For much of Boston’s early history, the municipal boundaries were constantly changing. Between the creation of new land and the incorporation of other towns, Boston grew from a small, hilly peninsula into the city we know today.
But Boston, for many people outside of the city and the area, is much more than just the city proper. I went to college in Connecticut, and people would say they were from Boston, and when asked, “What part?” they might answer North Shore, South Shore, Framingham, Waltham – all places pretty close to Boston, but not truly part of the city.
And the further you get away from Boston, the larger the city seems to grow. Most people outside of New England probably don’t know that Massachusetts has 350 other cities and towns. Although to be fair, some Bostonians probably think this is an accurate map:
It’s clear than that Boston is more than just the city itself but I don’t think Boston extends all the way out to I-495, or even out to I-95. I’d argue that what really constitutes Boston is the city itself, plus its close neighbors: Brookline, Cambridge, and Somerville. These four cities are all well connected by mass transit, and all have a relatively cohesive urban form that continues from one city to the next. As a full-time Bostonian for the past few years, my experience has been that moving between these cities is easy and doesn’t feel like you are in a complete different place.
But sometimes these cities don’t get along so well. For example, the Boston Herald ran a story last week about how the Together Festival had moved most of its operations to the other side of the Charles River, after being based in Boston last year. The article talked about how Boston had “lost” the festival but would work to “get it back” next year. Last year, Boston lured Vertex Pharmaceuticals away from Cambridge, and it was described as being a “coup” for Boston and the Innovation District.
I know cities want bragging rights. I know companies that need lots of office space mean more buildings and more property taxes for the city. I know that hosting cultural events has ripple economic effects for a city. What I don’t know is why Boston, Cambridge, Somerville, and Brookline can’t find a way to work together so they aren’t trying to steal companies and events from one another.
Think of all the things that could be easier if these cities could find a way to do some “micro-regional” planning and coordination: taxis that don’t mind bringing you across the river; bike-share systems that let you get where you want to go without worrying about crossing municipal boundaries; bike lanes that don’t stop in the middle of your commute; cultural attractions spread throughout the area; food trucks spread far and wide.
By starting to plan those kinds of services, you could foster the inter-city relationships needed to tackle even bigger problems, like public education and low- and moderate-income housing.
I love Boston, and I’m proud to call it home, but when I say I’m from Boston, that doesn’t mean I never venture into Brookline or across the river into Cambridge and Somerville, and I’d be willing to bet that is the case for most Bostonians, Cantabrigians, and whatever you call people from Somerville and Brookline (Somervillians and Brooklinites?).
Living in any one of these cities means living in all of them, and we need leadership that understands and is responsive to that dynamic.
- Nick Downing, Future Boston Program Manager