Greater Boston Has Potential to Become World-Leading Citistate in 21st Century, According to Report

May 25, 2004

Boston – The Greater Boston region has all the qualifications to become one of the most rewarding places on earth to live, work, learn and prosper in the 21st century, according to a report by two of the nation’s leading experts on metropolitan regions, Neal Peirce and Curtis Johnson.  In fact, the report states that “It’s tough to think of a 21st century ‘citistate,’ a great urban region anywhere on earth, so ideally positioned to prosper in this century of the intellect.”

The greatest threat to this outcome, according to the authors, is complacency.   “Assumed superiority, “A sense the Boston region is so far ahead that it has no need to check on lean and hungry competitors – from Charlotte to Seattle, Atlanta to Austin, Bangalore, India, to Canberra, Australia.”  Peirce and Johnson urge Boston leaders to mobilize the region’s inherent skills and assets to cope with an array of looming scourges, ranging from shortfalls in skilled labor to energy cutoffs and public health emergencies.

Boston Unbound: Tapping Greater Boston's Assets and Talents to Create a World-Leading Citistate, was commissioned by the Boston Foundation to explore the most critical challenges facing the region, including such issues as regional growth, healthcare, workforce projections, economic development and smart energy.  Peirce, a nationally syndicated columnist, and Johnson, an urban expert, have done similar studies in more than 20 regions around the country over the past two decades.  They have been conducting research on the Metropolitan Boston region over the last nine months, interviewing more than 300 area leaders and experts.

“Although Neal Peirce and Curtis Johnson’s admiration and affection for Boston shines through on every page of this report, it’s important that they are challenging us to aim higher and to do more with the splendid assets of this community,” said Paul S. Grogran, President and CEO of The Boston Foundation.

The authors presented the report at a luncheon at the Boston Harbor Hotel to honor the 50th anniversary of Boston College’s Citizen Seminar. Approximately 250 of the region's leading business executives, service planners and government officials attended the event, which included remarks from Boston   College   Chancellor J. Donald Monan SJ, Boston Mayor Thomas M. Menino, and Paul Grogan.  The Boston College Citizen Seminar is a part an on-going 50-year effort to bring together leaders from academia, business, government, labor and private non-profit organizations to discuss the important issues facing the City of Boston and the adjacent area.  The event was   sponsored by Boston College’s Chief Executives Club of Boston.

The report argues that the Citistate of Boston – Boston Unbound – extends well beyond the narrow political confines of historic Boston.  Instead, using the definition of a global ‘citistate’ the authors developed in the early 90s, they suggest that a modern citistate is a reflection of the character of its labor force, the reach of its leading newspapers and TV stations, and those who are served by its medical institutions.  It is where people in the region work, study, buy, recreate, and socialize. By this measure, the Citistate of Greater Boston includes the inner core of Boston and its surrounding cities; the region’s ring of high-income suburbia; overlapping layers of hi-tech towns in the 495 orbit; and a ring of ‘anchor’ cities on its outer rim.

Noting that the Greater Boston region has all of the necessary assets to compete successfully in the emerging global economy, the report refers to Boston’s thousands of skilled professionals and its world renowned collection of universities, colleges, health institutions and laboratories.  Where it counts, Boston excels: depth and variety of intellectual power, established financial power, amazing laboratory-to-product breakthroughs, sheer innovation,” the report notes.

The threat to this rosy scenario, the authors warn, is Boston’s sense of assumed superiority.   They say, “We cover US regions regularly; we never encountered another place so apparently disinterested in learning new best practices from others.  The local attitude seems to be, Boston and first are synonymous.  Why bother with lesser places, practices.”

Active collaboration and leadership from the grassroots level as well as the executive suite are promoted in the report as the antidote to rigid attitudes and solutions drawn from the past.  Contrary to the old model of civic leadership drawn exclusively from the ranks of business leaders, the authors call for “a wide variety of interesting and willing players to be ‘boundary crossers,’ to work with people in other sectors to advance, with serious purpose, even impatience, the shared interests of a Boston region that’s dramatically larger – in players and in square miles – than historic Boston city proper.”

The report points to a number of forward-looking examples of this approach already underway in the area.  In the mid-90’s, a diverse group of Boston’s leaders began visiting successful citistates around the country and around the world as a part of a City-to-City Leadership Exchange Program to focus on emerging regional issues. The Metropolitan Area Planning Council has embarked on a three-year “Metrofuture” project, which taps the ideas for the region’s 21st century development from ordinary citizens across the 101 Greater Boston cities and towns for future public debate.  The Commonwealth Housing Task Force has pulled together leaders from the business, labor, university, environmental and housing sectors to solve the region’s housing shortages.  A case is made for a similar effort around the issue of “home rule,” the laws and regulations that govern the power of Massachusetts cities and towns have over their own finance and management, land use and housing.

The sector singled out in the report as “the region’s undisputed global marker” is Greater Boston’s universities, colleges, hospitals and research laboratories – the “eds” and “meds.”  The report points out that in today’s global economy, business’ focus is increasingly outside the region, making the institutions in this sector increasingly the drivers of the regional economy.  With this role, the authors argue, comes the responsibility to assume leadership positions as key regional conveners, policy leaders, and deal makers.  Some of the major universities have taken steps in this direction with programs such as the Harvard Rappaport Institute for Greater Boston, which has provided expert analysis of area challenges, Northeastern University’s Center for Urban and Regional Planning, and various university-sponsored community service programs that engage students in local schools and neighborhoods throughout the region.

What isn’t happening, according to the report, is strategic leadership across individual academic boundaries.  “The compelling reality is that the United States now has the greatest income disparities in the developed world.  Boston region income divisions, between educated ‘haves’ and less fortunate ‘have-nots,’ are vivid and potentially fatal to hopes of a strong civil society built on opportunities for all classes.”  To realize the benefits of a great citistate, the authors contend, academia should conceive and deploy a global model and best practice of intense university-community engagement that address the region’s core problems.

After acknowledging Boston’s pre-eminent position in the health care arena – Boston ranks first among US regions for its job concentration in health care, and is ranked at the top of bioscience in almost every national study – the report points to trends that threaten the status quo.  Challenges range from drops in the region’s market share of research and development dollars, to shortages of workers throughout the system: nurses, doctors, and low-wage workers who change the bed linens and wash the lab equipment.  The roots of these shortages include the area’s high cost of living, low wages and sky-high malpractice premiums.  The net effect is a fear that workforce depletion will become a threat to patient safety.

While healthcare is facing major system changes nationwide, the Greater Boston region is on the front lines because of its leading role in this field.  Calling on Boston to develop a set of strategies to fix the current dysfunctional system, the authors say, “Let Boston’s medical machine forge a new, national formula…. The stakes are high. Boston’s old-timers know well how thin the line can be between leading and lagging.  They’ve seen core industries – from fishing to textiles to computers – wither and wander away.”

Workforce development skills are singled out as a central test for the region.  “The issue may sound unfocused – ‘work force.’ But in reality, it’s a central test, human and economic, forced fast on the region by globalization.  It’s almost sure to determine in large part whether this region reaches its 21st century potential, or falls gravely short of it.”

The report also examines the role of the business community in providing leadership, defining the needed skills and opportunities for career advancement, and in contributing financially to education and training.  It also highlights the critical role played by community colleges, as the central training institutions for the less-privileged workers. Per capita, Massachusetts ranks near the bottom of all 50 states in its outlays of funding for community colleges.

Addressing the phenomenon of regional sprawl, the authors acknowledge the familiar threats: stretched out commutes, ‘McMansions’ set on prime suburban acres, strip malls and depopulated old mill towns, and disappearing open countryside.   The stakes, they suggest, couldn’t be higher: the entire regional economy is at risk if sprawl continues unchecked.  Warning that the surge of suburban sprawl threatens the very New England town setting that makes this region so distinctive – the ‘Currier and Ives New England’ – the authors advocate the development and implementation of a new set of principles and rules for 21st century growth.  This plan should, in addition to taming suburban sprawl, include a program to “re-magnetize the region’s array of grand old cities so that many more businesses and residents will voluntarily choose them over suburban sites.”

Smart energy is singled out as the overriding issue that could compel Greater Boston to 21st century success.  “Greater Boston is one of the best qualified world regions – in brainpower, university departments, laboratories, capital – to elevate a renewable, green future from idealistic hope to on-the-ground reality…..Most of the pieces are already in place to make Greater Boston and Massachusetts national leaders in forging a green future.  Though they’re from different parties, Governor Romney and Mayor Menino are perfectly positioned to be the regional leaders to give this issue top-drawer and ongoing attention.  Romney can push green issues with the state bureaucracy and legislature; Menino can continue with experiments in his own city and in outreach to the other mayors across the region.  Handled sensitively, energy and sustainability for Greater Boston can be an issue with many winners and virtually no losers.”

The Boston Foundation intends to hold a series of ongoing discussions on Boston Unbound over the next several months as a way to engage civic leaders in looking for ways to act on the report’s findings.

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The Boston Foundation, one of the nation’s oldest and largest community foundations, has an endowment of almost $650 million, made grants of  $48 million to nonprofit organizations, and received gifts of $38 million last year. The Boston Foundation is made up of 750 separate charitable funds, which have been established by donors either for the general benefit of the community or for special purposes. The Boston Foundation also serves as a civic leader, convener, and sponsor of special initiatives designed to build community. For more information about the Boston Foundation and its grant making, visit , or call 617-338-1700.