To Be the Best City of Its Size

There was a time not that long ago when it was common to hear a statement that was used to sum up the purpose of the community’s manifold efforts to move Lowell forward—efforts in the public and private sectors, efforts involving vast financial investments or genuine sweat equity, efforts involving deep social engagement, and efforts that are short-, medium-, and long-range. I have heard some people say it recently. The statement was an aspiration, really, a goal. And the goal was this: To make Lowell the best city of its size in the nation.

This is simple, but ambitious. Audacious, actually. Someone from a wealthy suburban town outside Boston once told me that he and his friends were impressed by Lowell because they saw Lowell as a community with a strong ego.To announce that you believe your city can be the best place of its size in the country means you are willing to challenge yourself, big-time. We can’t be Boston or Seattle, but there are many small- to medium-sized cities in the country. In each of them people are trying to create an optimum experience, with mixed results. We can compete in our weight class. In some categories, like historic preservation, Lowell is already regarded as a title-holder, a champion. UMass Lowell is considered one of the best universities of its size and type (a public research institution). Middlesex Community College stands out among community colleges nationwide.

When I mentioned this overarching goal to a friend at breakfast last week, he said, You need to define “best”—meaning, What are the indicators that function as directional signs keeping you on the right route? The City of Lowell itself has a master plan called Sustainable Lowell 2025 with lots of objectives that constitute a kind of road map to the destination of desired-city status. The plan emerged from a complex public process coordinated by the City’s planning staff.

The vision of the desired city arises from these four principles:

Lowell will offer a high quality of life for residents of all backgrounds and stages of life by building upon the strength of its neighborhoods as diverse, accessible communities whose established character is celebrated and preserved, and whose lifestyle amenities are well integrated and readily available.
Drawing upon its rich and authentic natural, cultural, institutional, and historical resources, Lowell will serve as a local and regional hub for innovation and sustainable economic development with an unmistakable pride of place and a vibrant urban downtown.
By proactively preparing for and adapting to social, economic, and environmental trends at the local, regional, and global level, Lowell will maintain an effective and innovative municipal government, foster an engaged community, support a diversified and sustainable economic base, and preserve its environmental assets, striving to put policies in place that will endure beyond any given set of leaders.
Through increased accountability, education, civic engagement, and action Lowell will cultivate a community-wide, shared ethic of sustainability whose implications and merits – for both the present and future – are broadly understood.

These are relevant and admirable principles that make sense. The vision is backed up by many recommended action steps, all of which can be measured along the way to implementation. But I wonder if we should revisit the mega-goal of becoming the best city of our size in the nation? Is that statement the big bold tent under which everyone can gather? A tent whose stakes are embedded in and out of government territory, a tent whose flaps are untied to allow for the unexpected arrival of a new person — a tent in which everyone’s work has a place.

We are at the beginning of a new political year, and a new budget year for some. For others it is a new calendar year, but a half-way point in the school year or budget cycle. Is this a good time to reassemble around a goal that would help guide everyone’s community work and provide inspiration?  A goal that would provide meaning to the collective work, to connect the dots of effort. What does it all add up to? Do we want to know when we get there—if we can get there? The work goes on, as a famous person said. Is it a goal grounded in reality and worthy of people’s faith? Can a city today say such a thing in joined voices?

For me, in the past 40 years it has been helpful to believe and feel that I was part of an effort that was bigger than my personal journey. Knowing the goal made me see my individual actions as coherent. In his later years, Paul Tsongas talked and wrote about a journey of purpose. The purpose gives meaning to behavior day to day. I’ve always believed that the ongoing revival, the reclaiming of Lowell’s place and story, is an extraordinary endeavor. It’s a serious piece of business that has yielded tremendous satisfaction and joy to many people. Pat Mogan always said the economic and social advances had to be concrete and benefit Lowell people in both daily material conditions and in their psyches.

Lowell has a stellar tradition of community singing, in choruses and choirs all over the city. Walt Whitman wrote, “I hear American singing, the varied carols I hear . . . .” Can we form the community chorus in all our variety, find harmony, and raise one another up to the next level of urban life?

5 Responses to To Be the Best City of Its Size

  1. kosta says:

    Don’t forget our physical advantages: state forest, two rivers and canals, three high lands (Highlands, Belvidere and Christian Hill. Lowell is beautiful. Did I miss something?

  2. DickH says:

    Great post, Paul. The city’s master plan, Sustainable Lowell 2025, certainly provides a good road map that points the way towards the “best mid-sized city in America” goal. In off-line conversations, you’ve argued that we need quantitative indicators with which to measure our progress. I’m not sure what they might be but I believe they are essential. Otherwise, we’re left to measurement by gut feeling which often means that the view of those with the loudest voices prevails. Perhaps our challenge for the first month of 2014 is to crowd-source a list of metrics that measure community building in Lowell

  3. joe from Lowell says:

    I feel just the same way – that living in Lowell and contributing to its revitalization means my life has meaning as part of something larger than myself.

    This city has been handed down to us by generations that came before, and we can work to hand it down in even better shape to those who will come after.

  4. JasonH says:

    “Revitalization” in Lowell has grown over the years to become something quite novel. Even your average civically un-engaged citizen has some awareness that their are many groups and individuals determined to raise the quality of life in the city. ” Making Lowell Better” has become part of who Lowellians are. Very few places have this kind of momentum built in to the local consciousness; and fewer still, if any, have the resources and resolve to make impactful changes. The seeds planted by Mogan’s and Tsongas’; and again replanted by Howe’s and Marion’s have quickened throughout the decades leaving us with a city in which Tsongas’ ” journey of purpose” has become our everyday lives. Converting Lowell Pride in to hope in specific ideas has become our model as a city; i.e. ( Lelacheur, Tsongas Arena, HGD, etc..)
    Dick and Paul are posing the questions: What are we hoping for now? What can we measure and track to better understand how effective are efforts are? It’s critical that we better understand why, depsite being a very dense city with strong neighborhood commercial corridors, we continue to be a city of suburbanites ( driving everywhere). Obviously the location of jobs and transit are directly related to how many cars a family needs, but I think it’s time to have as real a baseline assigned to our travel habits as possible. Who’s driving where; who’s walking where, and why? Becoming a city where things are done on foot is the most important step we can take to improve our quality of life.

  5. Joe S. says:

    We will know that we have arrived when at least 30,000 engaged residents vote in the 2025 local election.