by Tilly Pick
When was the last time you were truly in awe about sustainability progress?
Last Tuesday, May 2, is my answer.
I was one of 40-50 sustainability-minded people gathered at the Venture Café in Cambridge that had the opportunity to hear firsthand about a community here in the Boston area that is on the forefront of sustainability. We were all there to learn about Somerville’s secret sauce.
You might have heard about Somerville in different contexts.
Right outside of Boston, Somerville is the birthplace of Fluff. A true achievement (😊).
Some consider Somerville to be one of the hippest places to live. Heard of Davis Square? For Holly Fowler, one of my fellow BASG’s co-organizers, “Somerville is the next best place to live after France.”
You might have heard of Somerville Mayor Joe Curtatone and his unabashedly socially progressive leadership, most recently standing strong in support of Somerville’s 30-year history as a sanctuary city.
Or you might know about Shape Up Somerville. Since 2002, when it was born from CDC-funded research led by Somerville community members and Tufts University (also in Somerville), Shape Up Somerville has been the city’s strategy to build and sustain itself as a healthier, more equitable community for everyone (video.)
In 2015 Somerville was again named as one of ten national winners of the National Civic League’s annual All-America City Awards. It’s clear there is a lot of good stuff happening.
What can you “borrow” from Somerville for your own community?
Listening to the BASG discussion, Somerville’s leadership has a lot to do with it. Mayor Curtatone is in his sixth term. Before that he served as an Alderman for 8 years. Who you elect matters.
In 2016 the median age of women and men in Somerville was 31, significantly lower than the U.S. median age of 38.9 and 36.2, respectively. Even more telling is a comparison based on the % of the population that is in their 20s and 30s. For Somerville, those groups are 30.9% and 20.7%. The U.S. is significantly lower at 14% and 13%.1 Youth matters.
Here’s another interesting fact. Also from 2016. Over 66% of Somerville’s 35,000 housing units are renter occupied. 2 That is a lot of renters who, in aggregate, appear to care a lot about their city. Homeownership may not matter.
Then there is this.
The population density of Somerville is out of this world. 19,067 people per square mile. It’s ranked #1 compared to the other 246 incorporated cities, towns and CDPs in Massachusetts. 1,2 People who live in Somerville are sitting on top of one another. Maybe that is a good thing. Shared spaces matter.
The city’s incredible population density also makes it easy to know what is going on and to participate. Density creates access. Makes intuitive sense, right?
And, density forces people to think of the place they live in as a system. “We have a lot of system thinkers our community,” said one of the presenters at the BASG event. That may be one of the reasons why Somerville is able to turn problems into solutions for other problems, like this: The difficulty getting to the city’s small green area triggered a bike transportation program that also put bicycling within reach of kids who never had the opportunity to ride a bike. It pays to look for the connections.
What’s even more fascinating, as an outsider looking in….
Remember the Law of Entropy from Physics class? Everything is moving towards a state of disorder. During my graduate work I re-encountered the idea as Chaos Theory. Somerville is bursting at its seams – literally — when it comes to programing and activities to create a more sustainable way of life for all. And the city seems to be thriving as it is unleashing itself. Disorder is ok. As one example, for Somerville, “the wide variety of partnerships is a key part of its success.”
How Somerville is addressing racial justice and environmental issues – the city looks at everything through that lens — may be the poster child for the connection between community, equality, happiness, and sustainability that Juliet Schor of Boston College talked about the April BASG event. You can read about Juliet’s presentation here. Really pay attention to “community.”
I also cannot help but see similarities between Somerville’s approach and agile software development.
Because there is so much going on in Somerville – always – the city is always iterating, constantly releasing new updates of how it’s delivering on its mission.
Just like large teams of developers collaborate openly to achieve a bigger outcome than their individual tasks, Somerville has a culture of collaboration across elected officials, city employees, volunteers, and residents.
And, Somerville is a community of doers who rely on customer participation and a seemingly continuous stream of feedback to push the city forward.
My bet is I’m just scratching the surface of what makes Somerville such a cool story. I sincerely hope this re-telling of May 2 will help you with yours.