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Saving the Boston Renaissance

Boston's success is well-deserved, but it's not guaranteed. Here are three of our biggest threats - and how to avoid them.

By Paul S. Grogan, President and CEO

Forty years ago, if you were to describe the reality of Boston in 2018 to those following the cityscape of 1978, you’d have been called a delusional optimist — or worse.

Today, while not perfect, Boston is the envy of the nation for our business growth, our regional economy, our clean harbor, and our unmatched combination of education, health, and high-tech institutions that have driven year after year of growth and prosperity.

Unless we let it slip away.

The Boston Renaissance of the past 40 years has been hard earned, but our past performance is no guarantee of our future prosperity — and our Achilles heels are no secret. We and other cities face many challenges, but I see three that pose the most significant immediate threat.

The first? Our vexing inequality. It’s no secret that Boston’s growth has not been shared equally by all residents. We have built a knowledge economy that rewards those with the right skills and access to jobs, but harshly punishes those without. The latest data suggest Massachusetts has the worst inequity between whites and Latinos in the nation. It is the newest addition to a library of reports that find Boston tops the list of unequal cities, a place where the median net worth of white families is nearly $250,000 – versus $8 for African-American families.

The second? Housing. The lack of affordable housing in the region has the potential to drive out young talent and make it impossible to fill lower-level but critical jobs that underpin the regional economy.

Third? Transportation. Our economic growth has increased congestion, but it has been coupled with a failure to invest in a transit infrastructure that should serve as the vital link connecting our business, educational, and institutional assets.

The problems seem huge. But if we look closely, we see the seeds of solutions to these challenges taking root across the city. Take Success Boston. This coaching program has been the linchpin of a strategy to increase the percentage of Boston Public Schools graduates getting ready for, into, and through college — and it has nearly doubled the number of BPS grads earning degrees. Our community colleges are playing a larger role than ever in that success — connecting with businesses and becoming major players in developing the next generation of workers.

We’ve also broadened and deepened investments in our current workforce, with adult ESL investments in programs like English for New Bostonians, job training partnerships like Skillworks, new partnerships with tech employers like Tech Boston, Hack.Diversity and Resilient Coders, and investments in a new generation of women and minority entrepreneurs in Roxbury, Dorchester, and Mattapan.

In housing, Boston has committed to adding 53,000 housing units by 2030 – accelerating permitting, encouraging affordable housing investments, and freeing up city-owned vacant land for development. Mayors across Greater Boston are collaborating on affordable housing, and Gov. Baker’s housing bill goes a long way in facing the housing challenge by using incentives and regulation changes to expand needed construction outside the city.

Even in transportation, there is hope. The MBTA’s new fiscal control board is creating a more accountable organization that can wisely use much-needed investments to create the better-functioning, climate-resilient system we need. Businesses are stepping up, showing a willingness to co-invest in new stations and infrastructure, because they see the value a working system brings.

Now wait a minute, you say. Those aren’t enough jobs. That’s not enough housing. The T still doesn’t work. We’re not moving fast enough.

You’re right.

We must face the challenges of inequality, affordable housing, and public transportation. What we lack isn’t vision. It’s resolve.

The solutions above are demonstrating success but need commitment, time, and long-term investment to expand, take root, or take hold. Turning ideas into large-scale reality is neither easy nor cheap. But the alternative is more costly: the exodus of the families, workers, and businesses that we need to keep Boston thriving.

It’s a lot easier to build upon strength than recreate it. We proudly call Boston a city of innovation. But the innovations that will sustain our prosperity are not those created in a lab or coded into an app. They are co-created by business, civic, and community groups that expand the opportunity to thrive across races and classes. We’re fortunate to be innovators there, too.

We just need to be smart enough to seize the Boston moment.

 This piece originally appeared in The Boston Globe, March 22, 2018.