Saturday, October 3, 2009

Healing Fragmented Cities

This is a re-posting of a guest post I submitted for my friend Leland Cheung's campaign page. He is currently running for Cambridge City Council.

Many people would rightly recognize that Cambridge is a fragmented city. Walking along the Charles River past the campuses of Harvard or MIT gives no hint of the default economic segregation you would find in East Cambridge or Central Square. But how can local government work to help heal these divides? What difference can a city official hope to accomplish against such entrenched structures and beliefs?

I spent the summer of 2009 working for the start-up (and largely experimental) California Fisheries Fund. Engaging with a diverse group of small fishing businesses, environmental NGOs, and local government representation, I saw first hand the tremendous societal value that can be created in a small community through collaboration. Examining my experience in light of Leland Cheung’s candidacy for the Cambridge City Council, I see many parallels between what I witnessed first hand in Morro Bay, CA, and Leland’s vision he is bringing to this campaign.

The city of Morro Bay, CA is small in comparison to the other cities along the Central Coast, but has a history filled with character and success. Once a thriving commercial fishing port, it has seen its fish landings (and economy) implode in the wake of misguided regulation mismanagement of key species. Fishermen stood at loggerheads with regulators, environmental groups pushing for wholesale restoration of the local ecology clashed daily with economic planners, and the results of this conflict proved disastrous. Some studies have shown a 75%-80% drop in commercial activity, and the loss of many once-profitable businesses with that decline.

But now things seem to be moving in a different direction. NGOs with strict environmental missions have begun to embrace market forces as a powerful tool for reform and change. Hardy, independent fishermen are beginning to see enhanced value for fish that are harvested in a more sustainable manner, and are considering working together for the first time memory to ensure the catch of future generations. Local government officials are beginning to see the spark of economic revival through this unique collaborative effort, and hope for this sleepy little town is on the rise once again. The local harbormaster and mayor’s office have begun to embrace a plan to invigorate the local economy: a comprehensive plan built on environmentally sound fishing practices and innovative product marketing jointly created by all involved parties.

All of this because groups once committed to opposite extremes have begun to talk to each other, to find value in engagement, and have begun to focus on what is possible tomorrow, not on what has transpired in the past. Commercial landings are on the rise again, and a handful of businesses have arisen, driven by thoughtful, local entrepreneurs, to create and keep this new value in the community. Again, all possible because groups once aligned against each other have begun to listen and work for the sake of their combined fate.

Such engagement is what Leland dreams about for the city of Cambridge. This is without a doubt a fragmented city. Standing alongside the economic and knowledge engines that are Harvard and MIT we have entire populations of people who are clearly being left behind, segregated by old prejudices existing between city and university. Bridging this gap is not going to be easy, but I have to believe it is possible. If a ruggedly individualistic fisherman can sit down and listen to an MIT educated businessman who has never been on a fishing boat, finding value in the conversation that directly applies to the community’s well-being, I am confident that the same type of thing can happen here. It only needs a nudge, a push in the right direction. Electing Leland Cheung and giving him a chance to represent the interests of all of Cambridge will certainly be a step towards that end.

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