In Looking to the Future, City Officials Look to the People

City of Cambridge

In Cambridge, the culture of innovation isn’t limited to colleges and constituents—it’s part of the very workings of the city itself.

Bustling down Broadway on a weekday afternoon, the sense of a space well loved is overwhelming. School’s out for the day, and packs of high schoolers are horsing around. Parents walk with toddlers in tow toward home, or into one of the shops that line the spacious street.

It’s here, just north of City Hall in Central Square, where you’ll find the City Hall Annex—and inside, the people who work daily to dream up initiatives that will make Cambridge a better place to live. The key to their success going forward, they believe, will be harnessing the power of citizens, finding new, creative ways to tackle problems big and small.

“Across the board, our community has been incredibly supportive—more than supportive,” says Iram Farooq, assistant city manager for community development (CDD). “They’ve pushed us to try and find solutions to problems that face not just Cambridge, but cities across the board.”

What do those innovative solutions look like? Well…

Experiments in Engagement

One of the primary focus areas for the city today is encouraging citizen engagement in new ways. City employees see the richness of diversity here—immigrants, artists, intellectuals, lifelong residents and recent transplants—as a vital part of Cambridge’s strength and security going forward. But with more than 100,000 citizens from just about as many backgrounds, officials have to stay vigilant to ensure long-term plans include diverse voices and address a breadth of concerns.

“Very often, there are a series of public meetings or presentations at city council or ordinance committee [hearings], which is not always the way that most residents want to engage,” Farooq says. “Oftentimes it’s not fun … it can be intimidating.”

So the city has developed other ways for people to get involved. There’s the “engagement station,” a model of Cambridge made with removable parts and a whiteboard element that lets people point to specific problem areas or places they’d like to see changes made. The station has made the rounds, popping up at local fairs, farmers markets, public housing buildings, community centers and other places to, as Farooq says, “get people where they are.”

Officials have also worked ambassador-type programs into outreach initiatives. They’ve invited international speakers to visit groups that may feel limited by language barriers and are deploying street teams of student interns that can reach demographics that have a presence in the city but aren’t represented at its planning meetings. “I believe it absolutely is the municipality’s responsibility to try to engage people,” Farooq says, “to provide as many opportunities, as wide a range of opportunities, so that there’s a low barrier of entry to engaging with the community.”

A Cambridge For the Future

A complex, changing world requires a well-considered, aspirational plan that looks ahead. Way ahead.

That’s where the aptly named Envision Cambridge program comes in. Now in its second of three years, Envision Cambridge brings together Cantabrigians to identify strategies and initiatives in housing, mobility, environment, economy and more that will become a citywide plan in decades to come—for a Cambridge of 2030 and 2070.

“I know it’s a long time in the future, but when you think climate change, you have to be thinking those kinds of horizons,” Farooq explains, referencing the city’s Climate Change Preparedness and Resilience Plan. Such evaluations and planning will allow the city to make more efficient decisions about how to deal with flooding in Alewife, for example. “It’s hard to think about the future of the city without thinking about the impacts of climate change and how we will build resilience to them.”

The breadth and depth of such processes come with a price tag in the millions—the sort of costly endeavors that many municipalities don’t have the resources to tackle—but Cambridge won’t be the only city to benefit from the expense. These efforts have included collaborations with the state, resulting in the creation of models and methodologies for the whole region that have been made available to inform others’ municipal planning processes.

Not all of Cambridge’s innovative efforts rely on far-reaching projections of unknown terrain or the expertise of consultants. Other, smaller-scale (but still ambitious) efforts include the Net Zero Action Plan, which would eliminate building-based carbon emissions, and a commitment to Vision Zero, a national, multi-city initiative to end traffic crashes entirely. Officials have introduced a series of grants and competitive programs to encourage citizens, students and business owners to participate in the sorts of city improvements that matter to them, whether it be through the Storefront Improvement Program or Small Business Challenge, adding flower boxes, signage and handicap-accessibility to their own blocks, or through the Glocal Challenge, in collaboration with Education First, developing new solutions for food waste. The plan for the future is to use the literal human resources the city has at its disposal, encouraging and generating ideas for community improvement from people with varied interests, expertise, socioeconomic positions and educational backgrounds with a common goal: creating a future built on the common foundation of caring for the city in which we live today.

Making a Model City

The sorts of undertakings Cambridge has embarked upon require well-organized, regular accountability checks and meetings with shareholders across departments. With cooperation needed from Public Works to Public Safety, from the finance department to the CDD, communication and coordination are key to ensuring that core goals like livability and sustainability are threaded throughout whatever course the city takes.

Efforts like harnessing heat energy generated by MBTA subway cars, for example, require a coalition of area shareholders to make a reality. “Usually you don’t think of cities as small as Cambridge as being leaders in bringing solutions, but our community has really pushed us to do that, and we’ve taken up that challenge,” says Farooq. “It’s one of the things that makes it really gratifying to be a part of the city of Cambridge workforce in crafting those kind of solutions. We always see ourselves as being in that leadership position and having the responsibility of crafting solutions … that other people can also use, which is also why we try to be as open source as possible and put out as much information as possible.”

They’ve even open-sourced some of their capital spending budget, introducing participatory budgeting—a yearly call for city-improving ideas and innovations that lets residents decide directly how their tax dollars are spent. The most recent round divvied up nearly a $1 million to projects selected by citizens age 12 and up, including changes to the Moore Youth Center, solar panels on the public library and electricity-generating kinetic energy tiles that will be installed in front of Cambridge Rindge and Latin School.

“Aside from the fact that it’s an opportunity for people to weigh in on how city taxes are spent, it’s also a way for people to connect with municipal government in a very tangible and meaningful way and feel like they have agency and are impacting what they care about,” Farooq says. With the tone-deaf chamber of national politics, it’s something of a small revolution to really listen to the people, let alone give them the power to directly allocate spending. But it’s a revolution that’s beginning—where else?—here in Cambridge.

This story originally appeared in the March/April issue of Scout Cambridge, which is available for free at more than 250 locations throughout the city or by subscription.

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