Saturday, May 03, 2008

Boston Civic Summit

I attended the Boston Civic Summit today. While I do enjoy any reason to visit the sparkling new Boston Convention and Exhibition Center, I was not expecting to spend most of the day there. The summit turned out to be a fairly good event.

The best measure of civic involvement in Boston is by counting people who vote. Turnout in Boston in November of 2007 was 14 percent (of registered voters). That's pretty bad. This year, turnout should be high, since we're in a Presidential year. Maybe it will even reach 60 percent (it was in the high 50s in 2004).

What I find ironic about this is that the great majority of issues I hear every day from Boston residents are local issues. Crime. Education. Picking up trash. These are issues that are not really addressed by the President of the United States. They are issues that are addressed by the Mayor and Boston City Councilors. Yet, turnout this November for the Presidential election could be three times as high as turnout will be in November 2009, when Boston will elect a Mayor and the entire slate of City Councilors. For the election that really matters for the issues my neighbors care about, no one will bother to vote.

In some ways I like that Boston has off-year municipal elections. Since so few voters actually go to the polls, the people who do vote are *really* important. Local candidates work very hard to figure out who they will be-- based on voting records for similar municipal elections. The flood of auto calls and literature I receive ahead of these elections is pretty impressive.

Back to the civic summit. In my opinion, the afternoon was better than the morning. I got a chance to chat with Adam Gaffin, who runs Universal Hub, about better ways for me to get his site Beacon Hill information, without causing extra work for him.

The lunch talk was outstanding. Dr. Thomas Sander, who is the Executive Director of the Saguaro Seminar at Harvard, discussed the need for social capital. The fact that social capital within neighborhoods is what creates trust and improves quality of life. The fact that cities with high social capital are just bound to be nice places to live. The fact that as residents we need to "bond" to neighbors who resemble us and "bridge" to neighbors who don't look like us.

The best part of the talk was at the end. Eva Webster, who's with the Aberdeen-Brighton Residents Association, made a passionate plea for all to bridge social economic classes in our neighborhoods. I hear her. Beacon Hill isn't exactly known for being diverse in this regard.

After the lunch talk, the 400+ participants held a town meeting of sorts. It was a little long, but the format resulted in a few near-term civic initiatives that should be goals for the entire civic summit:
  • Establishing a civic association exchange program,
  • Improving the after school mentoring and tutoring program,
  • Enhancing the summer employment program for at-risk kids, and
  • Creating a city-wide litter and anti-graffiti program.
Long-term goals were selected as well, though the short term ones took special attention. Participants were asked to volunteer to support one of the four initiatives. I picked the civic association exchange program. There is a follow up meeting planned for June 3 in the evening back at the Boston Convention Center.

Overall, I had low expectations for the event, and I was pleasantly surprised. It was refreshing to see so many people talking about ways to make Boston better without complaining all the time. The passion was contagious.

Michael Pahre files his report here.


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the zak said...

J. Bernstein on the Council staff, maintains our municipal Boston City Council Reference Library a little used resource available for researching civic matters... "The City Council maintains a reference library which is open to city employees, students and the general public. The library contains City Council Minutes, Municipal Registers and City Documents dating from the early 1800's to the present. In addition, the library contains current publications relating to municipal law and finance."

the zak said...

Where is there any audio from the Boston Civic Summit?... speeches?... presentations?... etc.?...

Ross Levanto said...

Hey zak--

They said at the end they would be sending out the results from the final "town meeting" to the participants at the summit. However, I am not sure if they will be posting the audio or video from the event. I will let you know though. Ross

the zak said...

thank you ross levanto!

What's in the binder handed out that's mentioned in one of the news articles about the Boston Civic Summit?...

Ross Levanto said...

Zak-- The binder provided an agenda for the day, as well as biographies on the speakers. You also got a pen, a pad and a cheap calculator. All of it branded for the summit! Considering everything was free, I guess I should not be sarcastic.

the zak said...

Are the biographies on the web anywhere?...

R. Foley said...

ah! so you were the one in the cap!
you guys looked like you were having a good time. our table [18] was not as vigorous as I would have liked...
I expect all the stuff from the summit will be made available, with all the talk about transparency...

Ross Levanto said...


Yeah, I was wearing the baseball hat!

the zak said...

Ask for the materials, the binder from the Boston Civic Summit and for the reports... contact
G. Dhamo
Office of Boston City Council President Maureen Feeney
Boston City Hall, 5th Floor
Boston MA 02201

G. Dhamo
tel 617 635-3455
gdhamo at