Friday, May 30, 2014

The table is set for a reappraisal - Boston and Cambridge in 2014.

For those of us who follow the local political scene, 2014 is a year of change. We need to pay attention to it, and make use of it.  In the last 12 months, Boston has elected a new mayor for the first time in 20 years; long-time Cambridge city manager Bob Healy stepped down after 33 years in the job, and in November the Cambridge citizens replaced four out of their nine member city council with new faces.  In November of this year, the Commonwealth will elected a new governor.

All these new leaders will quickly realize that the challenges remain.  Development pressures keep apace as our regional economy continues to transform at ever increasing speed. Transportation budgets lag, the T can’t pay for itself although ridership increases.  Projects like the Green Line extension take decades to complete.  Our housing-jobs balance is way out of balance, as costs rise well out of reach of many, even in the middle income ranges. Mirroring a larger trend, the richer are richer, the poor poorer, the middle nonexistent. Environmental worries continue to press on us with increasing urgency, particularly for communities along the coast that will be under water at a catastrophic weather event. Children end up with very different educational experiences in our public schools while our colleges and universities produce some of the brightest and most talented students in the world.  The table is set for a reappraisal of where we are and where we are going. 

Since a very important part of the state’s economic activity is happening in the 2.3 miles between Cambridge's Kendall Square and Boston’s new Innovation District, it is very important that the political leadership of these cities, along with the governor, come together to draw the roadmap for the next eight years.  Some of this is already happening with the recent announcement that Boston, Cambridge, Quincy, Braintree and Somerville will work together on promoting the life sciences, but that is only a first step.

The innovation economy didn’t exist in its current form when Deval Patrick first started running for governor in 2005.  It was a side show to the larger discussion of regional prosperity.  And then it just took off, in part through the drive and intelligence of some very smart people, including Tim Rowe, who found a way to tell the story of Kendall Square and make it into something all by itself.  This has transformed Cambridge and it is transforming the region.

But it hasn't happened without glitches.  The critic would say that, to the contrary, it has happened with little coordination, insufficient communication and no thoughtful planning.  When pharmaceutical giant Vertex announced in 2011 that it was leaving Cambridge for Boston, there were grumblings over the perceived role that then-mayor Tom Menino and Governor Patrick played in facilitating the process.  The story was that by throwing money at the company through tax incentives, Menino convinced Vertex’s CEO to relocate into a new building in Boston’s Innovation District, only a few hundred yards away from where it had been located.  Apparently, Vertex’s decision was made even easier by money that the state put in to the deal.  To everyone on the Cambridge side of the river, this smacked of all the wrong ways of achieving economic development, a proverbial robbing of Peter to pay Paul.

The specifics of the Vertex deal have receded into the background but the parable still lingers on and for good reason.  It is a cautionary tale about how this region should not do economic development.  The new Boston mayor Marty Walsh as well as the Cambridge political establishment and the incoming governor need to get on the same page.  The future prosperity of this region will depend in part on Massachusetts' ability to push this prosperity away from the Red Line corridor, to places like Brockton, Lowell, Lawrence and Worcester. 

Organizations like the Metropolitan Area Planning Council can and should play an important role in bringing the political leadership together.  Often times, in the context of cross-border discussions in this state, politicians need a safe place to have those talks.  As soon as someone appears to be gaming the system, elected officials run for cover.  It's an occupational hazard that comes with the territory, but without dialog, honest open dialog, we’ll never come up with the innovative solutions these regional conundrums require.  And the time to strike is now, when people are new in the work, approaching it with an open mind and not burdened by too much knowledge of all the attempts that failed in the past.  We know that the non-political world is pushing forward at a mind-bending clip.  Our political processes shouldn’t happen that fast.  But they should be able to respond to the challenges of this day, and find the opportunities that exist there, to make sure this region continues to lead America in the 21st century. 

Wednesday, May 28, 2014

Suburbs, The New Blight.

While discussing what it means to ride bicycles on the New York roadways that master planner Robert Moses spent a lifetime, and lots of sweat and tears and perhaps some blood too, ripping through residential neighborhoods in the five boroughs of NYC, a slogan for this upcoming decade popped into my head ...
Suburbs, The New Blight.  
The core wording is not mine.  It's Samuel Slaton's.  He's at Bike New York.  They are his own words alone, not those of Bike New York in any way.  Bike New York doesn't have an official position about the suburbs.

The core observation is rather genius, if you ask me.  It points out how much time, effort and energy we will spend undoing over the next decade what we spent the last seven decades doing.  And of course, there's also the word "blight".  Hardly a term exists in our urban lexicon that carries the baggage this one has.  Funny to think that now, it's the suburbs that are dragging down the region, not the city. 

Here’s another tidbit from that same conversation:
The urban neighborhoods that people were trying to abandon a generation ago are now the neighborhoods that people are trying to discover ... in order to reinvent them as their own. 
I guess one man’s unpleasant memory is another man’s promising future. It bears asking, what happened in between?

Tuesday, May 27, 2014

I work in a food desert.

At work, I am situated in the midst of a food desert. It’s true. I work in an office on Cambridge Street, just east of Inman Square.  I hadn’t really thought about it until I tried to get some lunch the other day.  Then I realized that I was surrounded by an arid wasteland devoid of nutrition.  Sure, if I want to get a Frozen Chocolate Coolatta from Dunkin’ Donuts, I can find that, but that’s not much by the way of nutrition.

A food desert is "a geographic area where affordable and nutritious food is difficult to obtain, particularly for those without access to an automobile” (Wikipedia).  I am aware of them because my friend and fellow urban planner Julian Agyeman made me so.  Agyeman, a professor at Tufts, has been talking about them for many years now.  They are almost synonymous with areas of urban or rural poverty, though they can exist in non-poor areas too. 

We know them from experience — those city neighborhoods filled with nothing but liquor stores, quik-marts, and gas stations.  Where I work, a short eight minute bike ride from where I live, this is absolutely the case.  Cambridge Street is one of the main thoroughfares in all of Cambridge.  It has ground floor commercial activity along almost all of its entire length, from Lechmere to Harvard Square.  Yet, in the stretch from the Cambridge Street Upper School at Willow Street to the All-Star Pizza Bar at Prospect Street, there are no food shops. In fact, the only place to get a quart of milk (which is what I was searching earlier today) is the Food Mart at the Shell Station.

Everything else is either liquor or the Family Dollar store, which doesn’t offer much. Given that this area is bounded by public housing at one end, the food desert amounts to nutritional injustice. 

Of course, what will bring about a food transformation in this neighborhood is when upper-income whites start flocking to it with greater regularity, as is already starting to happen.  In that sense, the injustice will not get rectified.  It will only get relocated. 

Thursday, May 22, 2014

Telephones and Typewriters.

Anyone who knows me well enough knows that this chart drives me crazy.

It comes from Cambridge-data-impresario Robert Winters, and it looks at who votes in local elections, broken out by age.  This data is from 2009.

What does the chart say?

Well, specifically, it says:
  • 9 percent of 27-year-olds will go and vote in a local election.
  • 59 percent of 80-year-olds will go and vote in that same election.
More generally, it says:
In a city dominated by young people, where the median age is 30.2 years old, and where the largest age cohort is the 20-44 year olds, the people who dominate the political process are much, much older.

What does this mean? 
It means that when a forward-thinking advocacy group like Livable Streets — whose mission is to "challenge people to think differently and to demand a system that balances transit, walking, and biking with automobiles” — presents its work about how to reuse the streets of Cambridge and Boston in a way that diminishes the dominance of the automobile and elevates other cleaner, greener modes of transport like bikes and walking, the first three questions from the Mid-Cambridge Neighborhood Association audience are focused solely on “those crazy bikers” who make it more dangerous for all of us, as if bikers were simply the problem, and not an integral part of the solution. 

Sometimes, older people just don't get it.  The future's going to be different than the past, in significant and good ways. In cities like Boston and Cambridge, a new generation of inhabitants is tackling these challenges head on, by redefining the urban realm, re-imagining decision-making processes and re-prioritizing the public -- and private -- spaces that we share.

This new thinking argues that the bell has finally tolled on a the American pattern of consumption where everything must be designed too big for its actual use.  There is a call to wring out the cloth, and shed the excess water weight.  This new generation is working on it and using whatever tools currently in the toolkit.

A primary tool, of course, is the smart phone. Its tremendous information-gathering and sharing power shortens the distance between demand and supply, making it no longer only the purview of major companies to achieve system-wide efficiencies. Now, in the much more random world of day-to-day human interaction, constantly connected citizens are doing the same. What the Ford assembly line meant to the 20th century, Airbnb means to the 21st.

The notion that we can share things without diminishing our identities or our status is so refreshingly profound that it actually amounts to a revolution of the American psyche.  More significantly, it is a spirit of sharing generated not through poverty, dearth, want and need, but one that flourishes in conditions of wealth and privilege.  These two factors mean that its appeal should not only linger but remain quite broad based, since no one's ox gets too violently gored.

It points to a new way that the backbone of this country's strength — the great American middle class — can continue to provide political stability and economic opportunity both domestically and internationally while not being on a self-serving collision course with the needs of future generations here and around the world.  This is not an ironic statement.

In light of the huge changes underway, I find it increasingly obvious that those of us, myself included, who grew up in the era of telephones and typewriters will find it nigh on impossible to wrap our minds around the ideas and visions of the Google-ized generation.

So I’ll end with a question: when a septuagenarian starts complaining loudly about the impact all these changes will have on “his parking spot”, we should … ?

Monday, May 19, 2014

The 2014 Five Boro Bike Tour, NYC.

Here is a video I put together of one of the most enjoyable things I've done in a very long time:

Two Sundays ago, on May 4th, I traveled down to New York City with two mates from Cambridge, Craig Kelley and Tim Rowe, to participate in the Five Boro Bike Tour, an event that is exactly what it sounds like - a bike-based jaunt through all five boroughs of New York City, starting in Battery Park in lower Manhattan and ending up on Staten Island.

We were joined by other Cambridge people as well, including Patty Nolan, David Rabkin and Trish Marti, and assorted kids from our group.

I doff my cap to Craig and Tim for getting us there, and to the organizers (Bike New York), corporate sponsors (TD Bank, REI) and the countless volunteers who made the day so flawless, for us and about 32,000 other riders.

I hope you'll watch (and listen) with enjoyment as we make our way around all five boroughs. Nothing in my recent memory matches the pleasure of this experience.

(Here's the direct YouTube link, FYI.  Just copy and paste:

Friday, May 16, 2014

Six Maps, One Country, Two Futures ... There's the rub.

Below are six maps of the United States, and they are all telling the same story: We have one land mass and two futures.

Here are the winners in today's American economic story:

  • the Northeast;
  • the Upper Midwest;
  • the Pacific Northwest;
  • the California coast;
  • (Greater) Denver;
  • (Central) Texas;
  • southern Florida.

These regions have better health, they produce new ideas, they are tackling our energy challenges, and they have that potent double fuel -- higher education levels and the higher incomes that always walk hand in hand.

Now, of course, there are other observations to make about the patterns that emerge on these maps:

  • Education levels should be correlated to both income levels and the creation of new ideas (as represented by patents), and the maps seem to tell us that, so we are not surprised. (Whether patents and income should be correlated is an interesting other question.)
  • While it's interesting that per capita energy usage in New York State is the lowest in the whole country, it must in part be explained by the high densities of New York City and the efficiencies that such densities allow -- like a very strong public transit system. Meanwhile, the high per capita energy consumption in the Plain states must have something to do with the energy intensity of modern agribusiness, especially in areas of relatively low population. Nevertheless, it is interesting that the whole Northeast is very energy efficient, even though the winter months require significant heating of buildings. This can only occur where attitudes, practices and policies (and politics) align to encourage energy efficiency.   
As it turns out, all these "winning regions" vote Democratic.   While political division in this country is overplayed by both politicians and the media for its intrinsic narrative value, there is a deeper underlying reality that is more worrisome.  The differing patterns represented by these maps (life expectancy; idea formulation; energy consumption; education; income; voting) are likely to increase over the coming decades, foretelling very different futures for a young lad born in Lincoln, Nebraska and his cousin born in Lincoln, Massachusetts.  The question for us all is: how do we reconcile these two realities within our one country to ensure we have a united, prosperous, equitable, robust American future?

*   *   *   *   *

Map 1: Male Mortality, by county
Darker = Men live longer.

(Source: Moretti, 2011)

*   *   *   *   *

Map 2 = Patents
Darker = More patents.
(Source: Moretti, 2011)

*   *   *   *   *

Map 3: Per Capita Energy Consumption (2009)
Blue = lower per capita consumption; yellow = higher per capita consumption.  


*   *   *   *   *

Map 4: Education Level
Blue = highest; green = mid; yellow = least. 

(Source: American Community Survey)

*   *   *   *   *

Map 5: Median Household Income
Green = wealthier; Orange/Brown = poorer. 


*   *   *   *   *

Map 6: How Americans voted in 2012
Blue = Democratic; Red = Republican. 

(Source: Ray Grumney,

Monday, May 12, 2014

Cities, the song.

I am loathe to give this blog a song.  But it's been so damn long since I've posted something that I better come up with something.  So here it is, a [temporary] song.

My choice?  "Cities" by the Talking Heads.  Why?  Because, as a child of the 1980s, this was formative music back then. The Talking Heads were at the height of their frenetic creativity during these years. Perhaps it's more accurate to say that David Byrne was at the height of his frenetic creativity during these years, I don't know.  Regardless, it was frenetic, which was part of its genius, it was creative, and it was definitely new. It also had a point. The Talking Heads, along with groups like the Clash, the Sex Pistols, Elvis Costello, were all about declaring the 1960s finally definitively musically and culturally over.

Why "Cities" specifically? We like the mad psychosis of the screeching guitar and the song's relentless driving syncopation, a pretty good audial representation of the beat of a city? We also just like cities. Who knows why? Perhaps it's their sounds and perhaps it's their visuals.  I certainly like the odd geometries that cities engender.

Here's the Talking Heads in 1980 playing "Cities", from a concert in Rome:

And here's an odd geometry from a city (Boston):

[If you are so inclined, you can find the entire concert on YouTube.]

Friday, May 2, 2014

Friday Grab Bag: Leland for Lt. Gov.; Central; Beer and Coffee; Trains, Cars, Feet

It's a Friday, which means that it's Grab Bag time again.

This week will bang the drum on some old themes, haphazardly, and some new ones too.

Leland for Lieutenant Gov.  Today I stopped by the campaign headquarters of my former Council colleague Leland Cheung who is running for lieutenant governor of Massachusetts. Leland will be a fabulous lieutenant governor and that is why he was getting my visit and that is why he is getting my support. The voters should support him too, both at the Convention upcoming in Worcester in June and out on the campaign trail.  He is the most experienced public servant of the lot, with loads of intelligence, capability and a real track record of success. Look for him to run an effective, aggressive campaign too, a good attribute in anyone seeking (higher) office. Go Leland.

H Mart in Central Square. From there, I visited the new H Mart, recently opened in Central Square.  Just walking in the store reminded me why I get so frustrated with the politics of Cambridge at times.  The clientele of that Korean-owned concern is so completely different than the folks that show up at a Cambridge Democratic City Committee meeting or an Area 4 gathering, it's striking.  Scanning the H Mart crowd is like looking through the keyhole into the future of this city, an experience in and of itself decidedly different than sitting in an angry room a half-a-block away grappling with old arguments from veteran residents who are doing their damnedest to determine the look, shape and feel of Central Square.

Parenthetically, walking into the H Mart reminds me of Dan Goldstein. Dan is from a prior iteration of Central Square, before the H Mart arrived. He came to the Square when he opened the Clear Conscience Cafe in the space now occupied by H Mart's bakery.  Dan was a man of energy and commitment and he was determined to do something good for Central.  Almost everything he did was good, including the clean-ups that got us all out in the streets on a Sunday morning in spring to sweep up cigarette butts.  I say "almost everything" because he did one thing which wasn't a good.  A few years ago, the English guerrilla artist Banksy came to Cambridge in the form of an authentic Banksy graphic on a brick wall in an alleyway around the corner from Dan's cafe.  Dan's attitude, good civic patron that he was, amounted to zero tolerance for graffiti, and with Dan, zero meant z-e-r-o.  He got the city's anti-graffiti squad dispatched and they wiped the slate clean.  What a shame.  A Banksy in Central Square would have been a bigger plus than no Banksy in Central Square.

Beer and Coffee.  I was reflecting on my recent trip to Atlanta and made the inevitable comparison between the two communities that one does when one travels.  It all boiled down to two things that are so important in Cambridge but don't seem to have the same resonance in Atlanta: beer and coffee.  Here are some comments I wrote to someone on the topic:
There doesn't seem to be a strong pride in local beers in Atlanta.  There are local beers -- I know, because I had some, but they weren't favored or promoted by restaurants.  Instead, the first choices were always Bud, Bud Light, etc.
Beer plays a big role in the local culture here in Cambridge, particularly among those all-important hipsters and millennials that everyone is seeking.  If you go into a bar/pub/restaurant either in Cambridge or in Somerville (two hipster hangouts), the local beers are always top on the list.  And when I say local, I don't mean Sam Adams, though that is a Boston-based brewery.  I mean Somerville's own Slumbrew or Cambridge's Cambridge Brewing Company.
Similarly, locally-owned independent coffee shops are a big thing here, and coffee itself is becoming a very specialized item.  I have to imagine that there are a few young Atlantans who are thinking of opening a little coffee shop, but my sense is that it really requires walking someone through the process and getting the building owners to buy into the broader program.  Also, the young, cool, hip person who is going to open this coffee shop probably has never negotiated a full-on lease before, with fit out, with all the added pieces -- additional water, electricity, plumbing demands.  Helping them and supporting them through that process is more likely to produce a longer-term success.  That's my guess at least.  
This weird thing about cities is that it comes down to some very small things sometimes.  

Further thoughts about Atlanta. Their subway system (MARTA) is underfunded, underutilized, under appreciated, but it dumps its passengers right out into the Atlanta Hartsfield-Jackson Airport in one of the most user-friendly transit/airport interfaces I have ever experienced. Well done Atlanta.

More Fun with Cars.  Switching gears, away from virtue (admiring public transit) to vice (enjoying automobiles), a source of great joy during my travels was the rental of big, bad, black Chevy Camaro.  It's a car that goes fast, handles steady, and has a bit of a rumble from the tailpipe that makes it sound even meaner than it really is.  I thoroughly enjoyed the burning of petrochemicals on fairly empty roadways north of Atlanta.  The car has what I termed "pull away speed", which simply means that you can pull away from most (really all) traffic with a simple push of the pedal. There's ample power there to go plenty fast when you want.  I couldn't get the car near its rev limit at all, could only blip it up to about 4,000 rpm with full throttle and I got into a nice little dance with a topless dusty gold BMW M4 all the way back into the city.  Cars are fun in their own way.

Walking Man (Redux), Massachusetts Style.  This is a walk around the Bay Circuit Trail coming up in June that looks like a lot of fun: