From Bike Lanes to Business Development, Envision Cambridge Looks to the Future

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In her 1961 book The Death and Life of Great American Cities, journalist and activist Jane Jacobs wrote that “lively, diverse, intense cities contain the seeds of their own regeneration, with energy enough to carry over for problems and needs outside themselves.” That’s as true in 2016 as it was then—by now, we know that the cities that want to thrive in the future are those laying out a comprehensive plan for that future in the present. In Somerville, there’s SomerVision. Boston has Imagine Boston. Cities from coast to coast have established long-term, citywide strategies. (We can’t even take credit for tracking down the above Jane Jacobs quote; we nabbed it from Milwaukee’s citywide plan.) And now, Cambridge is joining their ranks with Envision Cambridge.

Over the last several years, we’ve been working on some very significant planning initiatives,” says Iram Farooq, assistant city manager for community development, pointing to the Net Zero Action Plan and the recently introduced Bicycle Plan, as well as geographically minded development programs in areas like Kendall Square“The thing is, all of those have been happening separately. It feels like this is a good time to take all of those initiatives, pull them together, look at the areas of the city that we have not focused on recently … and take a broad look that ties all the multidisciplinary pieces together.”

In the late ’90s and early 2000s, the city addressed local issues around everything from housing to urban design to transportation and economic development with a series of neighborhood plans, while the Community Development Department (CDD) readied proposals for topics like traffic calming, cycling and energy use. Envision Cambridge will combine these location- and topic-based issues, establishing goals and benchmarks that will guide the city through 2040.

While the city’s individual planning initiatives are a move in the right direction, Farooq explains that developing a comprehensive plan for the future takes these individual programs one step further by identifying tradeoffs, decision points and potential points of tension. A city as diverse as Cambridge is home to people with a broad range of needs. Families want different things than business owners; startup founders have different goals than high school students. Building a bike lane means bidding farewell to parking spaces, and if a piece of land is turned into a park, then it can’t be turned into affordable housing.

Establishing a citywide plan will offer the opportunity to find unique workarounds. Maybe, for example, those new housing units have a roof deck that’s accessible to the public. “The vision will be a comprehensive one, and we can … try to find the path forward that mediates between those points of tension,” Farooq says. “It doesn’t always work, but it may allow you to take the next step.”

Of course, this is no small feat. The plan will tackle everything from bike lanes to business development and look almost 25 years into the future—where do you even begin developing a strategy that marries such a wide range of topics? According to Farooq, you start with the very heart of Cambridge: its citizens. “You start with trying to figure out, with everybody, what is our collective vision for Cambridge?” Farooq explains. “What do we love about the city? What would we like to change? What kind of city do we want to be in the next few years?”

That means getting the people of Cambridge involved, which is why the city is now accepting applications for an advisory committee that will consult with the city, shaping the plan’s development over the course of the next three years. Every six weeks, this group of roughly 20 people—residents, business owners, students, professors and even people who come to the city for work—will convene to discuss Envision Cambridge and share their thoughts for the future. Farooq explains that the city wants a broad range of perspectives on the committee—a mix of genders and identities, people from different socioeconomic backgrounds, both longtime residents and immigrants, the young and the old.

“We want to make sure that the group that guides the plan is as diverse as—and truly representative of—Cambridge,” she says. “We really want this to be a process that is not just for the people who are always showing up to things. We want it to be a process that everybody can engage with.”

And even if you can’t (or don’t want to) commit to regular meetings, Farooq is adamant that anyone can get involved by following the CDD on Twitter or signing up for email newsletters about the program’s progress. The city plans to send out a “mobile engagement station” to collect feedback, and in the coming months, representatives will conduct person-on-the-street interviews about pressing social topics. After all, these are complex, interconnected issues, and there’s no one way to get the right answer.

“We want to make sure that even people who typically don’t think of themselves as connecting with the public process can get involved,” Farooq says. “We hope that they will consider jumping in the fray and joining in—at whatever level of time commitment they’re able to make.”

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