Tess McCann
Urban designer & historian. Map enthusiast.
Tess is an urban designer and historian, currently based in London working at Publica.

Prior to joining Publica, Tess worked as an urban planner at Field Operations, the landscape architecture firm, and as a strategist and project manager at Pentagram Design. Tess received her Master’s in City Planning from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and her Bachelor’s in History from Yale University, from which she graduated with honours.

Her work at M.I.T. ranged from urban design projects to historical geography papers, representing her broad academic interests in history, cartography, ecology, landscape aesthetics, and placemaking. For her thesis project, she wrote a history of development at what today is called “Suffolk Downs,” in East Boston, and explored potential futures of neighboring sites. At Yale, she specialized in historiography and 19th century German militarism.

She writes for the New York Review of Architecture and for the Leventhal Map and Education Center at the Boston Public Library. 


More Complex than Wasteland: Reparative Site History along the Boston-Revere Border

In this project, I seek a way to establish a site without emptying a place. I examine the way that project proponents talk about the Suffolk Downs development, Boston’s largest-ever development project along the town border with Revere, and argue that they empty the site through the use of spatial and temporal metaphor. The emptiness of the site allows for, even requires, large-scale interventions that “solve” the “problem” posed by emptiness. I read these interventions in the context of solutionism, a framework that inherits Enlightenment-era ideas of human dominance over the non-human world. I turn to the history of Suffolk Downs and show that there has been a cycle of emptying and improving on this land over the past 300 years of settler presence on it. Previous generations of developers have similarly emptied this place by relying on the rhetorical trope of wasteland, which allowed for human technocratic intervention in the landscape. These interventions, I argue, tended to fail, creating new wastelands that needed improvement. By telling a history of Suffolk Downs, I suggest that, despite the prevailing development rhetoric, the place’s past is not singular and the space is not simply a container for development activity.

I explore “repair” as a development paradigm that resists emptying at the oil storage facility owned by Irving Oil and Global Partners, which is adjacent to Suffolk Downs. Within the logic of repair, sites can be constructed not by emptying them, but rather by embracing what’s already there and what’s been there. At the oil farm site, storage, itself a condition of emptiness, is the stuff of the site, and can be used as the basis for design interventions. More broadly, repair allows for an interdisciplinary approach to site design and discourse and has the potential to include more voices in development processes. Repair is not a silver-bullet solution to development—and that’s largely the point. Because it resists emptying, repair can be radical; and history, because it clearly states “there’s something here,” can be reparative. 

Read the full paper here

Selected Papers

Industry and Infrastructure at Jeffries Point

Throughout history, Jeffries Point has been the site of Boston’s connection to the region and the world. First in the 19th Century, with the shipping industry and the railroad, and later in the 20th Century, with the air travel, the infrastructural and industrial projects required to achieve the regional and global aspirations of the city have been at odds with the largely residential community of Jeffries Point. This paper provides an overview of the 19th and 20th Century infrastructural projects in Jeffries Point, and highlights the changes they brought to the residential community. In this light, new private real estate development trends, and the future of the neighborhood, can be better understood. The questions then become: how will the new development be affected by the enduring infrastructures and Boston’s global connections? And does the specific context of Jeffries Point produce a new alliance between existing communities and real estate developers against a common antagonist? The forces of infrastructure will no doubt continue to act upon Jeffries Point, but will be eclipsed by the effects of a changing climate.

Rewilding and Imaginaries of Resilience at Hunters Point

In this paper, I interrogate the use of rewilding techniques to build resilient urban landscapes. Using William Cronon’s notion of the false duality between nature and civilization, I specifically look at Hunters Point South Park, in Queens, New York. The designers position the park’s main landscape feature—a salt marsh—as both a way to make the site resilient to floods and storm surges and as a celebration of the site’s natural history. I ask, using Cronon’s framework as a guide, what story do we tell when we use the image of the natural past as a resilience solution? I suggest that aesthetic rewilding projects remove the human elements of the past and future. If we are to build resilience that is hollistic, democratic, and just, we should deploy numerous resilience strategies, that celebrate not only natural pasts but also human ones.

Selected Projects

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Experiments in anti-zoning

This project redevelops an abandoned mill site, and uses the mill’s footprint as the central open space and organizing feature of a phased redevelopment proposal. The development is an experiment with a novel paradigm, which we termed “antizoning:” a form of development that celebrates Kolkata’s dense and dynamic urban fabric. The proposal embraces flexibility and organic growth over a long-term development timeline. The organic development around the carved-out mill building is structured and guided through tactical infrastructure development.

This proposal was part of a semester-long project in an urban design studio at MIT. Working with architecture students, we were asked to develop an urban design proposal for a single jute mill in Kolkata. My partners (an architect and an urban planner) and I, chose to develop a proposal for Surah Jute Mill, the only jute mill in the metropolitan region that is landlocked. Read more about this project here, on the MIT Architecture website. Drawings made in collaboraiton with Angie Door and Gabriela Zayas del Rio.