered on:

  • Investigating and wrestling with the impact of physical space in the lives of those navigating substance use disorders and experiencing homelessness
  • Exploring and experimenting creative approaches to developing welcoming spaces for folks to build agency, develop trust and find delight

With the success of the EC model, and a continued urgency to fill the needs of providing low-barrier safe spaces, we spent 2020 mapping, prototyping, exploring and advising on:

  • the potential for a 24-hour (or overnight) model of a low-threshold space
  • the Long Island Recovery Campus
  • the Future Engagement Center
  • and other projects in the queue

Collaborators: Office of Recovery Services, Boston Public Health Commission, Mayor’s Office, Public Facilities Department, Health and Human Services, Boston Architectural College, Boston Society for Architecture

The Engagement Center, Photo Credit: Olivia Yao

Why did we do this? Homelessness and substance use are significant and intersecting challenges facing Boston residents. Since 2015, Massachusetts has lost over 10,000 people to fatal overdoses.We began this work as a design and research partner for a pilot “low-threshold” day space. We supported the initial launch by connecting the space to key resources, prototyping potential programming, developing research and physically designing (and redesigning) the interior of the space to be welcoming while suiting the needs of guests and staff under current constraints.

Lessons learned:
There have been so many lessons learned about the potential of space and human relationships to craft a responsive space. One lesson we’re taking into 2021 is the need to tell those stories. Another lesson is the constant need to build intersectional relationships when exploring an area with many overlapping priorities, social stigma, and immediate-term needs that make thinking about the future daunting.

What’s next for this work? We look forward to intentionally telling the story of this work. We’ll also continue to explore more spatial interventions meant to build trust, encourage joy, and prioritize healing.

How can the public be involved moving forward? If you’re interested in this area of work, stay tuned — there’s more to come soon! In the meantime:

  • Visit the Recovery Services website. You can sign up for their newsletter, watch the vignettes of care workers in this area, and learn how you can support recovery services across the city.
  • Consider using strengths-based language to reframe and de-stigmatize substance use disorder (SUD) in your personal and professional life. Here is a resource from Recovery Services to start: Reflect, Respect: A Prevention Language Guide (spanish version).

Where can folks follow along with the progress?
We’ll update our website with more about this suite of work in the coming months. Don’t hesitate to reach out in the meantime!

Sample SWOT Analysis tool — TechBoston Academy, Credit: Scott Muhlstein, Aaron Zaubi

10. Civic Adventures in 2020

How do we better listen to the civic interests and priorities of young people in Boston? Where are there spaces for authentic connection with City staff working on projects of interest to Boston’s youth? How can we better support young people on their civic adventures?

We have always been invested in lifting up the voices and leadership of young people (from our early involvement in Youth Lead the Change and Hub2, for example). In 2020, following up on our work from the previous two years, we were specifically interested in how young people connect with (or don’t) city departments who run initiatives that are of interest to them and their peers. We explored a number of channels for supporting youth-led civics projects, including direct-to-student engagement via collaborators at TechBoston and the O’Bryant, as well as second-degree engagement via the development of prototypes and tools for teachers to use with students embarking on civics projects.

Screenshots of student worksheets for exploring the Student Action Portal, a prototype website to support youth-led civics projects. Credit: Scout Labs

Collaborators: Youth Engagement and Employment; Scout Labs at Northeastern; TechBoston Academy; O’Bryant Academy for Math and Science

Why did we do this? It’s not that young people aren’t civically engaged, or that they don’t have insightful opinions about how our city works (or doesn’t). It’s often the case that the feedback channels available to local government — voting, taxes, community meetings at inconvenient times — don’t listen to young people’s voices well. We wanted to continue exploring questions posed in our Civic Research Agenda such as:

  • How can we support people in asserting their belonging
    and ownership?
  • How might the city more accurately value youth
    behavior, ex., playfulness, subversion, indifference, etc.,
    as civic engagement?
  • How are schools practicing civic engagement? How are
    they teaching it?

Lessons learned:

  • In-person relationship-building is important to demystify who “city government” is
  • High school students and city staff have different expectations and working styles that require scaffolding to ensure meaningful collaboration
  • There is a disconnect between what students are taught via a “civics curriculum” (that is, they are mostly taught about the federal government and about voting once they are 18) and the levers of power for many of their interests (namely, at the local level and separate from the specific silo of elections)

What’s next for this work? We hope to pick back up on youth-led civics projects in Boston Public Schools (via the state law providing opportunities for middle and high schoolers) in school-year 2021–2022. In the meantime, we continue to seek and support opportunities for young people to join New Urban Mechanics: through a youth civic designer position via SuccessLink; through a prototype we’re hoping to run internally to our team that helps push us toward new avenues of inspiration; and in collaboration with other departments.

Credit: Scott Muhlstein, Aaron Zaubi

How can the public be involved moving forward? Encourage a young person you know to reach out to our team with their ideas and interests and to check out what initiatives the City is supporting in their neighborhoods.

Covid-19 Efforts

We’re always working to support, amplify, and further the work of our partner departments, and that was no different as the pandemic unfolded in Boston. In the early days, we aimed to be extra pairs of hands and ears to our colleagues who were responding directly to the crisis from the front lines.

We helped set up a few online resources via Airtable:

Illustration credit: Sabrina Dorsainvil

We delivered food to BPS families who couldn’t access meal sites. We provided tech support for weekly public meetings. We helped launch and manage the Rental Relief Fund. We scoured satellite imagery to identify unused parking spaces for health care professionals.

While these efforts were small in comparison to fighting the virus at scale, we were glad to provide day-to-day support that we hope made our colleagues’ work a bit easier.

Summer Fellow Projects

We hosted our first virtual Summer Fellowship this summer, which taught us a great deal about trying to virtually recreate “hallway run-ins” and the importance of having a long list of prompts for our daily stand-ups. Our cohort of seven civic adventurers rose to the challenge, supporting projects on the ground and in the digital realm. With additional gratitude to the departments that hosted our fellows, we thank:

If you have an hour (and a lot of popcorn), take a look at the recording of their final presentations here. [Password: 0igHg?Ns] Each fellow’s timestamp is noted above.

To Our Academic Collaborators

You helped us ask new questions. You pushed us to consider new perspectives. You brought inspiration and energy to our explorations. In 2020, we really needed those extra boosts. Thank you to all of our collaborators affiliated with institutions of learning, who put up with more than their fair share of Zoom headaches with us:

Harvard Cyberlaw Clinic
We wanted to craft a set of guidelines that could inform the future of our data collection and management infrastructure. We worked with students enrolled in the Harvard Cyberlaw Clinic to identify some grounding principles we see as key to successful and equitable open data initiatives. These Public Data Principles were formulated to complement Boston’s existing citywide values and enacted policies, such as Resilient Boston and Boston’s Open Data Policy.

We worked with a second team of Harvard Cyberlaw Clinic students to develop standard legal language and document templates to operationalize our Public Data Principles in terms of how public data is collected, handled, and stored by City departments.

We partnered with a 4th-year architectural design studio at Wentworth Institute of Technology to collaboratively imagine future renditions of the iconic triple-decker on sites along Blue Hill Avenue.

This partnership allowed us all to learn about the socioeconomic and architectural history of how triple-deckers came to exist in Boston, providing us with tools to envision ways of reintroducing affordable housing options for residents today.

We partnered with a team of computer science students from Brandeis University and developed an application that could contain the locations of sensors throughout the City and display relevant information using a map interface. This application has not yet been applied to real sensors, but, it serves as a functional proof of concept. The app has the capacity to increase transparency in data collection for the City of Boston. (Check out the GitHub here: https://github.com/pitosalas/CoB_Transparency)

In 2018 we released our first Civic Research Agenda. Since then we’ve had the pleasure of seeing a spectrum of people explore the questions posed. Students in this course, led by artist and educator Elisa Hamilton, approached the questions: How do people make decisions? and How can we invite
more people to be civically engaged?
The results were prototypes for trust-building digital engagement and youth civic engagement strategies.

Boston Architectural College
In partnership with Boston Society for Architecture and the BAC’s Gateway program we embarked on a research projected centered on the “contested territory” of the Mass Ave/Melnea Cass area in Boston. This work has supported a process of mapping the city wide context and spatial relationship of recovery and homeless services for those navigating substance use disorders and the lack of housing.

Northeastern Scout Labs
We launched our second year in partnership with Scout Labs, picking up the well-organized pieces from Meghann’s summer fellowship project on civic participation.

Our partners at Scout Labs interviewed city departments, community groups, and residents in order to develop prototypes that would make digital (or “hybrid” digital-and-in-person) civic engagement more meaningful and robust. You can read their semester report here.

Boston Area Research Initiative (BARI)

In early summer of 2020, deep into the COVID pandemic, our partners at Emergency Medical Service (EMS) reached out seeking support on data management. While EMS has deep and rich data stretching back over years, their data management infrastructure was not set up to generate real-time reports on the number of EMS calls and cases by neighborhood

Our partners at BARI determined that they could help generate these reports and were able to quickly assign this work to a capable PhD student. Once a data access MOU was signed, the BARI team worked closely with the EMS and, within a matter of weeks, were able to generate the needed reports.


In the fall 2020, Professor Eric Gordon wanted to explore new models of governance which de-center the influence of the local government in favor of community decision-making. We participated in a semester’s worth of classes to explore, critique, and sharpen this idea. With funding from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, the collaborative effort, called Boston Collaborative Governance Initiative, is moving forward, and MONUM will continue to stay involved.

We partnered with two classes of MPA students to explore how we might operationalize our aspirations toward becoming an antiracist organization within local government, assessing our past work, while also thinking about how we onboard new team members.

Looking Ahead

We can’t know what the rest of 2021 will bring, but we commit to meeting it with creativity, honesty, and justice. If you have an idea you want to explore with us this year, drop us a line at newurbanmechanics@boston.gov.



New Urban Mechanics

The Mayor's Office of New Urban Mechanics is Boston's Civic R&D Lab / Incubator.