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Somerville: The Little City That Can

News & Features | November 1, 2011

 photo by Charmaine Poh

An astounding 80 percent of the US population is now urban. That means more people than ever before are driving, walking, living, eating, consuming, polluting, and working in American cities. As more and more people move to metro areas, existing city fabrics will need to adapt in order to accommodate more people, greater public demand, and expanded infrastructures. More important, however, are the expectations we have for this adaptation, what standards we, as a society, demand of it. If we expect that our cities will act as livable spaces where increasing numbers of citizens have the opportunity to thrive, we’ll need innovation and fresh ideas to ensure success in the face of potentially tumultuous change. The question then becomes: How can a city best serve its residents? What makes a city successful? And, once identified, how can we recreate those magical conditions across the country?

<p>Charmaine Poh</p>

The long and the short of it is: things are complicated. Cities are complex beasts, functioning as intricately as their ecosystem counterparts in the natural world. Different cities consume different levels and types of inputs (water, food, raw building materials), require different workers to fill specific niches (different industries call different cities home), and have wildly diverse physical forms across the nation (squat and sprawling Dallas, tall and dense New York). Just as a temperate forest, a coral reef, or a desert may have similar underlying structures but distinctly different needs, so, too goes the thinking about our cities.

“About a million different dimensions give a city its identity,” explained Justin Hollander, a professor of urban and environmental policy and planning at Tufts. “Its history, how it was founded, what its immigration patterns have been, its current physical form, the local government—all these things and more can have an effect.”

 

<p>Eliza Mills</p>

 

There’s also the issue of scale. How we interact with and experience a city can be viewed from different angles, ranging from big-picture perspectives down to the level of minutiae. This could mean the difference between contemplating big ideas about how current levels of economic inequality affect the overall climate of a given city and small ones like about whether crosswalks are safe enough for a certain neighborhood. By switching perspective from big ideas to the everyday concerns of a given city, different individuals, from planners to developers to local and state government officials, will have greater influence. Creating a city that citizens are happy calling home can mean big policy changes and budget overhauls, or it can simply mean filling in potholes and switching to single-stream recycling. Or, it can mean all of those things, all at once.

“What makes a city successful… That’s a really tough question,” admitted Hollander. “And it depends on how you are measuring success. A lot of people will measure success in terms of economic success. But there are other ways to measure it… Say, with happiness levels.”

So, creating a successful city really depends on perspective. Decisions to “better” a city community will be based around the values of those individuals with the power to make such decisions. Will they focus on economic prosperity? Social justice? Equal opportunity? Safety? Education? Sustainability? A combination of this or that?

The answer probably depends as much on the values of the decision-makers as it does on the issues that seem to be most pressing in a given city’s present climate. The thinking should then, hopefully, be: Who better to understand the issues facing individuals in a given city than those selfsame individuals, living out their daily lives among the very issues that we’re debating? Not every city effectively gives such a voice to its citizens, but inclusive strategies are probably the best way to turn cities into communities and to give them a leg-up in successfully (however you may define it) adapting to the continuation of the urbanization trend.

“It’s the most important thing,” Hollander emphasized when asked about citizen inclusion and its role in bettering communities.

Interestingly enough, Somerville is a prime example of a city that has taken citizen inclusion to heart. Though we campus-dwellers tend to see it simply as an auxiliary space in our everyday lives, where we can find some good restaurants and a cheap movie theater, Somerville is actually a city in which innovation and new thinking thrive. Under the guidance of Mayor Joseph A. Curtatone, Somerville has rolled out a number of new programs and projects in recent years focusing on giving Somervillians a greater platform to voice their opinions—a platform on which the local government will actually listen to them. Many of these projects and programs have garnered national buzz.

Eliza Mills

 

 

This seems fitting in a place as unique as Somerville. Located on about four square miles of land and home to a population of 76, 000, Somerville is one of the most densely populated cities in America. Residents are an interesting mix of blue-collar families, young professionals, college students, and recent immigrants. This large immigrant population means more than 50 languages are spoken in its schools. And only New York City can claim more artists per capita than little old Somerville.

“Somerville is a teeming city,” described Christine Cousineau, also a professor of urban and environmental policy and planning. “It has managed to remain affordable for much longer than a lot of similar places, and so there’s a diversity of people here. It’s very much alive and changing. And because it’s not a precious community, like Cambridge, it’s more funky, more flexible.”

“We’re a tough, scrappy community, because we’ve had to fend for ourselves for a long time,” said Brad Rawson, Senior Planner in the City of Somerville’s Economic Development Department, in an email. “And we are proud of Somerville. Our residents, people from every walk of life and every corner of the world, are really informed and engaged in civic affairs.”

Indeed, Somerville, like many other municipalities of its size, is on a tight budget that relies heavily on state aid. With aid declining by nearly eight percent between 2000 and 2006, Somerville doesn’t have a whole lot of financial resources to put into its projects and programs. But with innovation and enthusiasm, the city has formed what Rawson describes as “excellent” public services while still spending the least amount of money per capita of any municipal government in Massachusetts.

One of the programs that allows for such fiscal efficiency is the SomerStat program, which regularly brings together key city decision-makers in different departments to talk data. With extensive financial, personnel, and operation data at their fingertips, they can better assess opportunities for improvement. They can also track the changes that occur when they put something new into practice. This is Somerville’s tool in answering the perpetual question: How can we improve our city?  But the most important program in discussing citizen inclusion is undeniably the program’s corollary ResiStat program, which, according to the ResiStat website, “is the City of Somerville’s effort to bring data-driven discussions and decision-making to residents and promote civic engagement via the Internet and regular community meetings.” Meetings occur semiannually and provide citizens with an opportunity to voice their opinions and give input on various aspects of the city in the presence of officials that have the power to enact change. The meetings are also informational, and present an opportunity for residents to formulate opinions on the basis of concrete data. Though ResiStat’s pilot year was 2007-2008, it has met with success thus far.

 

Eliza Mills

 

“Thousands of Somerville residents are part of the ResiStat network, and hundreds show up for the semiannual community meetings in their neighborhoods,” said Rawson, adding, “These programs have really enabled a culture change in Somerville, where municipal agencies have bought into transparency and accountability on all levels, and residents are more informed and empowered than ever before.”

The project that has arguably created the most buzz around Somerville, however, is the “happiness survey” that went out with the census in 2010.  Asking questions such as, “How happy are you right now?” and, “How satisfied are you with Somerville as a place to live?” the survey was the first of its kind to be implemented by a municipality in the US asking residents to gauge their own happiness and well-being. In a wonderfully progressive nod to Somerville’s inclusiveness and diversity, the survey even had “Transgender” listed right alongside “Male” and “Female” under the options for “Gender.”

Not surprisingly, of the 7,500-plus residents that mailed back the survey or spoke to a surveyor on the phone, the average ranking of happiness with Somerville came out at a solid 7.5 out of 10.

It’s no wonder, in light of all this, that Somerville won the All-America City Award in 2009 for “outstanding civic accomplishments” and demonstrating “innovation, inclusiveness, civic engagement, and cross sector collaboration.” The Boston Globe also described it in a 2006 article as a “model city” and “the best-run city in Massachusetts.” This year, the America’s Promise Alliance listed it as one of the 100 Best Communities for Young People for the fourth consecutive year. Other cities ask for advice from Somerville to implement similarly inclusive programs, including the not-yet-mentioned 311 phone-number system that allows Somerville residents to call and get any piece of information, be it simple or complex, about the city. It’s basically a customer-service line for an entire city—and bigger, more notable cities want one of their own.

So it becomes clear: our cities have an obligation to step-up to the challenge of an increasingly urbanized US population. There’s no simple solution to creating community-minded, sustainable, and equitable city places with effective public services. The first step, however, is most definitely to ask residents: What do you think?

As Hollander noted, “You can only really know how well you’re doing if you ask.”