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OPINION

Somerville shows how to be civically engaged

A Harvard case study on Somerville’s efforts at civic engagement offers important lessons at a time of increasing distrust in government at all levels. It can also be a guidepost for the future of citizen participation.

When Joseph Curtatone took office in 2004, his city was still derided as “Slummerville” in the leafier precincts nearby. He set about fixing that.Damian Strohmeyer/NYT

Former Somerville mayor Joseph Curtatone received plenty of accolades for his innovative management of that small city over his 18 years in office, but he may not have expected to be immortalized in a Harvard case study — or three. Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government has used Curtatone’s data-driven budgeting and planning, and what it calls his “culture of curiosity,” to train hundreds of aspiring city leaders. “There’s a lot of Somerville pride there,” said Curtatone, who left office in 2021. “Success is always the product of many hands.”

Now Harvard’s Ash Center for Democratic Governance and Innovation has published a study of Somerville’s efforts at civic engagement. Written in non-academic, narrative style, the case offers important lessons at a time of increasing distrust in government at all levels. It can also be a guidepost for the future of citizen participation as communities emerge from three-plus years of deeply dissatisfying — albeit more accessible — Zoom meetings compelled by the COVID-19 pandemic.

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“The level of government people trust most is local,” said Jorrit de Jong, director of the new Bloomberg Center for Cities at Harvard. He believes residents want to rise above “town hell” meetings — town hall meetings gone wrong — which have only been exacerbated by polarization and misinformation. De Jong will chair a program in civic engagement for 60 global city leaders this summer, using the Somerville case studies as prods to innovative thinking. “We’re figuring out ways to create encounters that are more conducive to trust-building,” he said.

Curtatone, now president of the trade association Northeast Clean Energy Council, is a fierce defender of his hometown of 81,000. He loves to tell how his Italian immigrant parents moved the family to suburban North Reading as their fortunes improved — and lasted less than two weeks. “We missed the food, the flavor, the noisy interconnectedness of our lives,” he told me.

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But when Curtatone took office in 2004, his city was still derided as “Slummerville” in the leafier precincts nearby. He set about fixing that. One of his first campaigns was against childhood obesity, which caught the eye of then-first lady Michelle Obama, who used it as a model for her national fitness campaign. Curtatone pushed to bring an Orange Line stop to a derelict wasteland at Assembly Square, negotiated with the retail giant Ikea to locate there — and then with residents who didn’t want a hulking big box store on the Mystic River waterfront. He said he learned the importance of “stepping out of the driver’s seat” and giving real power to community leaders, “building trust, not just asking for it.”

Over 18 years, Somerville developed a master plan, SomerVision2040, overhauled its zoning code to allow for a vibrant mix of uses, and finally saw the opening of the Green Line extension, which Curtatone says “at its core is an environmental justice project.” The city created the 100 homes project, which buys properties and makes them permanently affordable, a small hedge against the gentrification that threatens to displace the very residents the Green Line extension was supposed to serve.

This happened over hundreds of live community meetings, many of which Curtatone required be attended by the directors of each city agency. They could get heated, but people were together with their neighbors. They showed up for it all — the cold coffee, the windy speeches — for their city and for each other. It’s hard to build trust when you can’t make eye contact.

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“I’m grateful we had virtual tools during the pandemic, but there’s nothing like being face to face with the community,” Curtatone said. “You have to have empathy and be accepting of passion and disagreement.” Zoom meetings may be more convenient, and they expand opportunities for participation in important ways. But he doesn’t want them to become the default. “We’re losing something if we trade one off against the other,” he said.

It’s a delicate dance, because even the smallest community board meetings have been targeted by aggrieved, threatening partisans, driven less by Curtatone’s “passion” than by hate. Earlier this year the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court ruled that hecklers can’t be silenced at public meetings, upholding the “right to be rude” as a matter of free speech. A hybrid that requires officials to face their constituents but still allows remote access is a likely compromise solution.

Civic engagement is an obligation that requires active participation, not just passive attendance in a box on a screen. It creates an energy that can’t be matched by virtual sessions that can feel, well, muted. That’s one lesson from Somerville worth studying up on.


Renée Loth’s column appears regularly in the Globe.