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The Podium

A city on a hill should not be hidden

Mayor Marty Walsh drew plaudits at his inauguration by invoking Boston’s many hills, riffing on John Winthrop’s “City on a Hill” metaphor from the Sermon on the Mount. In doing so, Walsh reinforced his strong neighborhood credentials and commitment. But the new mayor should also track and see what’s happening on the hills and dales in competitor cities around the world, since in today’s economy the beacon of opportunity glows globally.

In 1630, as Winthrop noted, the eyes of all people were upon Boston and the colonies. American exceptionalism has continued unabated, but technological advances and globalization in the last decade have enabled other upstart countries and cities worldwide to absorb some of the limelight.

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In 2001 I helped to launch CEOs for Cities, a born-in-Boston think tank created to combat the outdated narrative of urban decline and convene big-city mayors and urban executives across sectors to share successful growth strategies. Since then, as the world has become more connected and urban, like initiatives have proliferated and gone global, with organizations like the United Nations, World Bank, and World Economic Forum convening city leaders to share best practices.

Newly-elected mayors benefit from participating in such forums and global visits, which provide them with golden opportunities to promote their cities, learn from other metropolises, and forge relationships with well-placed peers.

This past fall, while Walsh and John Connolly were campaigning across precincts, London Mayor Boris Johnson barnstormed across Beijing, provocatively proclaiming that when Chinese students go to school in America they meet Americans, but when they come to London they meet the world. He went on to announce a new web portal, www.london.cn, created to recruit Chinese students to London universities.

International trips like these are derided by some pundits as boondoggles, but in a global economy that features an ascendant Asia — where such exchanges are the norm — in-person salesmanship is the way of the world. And cities the size of London and Boston have large and distinct enough brand identities of their own to warrant such outreach independent of wider national and state initiatives.

Visiting and learning lessons from cities that have recently hosted the summer Olympics would similarly be valuable as Boston leaders consider mounting a bid. London’s Dockland Light Rail network is a prime example of an Olympics-prompted transportation investment that has catalyzed neighborhood growth. In Munich, OlympiaPark from the 1972 Games is its own city on a hill and an enduring amenity. Conversely, while Barcelona was reborn during the 1992 Olympics, its remote legacy stadia on Montjuic Hill provide a cautionary note about siting.

Newly-elected mayors also benefit from meeting peers at global summits, particularly when they are succeeding long-serving mayors and seek to cast their city in a new light.

Walsh has pledged to listen, learn, and lead and is wisely focusing on Boston neighborhoods, building on the successful strategies of his three most recent predecessors. But it will also benefit all neighborhoods when he listens, learns, and leads outside of the city as outstanding opportunities to inform and advance his agenda arise. What happens in Boston may change the world, but the opposite is true as well.

Or to paraphrase John Winthrop, a city that sits on hills should not be hidden.

James Davitt Rooney is principal of Rooney Associates LLC, a London and Boston-based consultancy.
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