Edward L. Glaeser | messages for Boston

What Greater Boston can teach the rest of the world

A free-spirited Somerville can elect a truly innovative mayor like Joe Curtatone (at the microphone).
Essdras M Suarez/Globe staff/file
A free-spirited Somerville can elect a truly innovative mayor like Joe Curtatone (at the microphone).

Sure, we must learn from other cities, but the flow of ideas shouldn’t be one-way. Boston can teach the world a lot about running a great city.

Invest patiently in the waterfront. When Dick Dodd crooned “love that dirty water,” Boston’s waterways were synonymous with filth. Today, the harbor and the Charles River are dazzling urban assets because a century of investment has borne fruit. The Charles River Esplanade, or Embankment as it was known, was bare when it was dedicated in 1910. At the height of the Great Depression, Helen Osborne Storrow’s philanthropy paid for Arthur Shurcliff’s landscaping; Maria Hatch donated the Hatch Shell, turning the Esplanade into beautiful, usable urban space. Today, commuting along the Paul Dudley White bike paths has become a healthy alternative to driving. Meanwhile, the emergence of the South Boston waterfront over the past 20 years goes back to the court-ordered water cleanup that started under Governor Michael Dukakis.

Public-private partnerships help disadvantaged kids. Private philanthropy has always been one of Boston’s best ideas, especially when it helps poor children. In 1982, the Boston Private Industry Council launched both its summer jobs program and a pioneering school-improvement agreement involving the business community, higher education, and school system. Boston’s traditions in this area are deep. The Home for Little Wanderers, still an important child-care agency, started as the Female Youth Asylum in 1799. City Year was founded in Boston in 1988, and it now sends thousands of volunteers to help tens of thousands of students nationwide.


Private groups can provide some public goods. Boston has a fantastic web of nonprofits performing key social functions. Across America, public housing agencies have often been dysfunctional, but since 1983, the Metropolitan Boston Housing Partnership, an independent nonprofit, has helped house Bostonians by rehabilitating housing and distributing housing vouchers. The Pine Street Inn is now moving from housing the homeless in temporary shelters to providing more permanent accommodation. Nonprofit groups don’t always perform better than government, but they often face more market pressure, show more flexibility, and can jar loose private money more effectively.

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Crowd-source public safety. The Boston Police Department is more effective because it gets help from ordinary citizens. The methods of community policing — the idea that cops should work with neighborhoods to solve crime and promote safety — were developed collaboratively in the 1980s, and Bill Bratton embraced those methods when he became Boston’s police commissioner. Over the decades, the department has developed the social skills so that neighborhood residents often trust them enough to tell them what’s going on, which makes for a happier city than more confrontational tactics.

Bring startup culture to city government. Boston’s Office of New Urban Mechanics devises innovations intended to improve the quality of city life. Its The New Urban Mechanics’ Citizens Connect app makes it easier to report problems. If you put Street Bump on your smartphone and put your smartphone in your car’s cup holder, then the city will automatically learn the location of potholes. Their One Card is “a school ID, a library card, and community center membership card, as well as a transit pass.” Why shouldn’t some part of government feel like a tech startup? (Disclosure: An institute that I direct has occasionally collaborated with the office on an unpaid basis.)

Unleash data. The old model for providing some new public service, like informing straphangers about when their bus is going to arrive, is to pay millions to some connected contractor. But the MBTA broke that model when it started streaming data on the current location of its vehicles. Within weeks, an independent programmer had produced an app that made it possible to learn when your bus would show up. Today, there are a bevy of such apps, including OpenMBTA and YourBus MBTA, that are well rated and free.

Wicked localism works. Greater Boston is divided into scores of fiercely independent cities and towns. In many areas, from transit planning to social services, more regional cooperation would help. But there are great benefits to living in communities small enough to empower ordinary citizens. A free-spirited Somerville can elect a truly innovative mayor like Joe Curtatone. And there is something wonderful about seeing governments compete for citizens who can vote with their feet.