In 1983, Thomas Piper, then a principal research scientist at MIT, and Timothy Leland, the assistant to the publisher of The Boston Globe, received a memo from the late Thomas Winship, editor of the Globe, a man in love with his city. He proposed a way to kickstart collective action to transform Boston, a city suffering malaise in the wake of its tragic busing crisis. Thus was born “The Boston Conference,” an unprecedented collaboration between The Boston Globe and MIT that lasted until 2007, helping change the face of Boston. Below, at the start of a new mayoral administration, Piper and Leland try to imagine what the legendary editor would say to his fellow Bostonians in today’s civic universe if he were alive.
You occupy one of the most intellectually rich metropolitan areas on earth. This includes an educated middle class, a huge concentration of professionals with unparalleled skills, a research infrastructure that is the envy of the world, a trained workforce that can bench any new prototype, underwriters who can secure the financing for good ideas, and an arts, sports, culture and civic life second to none.
As many times before in its history, Boston’s dynamism is entering a new era that will require epic re-invention.
The changing of Boston’s political guard at a time of unprecedented economic stress and global climate threats are challenges that will force urban adaptation. Boston, then, should consider a course of action that involves an investigation of its future, as was once the focus of The Boston Conference, helping all residents anticipate the changes bearing down upon them.
When it comes to Boston’s future, five questions stand out:
• How do we make Boston — JFK’s “City on a Hill” — a tale of one city, where education, equity and opportunity prevail for all who inhabit it?
• How can the city better promote Boston’s many enviable qualities (as well as create new ones), to attract world class researchers, professionals, teachers, entrepreneurs and big thinkers to set up shop here?
• How can Boston continue building out its transit system to create vibrant live-work centers that will draw suburban residents back to the city, leaving their cars behind?
• Taking into account that human behavior is causing dangerous climate change, how can Boston protect its endangered waterfront against sea level rise?
• What creative new policies across the board can advance Boston’s renowned capacity for re-invention?
Boston is the very definition of a livable city. Parks. Sidewalks. Bike paths. From the Rose Kennedy Greenway to the Emerald Necklace. This makes it one of the most walkable and bikeable urbanized areas in the nation. But we all know that Boston needs more affordable housing, much more, to create the 24-hour city of the future. Where to build it? Clearly, there is limited space. But, if we build out, we loose Boston’s compact essence. Perhaps, therefore, it’s time to consider building up. This will require new transit gateways that join housing with 21st century jobs, bringing people and opportunity together.
And let’s look differently at our natural environment, using the resiliency of “Boston Strong” to make our city climate-safe. Boston’s extraordinary 46-mile Harborwalk — a right of way already controlled by the city — could be adapted to play a new role in combination with other advanced environmental measures to protect the city against the rising seas.
At this juncture of its history, Boston needs to caucus on a forward-looking development agenda that surfaces radical new ideas for a safe and prosperous future. In the spirit of the old Boston Conference, the city must once again harvest the knowledge and experience of its citizenry to turn challenge into action, positioning Boston as a “Laboratory on a Hill.”
I call on everyone in the city to accept this responsibility. Please look into the faces of your children and ask: How can I make Boston the city of their dreams?