Sometimes you have to leave home so you can see yourself and your home and all of its challenges and opportunities more clearly. Thanks to the Barr Foundation, I recently spent 5 incredibly inspiring days alongside a group of Massachusetts leaders at the Urban Future conference in Oslo, Norway.
The power of cities to create policy and drive change is more important now than ever before. The Urban Future conference brought together (mostly European) mayors and other elected officials, city managers, urban planners, and leaders of non-profits — all of us focused on building low-carbon, resilient cities that are healthy and accessible.
Two booming cities on the water: Which one was designed for its people?
Oslo, a vibrant city on the water (in their case, a fjord) shares a lot in common with Boston. Their city center houses about a million citizens with their metro area composing about 1.7 million. Cultural institutions dot the city from their iconic opera house to their new Munch Museum. Their equivalent of Boston’s Seaport District is just a short walk from their bustling downtown office buildings. But when it comes to the waterfront, that is where the similarities end.
In Oslo, the prime waterfront real estate is dedicated to public use: a huge urban beach, a wide boardwalk, restaurants, shops, boat rentals, public art and public parks, and even a floating sauna where you can drop in for a relaxing steam before plunging into the icy cold fjord for refreshment.
A week after I returned to Boston, with the experience of Oslo still fresh in my mind, I took my team down to the Seaport District. I was hoping my overwhelming feeling that Boston had made a mistake, handing it’s most valuable property to private developers was an outdated impression of the rapidly developing area. As we crossed from the Rose Kennedy Greenway and entered the Seaport with its towering buildings, we looked for the water…but we couldn’t see it.
Finally, we caught a glimpse of the ocean as we approached the Institute of Contemporary Art (and had a magical trip across the water to enjoy the ICA Watershed and its arresting video installation on climate change, Purple, by artist John Akomfrah). We then returned to the Seaport District and strolled the Harbor Walk, a narrow walkway that left us feeling we were interrupting construction projects and standing on the back patio of the people who live in those gleaming towers on the water. My fear was confirmed, Boston had given the cold shoulder to its citizens and visitors and handed our crown jewels to private developers. Just as insulting as the privatization of our waterfront is the practical fact that this new neighborhood seems to neglect the reality of sea level rise.
But just there at the end of the Harbor Walk sits an opportunity that the Boston Globe is calling a Rorschach test for our city. Will we rebuild the Northern Avenue Bridge to encourage more cars to travel to the already clogged Seaport, or will we make it a pedestrian and cycling track to signal that this is the best way to travel to this part of our city?
Our urban design decisions tell us what — and whom — we value
In 2015, a new party took over city government in Oslo and began working on a project they called: “Car Free City Life.” Over the last several years, Oslo, a city committed to making itself resilient to climate change and to being part of the global climate solution rather than the problem, has rethought how it prioritizes its city streets. This began by asking citizens what they wanted more of in their city center. No one asked for more cars. City leaders decided to prioritize its public spaces for livability and to take action that reduced emissions and pollution and created a more pleasant urban experience.
They started by closing off streets on Saturdays and then moving on to closing some Squares to traffic. They eventually removed most street parking and reallocated that space for people. Year-round, Oslo sidewalks are now full of citizens and visitors sitting on benches and talking at tables. They planted tons of trees and “let the wildlife back into the city” according to Oslo’s Vice Mayor for Urban Development Hanna Marcussen.
Changing our mind — with some help
Amsterdam and other European cities have reached the same conclusion. Over the last hundred years, we ceded our most valuable spaces to cars. The great news? None of this is irreversible. We can change our minds and create cities for people and tuck cars in spaces that are less valuable and are connected by great transit.
The icy fjord was not the only thing about Oslo that took my breath away — so did the transit system. The trams, subways, and buses are accessible, clean, intuitive, and, best of all, frequent and reliable.
Again and again, Oslo leaders said that they achieved this transformation of their city by creating a plan and sticking to it. People protested. It was bumpy, but now the city is less congested with traffic and the sidewalks and streets are full of people. No one seems to be looking backward and feeling wistful about the days when the streets were full of traffic and every curb was occupied by an empty hunk of metal. By the way, the majority of new cars on the road are electric, a key way Norway is hitting its climate goals.
Setting new standards to enable the future that we want and deserve
Throughout the Urban Future conference, I saw presentation after presentation on European cities that are working hard to become carbon neutral. They’ve set aggressive goals to convert their vehicle fleets to electric. This is prompting transformation for whole industries such as construction that are now designing cement mixers, backhoes and the like that are electric. The Netherlands coupled policy mandates with public investments in these industries to create new markets. The result? Zero emission construction of zero emission buildings.
We could have this, too.
This trip across the world strengthened my belief that transformational change begins locally. I’m lucky enough to run an organization that exists to steward one of the world’s epicenter of innovation into the future within a city that prides itself on being progressive. Here are a few of the ideas that I brought home with me:
Great cities need great transit.
Just because our system is old doesn’t mean it can’t do what we need it to do. The MBTA needed improvements 25 years ago. Now, it needs transformational change — new accountability, new technology, new service delivery worthy of the citizens it serves.
Massachusetts’ decision to shortchange transit means that all of us picked up the cost of owning more cars, taking more Ubers, creating more congestion and dumping more CO2 into the atmosphere. That’s what we call a lose-lose.
We like to win here in Massachusetts. Let’s stop the whack-a-mole approach to transit investment and raise some real money to put into the system coupled with some real accountability to give us all what we deserve.
Real leaders can take the heat.
Erion Veliaj, Mayor of Tirana, the capital city of Albania, has radically reimagined how the city uses their streets and public spaces. Blocks of the city that used to be snarled with traffic are now safe streets and green spaces where people can walk, cycle and spend time together.
In Tirana’s case, it all started with children looking for places in the city to ride their bicycles. As the mayor showed us photos of polluted spaces that have been transformed using design competitions and other open-source methods to spur engagement, his message was clear: If we can do this in a challenged economy like ours, you can do this where you live. The corollary he offered, however, is that we need leaders guided by this question: “Do you want to win the next election? Or you do you want to win the next generation?”
Oslo’s city leaders said the same thing: no one likes change. But sometimes we need our leaders to make the tough decisions that lead to a better future for us and for our children.
Instead of honking at that cyclist, just say thank you.
The vice-mayor of Oslo told us that, to be a mayor, you have to understand new mobility. The mobility decisions our cities make come with costs and benefits. The cost to society of a cyclist? A penny. The cost of a driver? $9.
Drivers aren’t bad people, but we are more expensive. On top of that, single occupancy vehicles are never going to move more people through cities faster than good transit — or even good cycle paths. Cars on city streets are slow. So let’s create mechanisms to encourage ways for people to travel efficiently.
The Northern Avenue Bridge really is a Rorschach test for Boston at this pivotal moment as we develop our Urban Future — and there are dozens more examples like it. The design decisions we make send signals, create patterns of behavior, tell stories, and create positive — or negative — impacts. We can invite more cars into our city with all of their accompanying costs. Or we can invest in transit, build safe and beautiful spaces for people, and show the world that the Commonwealth doesn’t just love history — we embrace the future too.