Bridging the urban-rural divide in Mass.
Three suggestions for linking Boston and rest of state
EVAN HOROWITZ AND JAMES PINDELL of the Boston Globe remarked in a November 14 article that “the Trump effect” occurred in Massachusetts as well: while Greater Boston voted more Democratic in 2016 than 2012, outside of I-495 trended more Republican—often significantly.
A map accompanying the story depicted a growing divide between Greater Boston and the more outlying, rural parts of our state. And it’s not just political divisions on the rise—gaps are widening between urban and rural with regard to educational attainment, inequality of opportunity, and even life expectancy. While the Globe’s and similar analyses suggest one consequence of our geographic divergence, much less attention has been paid to how this divide formed—and more importantly, what we can do about it.
Today’s economy runs on human connection and creativity, both of which favor cities at the detriment of the countryside. But not all urban centers are winners—educated young people flock in particular to inclusive, connected places with plentiful options for work, leisure, and living. Boston has thrived in this new economy—and has weathered the Great Recession far better than many other metro areas across the country—because of a solid foundation of world-class institutions of higher education and unparalleled medical facilities, catalyzed by a robust financial sector that keeps the process of innovation churning. Prosperity is not without challenges: increased congestion and inequality are all too evident in overcrowded transit and skyrocketing rents. Yet, Boston in 2017 truly lives up to its moniker as The Hub without any doubt more than it did for much of the 20th Century.
But as Boston surges ahead, many areas of Massachusetts are being left behind. The steady drumbeat of automation and corporate offshoring means fewer tickets to the middle class for the families and communities that once relied on manufacturing wages.
According to US Census data, while the population of Suffolk County rose by 7.2 percent between 2010 and 2015, Berkshire and Franklin counties saw decreases of 2.7 percent and 1.1 percent, respectively. Declining tax bases place further strains on services, as illustrated in a January 2017 CommonWealth article by Linda Enerson detailing challenges of funding and consolidation facing rural educators in Franklin County. The gaps widen between urban and rural, creating vicious cycles of decline.
State Sen. Adam Hinds, a Democrat from Pittsfield, describes the divergent realities between Greater Boston and the rest of Massachusetts as an emerging “tale of two states.” While our urban-rural divide may be growing, we have the opportunity to change the narrative: not one of separate fates for urban and rural Massachusetts, but one of a shared future.
Smart, flexible policies that recognize and harness the interdependence between Boston and the rest of Massachusetts will help bridge our urban-rural divide and bring greater prosperity and a more sustainable future for our state and its people.
While a framework of urban-rural mutualism could be applied to any particular policy area, we have opted to briefly highlight three such instances in which people, goods, and money might move in and out of Boston for the benefit of urban and rural alike.
First, enhancing our statewide food system of fresh produce grown on Massachusetts farms sold in our cities can benefit everyone—it provides income and jobs for those in rural communities and healthier diets and more sustainable lifestyles for those in urban neighborhoods. School lunch programs (e.g. the Massachusetts Farm to School Project); contracts between Boston-area universities, hospitals, or care homes and outside farms; and partnerships between nonprofits and farmers to provide access to local food in low-income neighborhoods can strengthen the bonds between city and countryside.
Second, rural tourism and recreation in the form of visits to corn mazes, apple orchards, ski slopes, hiking and biking trails, and other natural and historic attractions can provide scenic views and a brief respite for those seeking to spend a day or weekend outside of the city. For example, growing agritourism ventures along Route 2 in Worcester County such as the Johnny Appleseed Trail Visitors Center can both safeguard the past and ensure a brighter future for rural communities.
Third, faster and more reliable transportation links between Boston and the regions that lie beyond are an investment in our shared future. Right now, Western Massachusetts is more connected via rail to New York City than to Boston, only widening the distance many feel exists between them and Beacon Hill. Countries around the world have had access to modern, high-speed inter-city rail systems for decades. Why can’t we? As the ways people live and work rapidly evolve, we cannot afford to fall behind. A proposal from Sen. Eric Lesser, a Democrat from Longmeadow, for commuter rail service between Boston and Springfield is a much-needed step toward providing ease of access for those who wish to live in Western Massachusetts and work in Eastern Massachusetts, or vice versa. A rail link to Worcester has already paid dividends to the local economy, and South Coast Rail promises similar results for New Bedford and Fall River. Better rail access to Boston can alleviate traffic congestion and reduce the city’s housing crisis while boosting growth and opportunities in regions outside of the MBTA’s current reach.