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Thinking outside the city limits

Because the next mayor will inherit a city whose population is only one-seventh of its metropolitan area and whose future will be largely determined by regionwide forces, the new administration’s efforts to expand Boston’s economy cannot end at the city limits. The most ambitious plans for strong metropolitan government are either unwise or implausible here, but there are concrete steps the next mayor can take.

Mayoral candidate Martin Walsh has noted the need to collaborate with nearby cities and towns on initiatives such as the Hubway bike-sharing program. More broadly, rival John Connolly has noted the need to “collaborate with regional partners on trade, tourism, and economic development.” Connolly’s proposal doesn’t go far enough. Instead of creating a trade and tourism office that would “work closely with other cities and towns in the Boston area,” the next mayor should embrace a multi-city agency tasked with attracting businesses to any of the region’s cities.

Throughout much of the 20th century, Boston and its suburban neighbors seemed locked in a fierce zero-sum struggle for a limited pool of residents and businesses. Boston’s population dropped by 30 percent between 1950 and 1980, Middlesex County grew by 28 percent, and Norfolk County by over 50 percent.


Elsewhere in the country, the suburban exodus led some urban advocates to clamor for wider metropolitan forms of government. Minnesota started its Metropolitan Council in 1967, which oversees water, transit, and urban planning across the Minneapolis metropolitan area. In their recent book, “The Metropolitan Revolution,” Bruce Katz and Jennifer Bradley highlight the joint investments made by transportation collaboratives in Denver and regional networks in Northeastern Ohio.

But regionalism has grown slowly in eastern Massachusetts — the heartland of hyperlocalism in North America. Our towns were formed before cars or railroads, when small distances seemed vast, and it was sensible to have independent political entities only 5 miles apart. That early independence stuck.

Moreover, there is much to like about hyper-local government. Competition among governments brings benefits, just as competition among firms does.

But the regionalists are right that Greater Boston needs more coordination, especially in attracting businesses and building new housing. Metropolitan areas are common labor markets — which means any new employer, anywhere in the area, strengthens our economic cluster and helps the region retain talent. Kendall Square and Boston’s Innovation District each benefit when the other attracts a technology start-up that might have gone to Silicon Valley.


Similarly, our high housing costs, which add so much to the costs of hiring, cannot be addressed by Boston on its own. New housing in Brookline reduces costs in Boston. The region as a whole needs to produce enough housing to ease the renewed upward push in the cost of living.

The natural first step is for the next mayor to form a collaborative regional agency aimed at attracting businesses. This agency needs little state-level legislation and involves no surrender of local power. All the next mayor needs to do is to take the lead in forming an inter-city trade and tourism agency, perhaps including Brookline, Cambridge, Newton, and Somerville, that is modestly funded by all the jurisdictions and answerable to a multi-city board.

Such an office would focus on reaching out to new businesses that might be persuaded to come to Greater Boston. It would be a small but real step that could lead to bigger collaborations. Trying to attract outsiders inevitably shines a light on regional shortcomings; those who decline to come to the region are likely to tell the agency precisely why. Eventually, collaboration might mean region-wide housing agreements or regional infrastructure investments.

While Boston likely couldn’t and probably shouldn’t seek the level of regionalism other metro areas have attained, more experimentation on a small scale will bear fruit for the city.


Edward L. Glaeser, a Harvard economist, is director of the Rappaport Institute for Greater Boston.