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?