The Imagine Boston 2030 Forum: “Making Choices for a Growing City” featured a panel of city planning experts who discussed ways to direct Boston’s rapid growth in order to produce a more sustainable and equitable future. Both the Corcoran Center for Real Estate and Urban Action and the Rappaport Center for Law and Public Policy hosted the forum in Robsham Theater, with opening marks courtesy of Boston Mayor Marty Walsh.
Boston’s first citywide planning process in fifty years, “Imagine Boston 2030” is a two-year planning initiative that stresses the importance of gathering input from community members through a range of community engagement efforts, including open houses, suggestion boxes, text messages, street teams, social media surveys, and visioning sessions.
In her opening presentation, Sara Myerson, Director of Planning for the Boston Redevelopment Authority, highlighted the four goals that Imagine Boston proposes for the future: provide quality of life in accessible neighborhoods drive inclusive economic growth, promote a healthy environment and adapt to climate change, and invest in infrastructure, open space, and culture. In order to achieve these goals, Myerson plans to focus on building and preserving safe housing that is affordable to Bostonians of all income levels, expanding access to quality jobs through training, education, and technology access and by encouraging the growth of mixed-use neighborhoods, protecting critical infrastructure and economic assets from climate-related events given Boston’s unique waterfront location, and using innovative design to spur activity and connect communities as has been done with the Rose Kennedy Greenway.
The conversation continued with a panel of experts from across the nation who discussed making choices in a growing city. The panel was moderated by Meghna Chakrabarti, co-host of WBUR’s Radio Boston and the panelists included: John Barros, Chief of Economic Development, City of Boston; Walter Hood, Professor and former Chairperson, Landscape Architecture and Environmental Planning and Urban Design, University of California, Berkeley; Joe Kriesberg, President and CEO, Massachusetts Association of Community Development Corporations; Shirley Leung, Business Columnist, Boston Globe; and Harriet Tregoning, Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary for Community Planning and Development, HUD. Members of the audience were able to participate in the conversation by writing on comment cards, by asking questions in person, and by tweeting with the hashtag #ImagineBoston.
Healthcare, education, transportation, housing, and even General Electric’s move into South Boston were all discussed by the panelists, with several highlights of note.
Boston is known for its two main sectors of healthcare and education. “Health is telling us how well we are doing in other area of our city’s life,” said Barros, who was referring to how disparities in unemployment rates are evident in the disparities of health outcomes. And as for education, he said that “the education budget is not falling, the expense is rising quicker than we can rise the budget. In fact on per pupil basis, Boston is increasing how much we put into education. So the cost structure for our education system is broken, and we need to figure out...how we rethink our school district to make sure every dollar we put in the school district in fact goes to students and their education.”
On the topic of education, Urban Design professor, Walter Hood, said that “our public education system is broken. I mean even at the university level. I’ve been teaching for twenty years, we’ve been taking cuts for twenty years, asked to do the same thing with less money.” Stressing the ideas of innovation, design, and imagination, Hood urged, “We have to be imaginative, and as a designer, we can’t keep looking at the same methods and asking for a different product at the end of the day.”
One question that loomed large and went somewhat unanswered was: How do we pay for all of these changes? Leung remarked that “businesses don’t want to be stuck with the whole bill. Businesses want clear and consistent policies and mechanisms to pay for transportation, affordable housing, and better schools. Furthermore, “cities are increasingly having to step up and turn to all the sectors of a city to pay for it,” said Tregoning, “But also try to distinguish in the investor marketplace between really high quality and multi-benefit infrastructure, and that infrastructure that other cities are pulling out of a forty-year-old bag.”
In regards to General Electric moving its headquarters from Fairfield, Connecticut to the Seaport District after city officials offered up to $25 million in property tax relief and state officials offered a package of up to $120 million, Chakrabarti noted that although GE will likely put a lot of money back into the city because of philanthropy, many residents of Boston are skeptical because those investments might not have much of an individual impact in their daily lives.
“Where we can change the conversation or change what happens next is to make sure that what GE does is more inclusive,” said business columnist Shirley Leung, “not just attract students from MIT and Harvard, which is what they want to do, but what can they do for the neighborhoods of Roxbury and Mattapan? What kinds of programs can they do to invest in the schools around them? I mean, that’s the conversation we need to have, not blame the economic tools. And that’s how you create more inclusive neighborhoods. That’s how you get people moving up the economic ladders and social ladders in the city.”
Kriesberg suggested that this dialogue about GE demonstrated how the lack of public confidence in the government is a key challenge. However, bringing it back to Imagine Boston, “the openness of this process, the inclusivity of this process, the transparency of this...is all in the right direction,” he said, “But obviously we have a long way to go to get where we need to be.”
“Part of what is missing in a lot of our conversation of neighborhood change is not just the physical change, but how do we get people, very different people, long time residents and newcomers, to talk together about their common future,” said Tregoning, “I think this planning process is a great start, but we need to have these conversations everyday so that people can be not just in the same physical space but be in the same future for a neighborhood.
Imagine Boston hopes to give all people a voice that will be heard. For all the growth that has occurred and will continue to occur in Boston, Mayor Walsh urges the community to “make sure this growth is for everybody and not just for certain people,” including those of all ages, backgrounds, and abilities so that Boston’s future in 2030 will be the epitome of inclusivity.