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RENÉE LOTH

Boston’s new frontier of civic leaders

At a mayoral forum of building professionals last week, candidate John Connolly made a plaintive appeal to the crowd to become more engaged. “Boston’s forgotten how to have a mayor’s race,” he complained. Connolly was really just making a pitch for campaign contributions, but his remark underscores a larger point. After 20 years of relative political stability (call it a “Pax Menino”), the city’s civic gears are rusty. The next mayor has a chance to usher in an era of dynamic idealism with a visionary new urban team.

The conditions are ripe. After decades of disinvestment, cities are back as the hot new laboratories of domestic policy. Urban studies programs are booming, and the field is expected to grow by 16 percent this decade, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. The buzz is reminiscent of the late 1960s, when Boston Mayor Kevin White and other youngish “reform” mayors were touting creative new ideas — and stoking their own political ambitions. It was the time and place that produced Barney Frank, Fred Salvucci, Peter Meade, Micho Spring, Paul Grogan, and the many other well-known figures who have defined Boston’s politics and philanthropy for a generation.

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Now these leaders are retiring from the scene, making room for new talent. “The baby boomers took up a lot of space,” says Stephanie Pollack, who teaches public policy and urban affairs at Northeastern University. “They stayed in public life and owned it for years.” With the channels clearing, Pollack sees a hunger in her students to make a difference in the city many have adopted as home. “They want to influence the future, not just be passive consumers of the city,” she says.

A new mayor also could bring a change in attitude. It must be said that for all his strengths, Tom Menino did not easily brook independent superstars in his administration. Some of that changed in Menino’s last term, but overall, his was not the charismatic, loose style of management that attracted free thinkers to City Hall under White.

One indication of the city’s pent-up political talent is the high caliber of candidates this year, both in the mayoral preliminary and the City Council races. At a Chamber of Commerce breakfast last week, Connolly was asked if he would consider a “team of rivals” approach to his administration should he win, hiring his opponents. The question took him off guard, because in fact most of Connolly’s rivals have endorsed the other candidate, state Representative Marty Walsh. Still, Connolly was game. “Sure. I want to empower talent and do great things,” he said.

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Neither candidate has said much about who might be in his brain trust, but the talent is hiding in plain sight. One need only look at Boston’s numerous city planning schools to find tomorrow’s best thinkers. At the Center for New Urbanism at MIT, graduate students are working with the Clinton Global Initiative to make cities healthier places to live: designing streets to better accommodate bikes and pedestrians, for example, or giving poor communities access to fresh food. At Harvard’s Graduate School of Design, landscape architecture students are developing ways that coastal cities like Boston can adapt to sea-level rise, creating new urban habitats and social spaces by actually welcoming the rising tides.

At the Harvard School of Public Health, a doctoral student analyzed bicycle crash reports to help identify accident patterns; the research led to the first Boston Cyclist Safety Report the city released in May.

At Northeastern, graduate students worked with Boston officials to develop the technology that allows food stamp recipients to buy produce at farmer’s markets with their electronic benefit cards. Another group worked with the city of Quincy to re-imagine the Quincy Center MBTA station. “These students are great, and truly engaged,” said Christopher Bosso, the Northeastern professor who oversaw many of these projects. “The next mayor needs to maintain these connections and expand on them.”

The urban visionaries of the last 30 years are moving aside, but the next Barney Frank is out there (though perhaps without the stinky cigars). Menino has provided steady, effective stewardship with his pragmatic team of “urban mechanics.” Now it is time for some dreamers.

Renée Loth's column appears regularly in the Globe.
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