McGill Urban Lab
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McGill Urban Lab

Union Point: Innovative ‘smart city’ or pipe dream?

Written by Caroline Thompson and Hannah Rebentisch

Glistening, modern towers overlooking a polished waterfront, bustling with runners and families. Across the water, evening crowds swell outside of sleek office buildings, lingering on the boardwalk.

This vision of flashy, high-density urbanism has yet to arrive at Union Point in South Weymouth. On a visit in late December, the space was barren, an icy desert dotted with new-builds linked by a freshly-paved road.

Union Point is a new development on the former South Weymouth Naval Air Station. LStar Ventures, the site’s developer, has branded Union Point a ‘smart city’, and its progress has been accompanied by news coverage painting it as Boston’s new innovation center to the south. LStar, which primarily develops golf communities in the mid-Atlantic, has arranged to outfit the development with ubiquitous technology from General Electric (GE). Recent newspaper articles have enthusiastically reported the Union Point’s most exciting and futuristic features: the promise of creating a new technology hub, various experimental technologies, the project’s sustainable design, and the autonomous vehicles.

Many are excited to see the ‘city of the future’ take shape so close to home. But it remains unclear the extent to which the promised ubiquitous technology will be delivered, or will increase quality of life. When one corporation is the sole architect and provider of the technological framework upon which the city functions, municipalities are locked into purchasing technology that will quickly become obsolete and will need to be replaced frequently. This problem is clear in Songdo, South Korea. The city is functioning as a ‘living laboratory’ for Cisco — just as Union Point will be for GE — and is beholden to Cisco’s price-setting, its range of products, and is reliant on Cisco for updates and redesign. Other ‘smart’ developments have been criticized based on concerns about centralized surveillance of residents and a lack of privacy.

Over the past two decades, governments and private entities have been building ‘smart’ and futuristic mega-developments from scratch to spark economic development and attract investment. LStar has co-opted this branding method in Union Point, a stark departure from their conventional suburban communities. Their marketing relies on trendy but hollow tropes like self-driving cars and emphasizes sustainability as the cherry on top. Techy features like self-driving cars are unnecessary in a small community of 15,000 and will yield a small return on investment. Many urban planning experts agree that the best solutions are the cheapest and simplest — low-tech design practices that have existed for centuries.

For now, Union Point’s address is in the town of Weymouth, but the city will develop on land within Abington’s and Rockland’s boundaries. All three towns passed ordinances for the development’s expedited permitting process. Union Point aims to attract its own local businesses and industry actors, but will Abington and Rockland benefit from any of this tax revenue? Will Union Point businesses and residents continue to be represented by the town government of Weymouth, and will they be satisfied with this arrangement? In turn, are Weymouth and the larger region prepared for the possible influx of thousands of residents? Ultimately, Union Point envisions itself as a small city outside of Boston. The open question is when and how the development will leave Weymouth behind.

The excitement surrounding Union Point must be tempered by a dose of reality and perspective. While it is easy to be wooed by a ‘city of the future’ or the idea of a new ‘Silicon Valley of the East Coast’, it is unclear that the project will live up to the hype. Union Point will have to overcome the fundamental challenge of building infrastructure and attracting businesses before all of its residents arrive — and attracting residents before it has amenities, infrastructure, and services. If successful, the development could bring new jobs to the South Shore. But its techno-utopian vision of urban form may not serve residents’ needs. Taxpayers must remain critical and vigilant to ensure that the result will meet the needs and concerns of residents in the region or they could end up subsidizing an elite techno-enclave from which they gain little benefit.



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