The Urban Mechanic is closing his tool kit. Leaving office with 73 percent of Bostonians thinking the city is heading in the right direction, most people agree that outgoing Mayor Tom Menino put many elements in place for Boston to be one of the world’s greatest cities.
For that leap into greatness, the city now needs an urban weaver to knit and braid Boston into complete cloth. It needs a mayor that can collaborate with the bordering suburbs, particularly high-tech Cambridge. It needs a mayor with a microscopic eye for potholes and crime and a telescopic lens into the future role of education, industry, and transportation.
Menino brought Boston into a more modern age. This week Boston was hailed as the most energy-efficient city in the nation by the American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy. But development remains too helter-skelter and insular for a city that desperately needs master planning for density, mobility, affordability, and community input.
Meanwhile, massive disparities remain in the public schools, with flagship Boston Latin being only 20 percent African-American and Latino in a city that is 40 percent so. Police promotions remain beset with racial problems. Huge swaths of the city remain without adequate bus service. In short, Menino’s time was good, but his style has run its course.
Voters in the current election should be looking for candidates who know what they want to do beyond tackling the city’s most immediate, most evident challenges. The two finalists from Tuesday’s preliminary election should be competing to make Boston a city for the ages.
Recently, I asked most of the 12 mayoral candidates to envision what the Boston of 2030 would look like if they were elected, and I have tried to detect additional signs of each candidate’s vision. John Barros, Mike Ross, and Bill Walczak are particularly impressive for their ideas for getting Boston to spread its advantages to the neighborhoods beyond college campuses, the Innovation District, downtown, and the Longwood Medical Area.
Start with Barros. The fact that he thinks in statistical terms, such as in lowering Boston’s parking-per-residence ratios, and wants everyone to live within five minutes of public transit, shows he envisions a very different city. He goes beyond familiar rhetoric about the “achievement gap” to say someone visiting a first-grade class in the Boston Public Schools in 2030 will see no “vocabulary gap” between city kids and suburban kids. The former head of the Dudley Street Neighborhood Initiative and ex-School Committee member also knows about markets, from those for farmers to those for development.
City Councilor Ross has the most forward-looking position papers, saying, “we can make the next 25 years even better than the last 25.” He backs that up with a vision of a wired city, one that can grow to 1 million people by 2025 with modernized public transit. He foresees a city that could do more business with New York with faster Acela trains, one that has restaurant districts in every neighborhood and offers training for tech jobs with “vocational schools second to none.”
Walczak pledges, along with Ross, to team with neighboring towns to create a regional Silicon Valley. Walczak sees solar panels on every new house and enough wind energy in Boston Harbor to help generate a quarter of the city’s energy. The top cycling commuter of the candidates, he fully gets how cycle tracks are not the source of snickers, but a pathway to urban renaissance. Founder of the Codman Square Health Center and witness to that area’s rebirth, he credibly connects his 30,000-foot view of the environment to his earthy drive to end homelessness and reduce incarceration.
“Codman Square was a hopeless place with buildings burning,” he said. “As soon as things looked better, people began to aspire for more.”
Neither Barros nor Ross nor Walczak has topped the polls. It is possible that voters, like the other candidates, define vision in a different way. Some other candidates might also make better caretakers of the Menino legacy. But Boston is ready to go beyond caretaking, and candidates should be judged by their vision for pushing the city forward.
Derrick Z. Jackson can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.