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Getting around Boston, you might be above someone’s basement. We call these hollow sidewalks “areaways.”

Mapping Boston's Underground

All About Areaways

All About Areaways

An areaway is a basement that continues past the building's frontage underneath the adjacent sidewalk. The areaway's ceiling provides the structural support for the sidewalk. In some cases, the areaway's ceiling and the sidewalk are one in the same.

Areaways are products of the mid-nineteenth century city. They originated for the purposes of delivering coal directly into basements through a shoot. Coal holes then led to the creation of larger sidewalk vaults that allowed deliveries to be dropped straight into basements.

As advantageous as this new use of space for private interests appeared, even back then onlookers warned local governments about the long-term consequences of letting property owners encroach upon the public right of way.

We like to say that every areaway is a unique snowflake. Often, owners and tenants use them as additional storage space. Many areaways are filled with utility connections. Sometimes businesses have them open to customers, but usually areaways are too leaky to dedicate to critical uses and are frequently in need of repairs.

Areaways can be found throughout all of Boston's neighborhoods (and in other older cities), but they are concentrated in greatest numbers in the inner core—Downtown, Chinatown, Back Bay, North End, etc.

Signs you may be above an areaway include spotting a "hollow sidewalk" sign attached to the adjacent building, a coal hole cover, bollards, asphalt poured on top of the original sidewalk, or large granite/bluestone paving slabs. Still, determining if there really is an areaway from aboveground can be difficult (see the above video about our ground penetrating radar pilot).

Your building may have an areaway if a portion of the basement toward the street is extremely leaky or if you can hear faint sounds of pedestrians or cars above. If you're a building owner and you aren't sure, check your building plans (if you have them) or contact a structural engineer to investigate.


There is a surprisingly vast number of factors at play here. For one, unlike regular sidewalks that the City's Public Works Department can repair on its own, sidewalks above areaways require that PWD work closely with areaway owners and across other City departments. This can turn into a time-consuming and complicated process—and it is always an expensive one—for private property owners and the City alike.

 Owners can either elect to repair their areaways to ensure they are structurally stable or they can close them. Closing an areaway, which requires building a retaining wall on the property line and backfilling the void, is usually a much less expensive option and returns the sidewalk to the care of the City. We prefer this option, in part because regular sidewalks deteriorate less quickly, can support street trees, and can be maintained by the City more easily going forward.

MONUM's areaways project work in support of the Disabilities Commission's accessibility goals began in June 2022, eventually leading to the formation of the City's interdepartmental Areaways Working Group in May 2023 by both departments. Representatives from the Streets Cabinet (including Public Works and Transportation), Inspectional Services Department, Office of Neighborhood Services, the Mayor's Office, and the Law Department have been our most frequent collaborators. Together, we've been tackling key legal, policy, and process hurdles that have historically impeded the repair and reconstruction of sidewalks above areaways.

As part of your application for the Outdoor Dining Program, you will need to submit an Areaway Letter from a registered structural engineer or architect confirming or denying the presence of an areaway below your intended outdoor dining area. See here for an example. Questions? Email

If you are planning on making repairs to your areaway or are interested in closing your areaway, contact the Public Improvement Commission for permitting instructions (they also have some helpful documents on the linked webpage). For questions about a planned street reconstruction project and how to prepare your areaway for it, email the project manager assigned to that project. If you have questions about areaways generally and/or the City's most recent work on this topic, email We'd be happy to chat! 

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