Friday, July 19, 2024

The City Council has passed or is poised to pass bold policies to install bicycle lanes, increase affordable housing and reduce greenhouse gas emissions from buildings. Each is aimed at a serious problem and can be expected to make a measurable impact, but none can be expected to solve the underlying problem. They are slingshot policies, aimed at Goliath problems: meeting urban transportation needs with fewer cars and less fossil fuel, ending the regional shortage of affordable housing and halting and mitigating climate change.

Implementing them will require sustained work by city staff and many others, and it will take time for their impacts to be seen and measured. Our new city manager appears to understand the challenges and be prepared to lead the implementation. The City Council also has a vital role: to monitor, fine-tune and, if necessary, amend these new policies. This will require paying attention to relevant data and information and proactively engaging with residents, businesses and key stakeholders. Timely, candid communication will be necessary.

These practices are almost the polar opposite of those the council followed to develop these policies. It relied heavily on single-issue advocacy groups and city staff. It did little to engage with affected residents, businesses and others. It put out limited, and sometimes misleading, public information about the policies. And it needlessly divided the community.

The three new policies, for protected cycle lanes, affordable housing and climate-neutral building energy, are innovative and will have real effects on everyone in Cambridge, but they are not silver bullets. They will not solve our transportation problem, meet regional housing needs, mitigate climate change or even achieve rapid reductions in our greenhouse gas emissions.

Being first is a kind of leadership that other communities in the region and beyond might follow, and this would multiply the impacts of the initiatives. Enacting mandates and eliminating long-established reviews and regulations are only first steps, though. Other cities will only follow Cambridge’s lead if there is successful implementation that achieves desired benefits, mitigates negative impacts and maintains the support of residents who have to live with the results. For this we will need city councillors with broad vision to represent all of Cambridge and foster a sense community and balance among our diverse citizens and neighborhoods.

This fall the city is at a fork in the road. With 24 candidates competing for nine seats on the council in the election in November, voters have a clear choice between candidates who have been schooled in City Hall and the practices that have sown division and distrust and other candidates with broad experience in business, academia, civic institutions and government and who are committed to building trust, a shared sense of purpose and progress on our major challenges.


John Pitkin is on the steering committee of Cambridge Voters For Good Government and presiding officer of the Mid-Cambridge Neighborhood Association.