On Thursday, April 15th, to launch A Better City's new Boston Forward Together speaker series, A Better City convened a special webinar with Paul Grogan, President & CEO of The Boston Foundation and co-author of Comeback Cities: A Blueprint for Urban Revival. Rick Dimino, A Better City President & CEO, facilitated the conversation with one of the nation’s leading change makers to explore several timely questions: What is the value of cities? What challenges and opportunities are unique to Boston? How we can all work together to build back better?
See complete Opportunities for Action and Summary below.
In his introduction, Rick described the many contributions that Paul has made in shaping cities both at The Boston Foundation and in his roles with the City of Boston. Paul began his conversation reviewing his 20 years at The Boston Foundation, which is Greater Boston’s leading community foundation, devoted to building and sustaining a vital, prosperous city and region, where justice and opportunity are extended to everyone. The foundation has expanded its role from grant making to providing civic leadership and serving as a think tank on urban issues. The Boston Foundation has become a national model for successful community foundations.
Rick suggested that this civic leadership has been critical in shaping Boston with initiatives such as the Indicators Program. Paul credited Charlotte Kahn and Rockefeller Foundation funding for getting the program off the ground.
Rick then raised the challenges of building back better at this critical time in Boston’s history. Paul cited Boston in 1975 when Mayor Kevin White applied his optimism to making a case for Boston’s success. Paul said that he is optimistic about Boston as a leader in life sciences and technology and in the importance placed on urban values and urban living that appeal to groups such as aging Baby Boomers and young people. Conditions today, he said, are not as bad as they were 20 years ago, but success depends on leadership and the choices leaders make. The list of challenges is long, including housing, transportation, and racial equity.
Boston is blessed with leadership in higher education and health care, and we need to wake up to the value of what we have, Paul said. Universities and the communities no longer maintain an adversarial relationship. The environmental crusade leading to the Harbor Clean Up resulted from the advocacy of non-profits. The economic contributions of seaport development were made possible by this effort.
Rick mentioned the diversity and character of neighborhoods as well as the vibrancy of the city and its public realm, but raised the challenge presented by remote work and its impact on the city. Paul described the success of neighborhood development in Boston that has reduced blight in the city. Affordable housing has become an issue, but it can be built with subsidies. He applauded the Governor’s Housing Choice bill that made it easier to change zoning to support more housing. We will wait and see the impact of appeal of the city and the need for people to see each other on return to offices. Cultural facilities will come back as an expression of urban values.
People want to be in cities to enjoy arts and culture, enjoy social capacity building, take advantage of chance encounters, and have a drink after work, Rick said. Small businesses and restaurants depend on people on the sidewalks, taking a walk at lunch and the vibrancy that generates.
Paul said that the quality of spaces—vibrant spaces—is important. He said we need a czar to oversee the process and advance the values of these urban places. He said that Kendall Square in Cambridge has now become an urban district with people using the sidewalks. Rick described developers reimaging urban places and the public realm.
Next, Paul turned to the workforce front, and that growth here has been fueled by immigration. He emphasized the value of language training for immigrants and the need for big and ambitious thinking. Rick agreed that there is a need to be bold and to do better connecting the economic engine to all people.
Kate Dineen, Executive Vice President for A Better City, coordinated questions from Board members. Ted Ladd asked about the relationship of the private sector and government, and how we compare to other cities. Paul said that Boston is different in that the role of meds and eds is very important, like no other city. Members of this sector are leery about getting involved, but robust public private partnerships have developed to support housing and other needs.
Jim Tierney asked about transit and infrastructure investments. Paul referred to reports prepared by A Better City for The Boston Foundation on the value of transit, its payback on investment, and “The Cost of Doing Nothing.”
In response to a question on cultural institutions, Paul talked about an investment in the arts and the inappropriate attempts to seek PILOT tax payments from institutions that do not take into consideration the value of the contributions made by them.
Paul spoke about the history of anti-urbanism although 85% of the country’s population lives in cities today, and suburban communities that are now working to create walkable downtowns.
Finally, Kate asked how the business community can help recovering from the pandemic. Paul responded that A Better City should keep doing what it has been doing. Business associations should work together to identify and get behind actions to support the recovery, and make it happen.
In closing, Rick Dimino said that the business community needs to advocate for federal transportation funding reauthorization and doing something about climate change and climate resiliency. Paul agreed that efforts need to cross boundaries and there needs to be a structure that places someone in charge. Rick thanked Paul for his insights and his passion.