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Guest blog post: Boston College’s Neil McCullagh weighs in on the importance of public discourse in Guiding Growth

  |   Guiding Growth

When the Corcoran Center for Real Estate and Urban Action develops programs for Boston College undergraduates, we seek opportunities that expose students to real world issues, that make students think about how other people feel, and that encourage students to participate and reflect on their own actions.

With its sustained community engagement initiatives, Imagine Boston 2030 has a similar approach, but on a larger scale for residents of Boston. So when we had the opportunity to host Imagine Boston 2030: Making Choices for a Better City at Boston College, it made perfect sense.

This week, in a two-hour event that mixes high school and college students, university faculty and staff, and residents of Boston, we will hear from the Mayor, we will have our thinking challenged by national experts, and we will engage with City staff on the process and research underway with this very public initiative.

While public discourse seems like a natural part of planning with residents, it hasn’t always been that way. Unfortunately, even in the recent past, engagement with residents is sometimes seen as the enemy of efficiency in planning. But thankfully, there has been a shift in how governments are engaging with residents, and planning for most city initiatives is guided and strengthened through active public discourse. Imagine Boston is a great example of how planning and engaging with residents–the users of the city– can yield more than planned buildings and prioritized projects.

Boston College’s Burns Library is host to the personal correspondence of Jane Jacobs, an influential activist and journalist best known for her influence on urban studies. I recently looked at the collection and was taken with a letter from Jane Jacobs to Chadbourne Gilpatric, an official with the Rockefeller Foundation. In this letter, Jacobs reveals some of the formational ideas for her influential book, Death and Life of Great American Cities. She writes:

At present, there seem to be two dominant and very compelling mental images of the city. One is the image of the city in trouble, an inhuman mass of masonry, a chaos of happenstance growth, a place starved of the simple decencies and amenities of life, beset with so many accumulated problems it makes your head swim. The other powerful image is that of the rebuilt city, the antithesis of all that the unplanned city represents, a carefully planned panorama of projects and green spaces, a place where functions are sorted out instead of jumbled together, a place of light, air, sunshine, dignity and order for all.

Both of these conceptions are disastrously superficial. Both of them neglect—they simply overlook–the most fundamental part of any useful image of the city—the way people use the city.

Thankfully the superficiality recognized by Jacobs is long gone and we know that successful and innovative municipal governments are guided by input from users.

As our city and our region grow, we have to think broadly about economic development, access to opportunity, and health and educational outcomes for everyone. We need to think about planning for the city and the region as opposed to on our blocks and in our neighborhoods. But most importantly, as Jane Jacobs highlighted 60 years ago, this work has to be done in close collaboration with the users, and issues need to be prioritized through the lens of residents.

This is what is exciting about Imagine Boston 2030. Since Fall 2015, thousands of people have provided input, demonstrated interest, and expressed opinions about not only priorities for individual projects, but rather, a larger vision for the city. Imagine Boston 2030 has created a platform for Bostonians and other users of the city to voice their ambition and vision for a future which will bring out the best in our city and our region.


Neil McCullagh is Director of the Carroll School of Management’s Joseph E. Corcoran Center for Real Estate and Urban Action and a Lecturer at Boston College



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