To the People of Boston of 2015:

By Anthony Flint

Anthony Flint is a fellow and director of public affairs at the Lincoln Institute of Land Policy. He is a regular contributor to The Atlantic Monthly's The Atlantic Cities, as well as Citiwire, The Next American City, Planning magazine, Planetizen, Architecture Boston, and many other publications.

This blog post is a response to the Dear 2015 group blogging event prompt:

The year is 2050. Write a letter to the people of 2015 describing what your city is like, and give them advice on the next 35 years.

For more responses, see the Dear 2015 Event Page.

October 6, 2050

To the People of Boston of 2015:

I’m just coming back from a press conference for another tech start-up in Somerville – makers of a super powerful handheld solar collector and battery, yet another contribution by the region that will help complete the transition from fossil fuels and help US cities hit the climate emissions reductions all the world’s nations so sensibly agreed to. The business is in a makers-space incubator re-using an abandoned building from the industrial era at the turn of the last century. The place is beautiful, and not only zero-energy but another nice example of regenerative design, which has become the building industry standard around here. The transition from making shoes and candy and textiles to the innovation economy is long since complete. And the best part is, the economic activity is marbled throughout Greater Boston, thanks to the decision to start acting like a region instead of having individual municipalities compete against each other – abandoning, for example, the practice of offering the biggest tax breaks for business location. Not only Boston, Cambridge, and Somerville, but once-struggling legacy cities such as Brockton and Lawrence are fully part of the renaissance. Regional collaboration has been aided by the use of technological tools for scenario planning, allowing communities large and small to envision the future by means of full citizen engagement.

I made the trip with ease on the Green Line extension from Lechmere to Medford, the no-brainer addition to the MBTA system that was almost abandoned because of the cost. Thankfully the region established a policy of land-based financing including value capture, a recognition of the way public investments in infrastructure, and government action such as rezoning, prompts large increases in property value for landowners and private developers. Massachusetts wisely looked at the use of these tools for equitable urban development being deployed in Latin America. The new stations along the Green Line extension are humming with transit-oriented development, another standard practice that makes us wonder how metropolitan regions grew any other way. The private sector was fully engaged in this transformation at the front end, realizing the win-win benefits that were in store. The T is now on sound financial footing, and the Commonwealth can continue funding its Fix it First policy, so spans such as the Longfellow Bridge didn’t collapse into the Charles.

Cities here and in the rest of the country backed away from the brink of insolvency by promoting municipal fiscal health, and fixing the structural problems in local public finance. They made the property tax work, as a basic covenant for the provision of services – a system so foundational it was adopted for the fast-growing cities of China. The federal government stopped imposing unfunded mandates; planners and those in public finance starting talking to each other, and started doing multi-year budgeting, long-range capital budget planning, all the while maintaining private-sector financial standards and transparency. A fiscal scorecard for every city is now standard operating procedure, so there are fewer surprises and municipalities don’t find themselves thrown suddenly into fiscal crisis.

There are a lot of wealthy people around here, but the growth of the region is more balanced and equitable than it otherwise would be, through the universal embrace of inclusionary housing, and the establishment of more permanently affordable housing in community land trusts and other shared-equity housing models. The federal government helped by getting behind loans for CLTs.

We couldn’t solve every problem – like halting climate change and sea level rise. But we got busy adapting for a wetter future, by building canals and otherwise working with water, taking our cues from the Dutch. We also learned from disasters like Superstorm Sandy, focusing not only on short-term recovery but building back stronger and smarter. Resilience became part and parcel of city-building. This, too, took a regional approach and the cooperation of all levels of government, local, state, and federal.

I’ve got to run – off to a hands-on summit to promote better planning and balanced growth in the burgeoning cities of the developing world. After all, two-thirds of the planet’s population of 9 billion lives in cities. It’s been gratifying that metropolitan regions have had such a robust exchange of ideas and innovation, and continue to learn from each other. Around here, all it took was a retooling of urban policies and a little political will. Boston, well done.

Onward,

Anthony Flint
Lincoln Institute of Land Policy
Partner in Meeting of the Minds
@landpolicy
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