The city’s Community Development Department (CDD) staff and others have presented us with a report on efforts to meet the Envision Goals. The city, represented with apparent satisfaction in the May 18, 2022 Cambridge Chronicle that "To date, 73% of the short-term actions are in progress." Iram Farooq, Assistant City Manager, and the Director of CDD states that "We’re pleased to share the Envision Cambridge Dashboard with the community. It shows the tremendous strides we’ve made toward realizing our collective vision for the future.” But this observation misses much of what is in play and leaves out far too much information. One of the problems with the original Envision Report is that it did not include any numbering system for the 114 or so goals that were included there. Nor in this Report did CDD add, much less link, specific goals with many of the specific goal criteria in the original report. Equally important, however, is that the Envision medium term and long-term goals, which are left out of this report altogether, are needed to show real progress by 2030 (only eight years away).
You can visit their site: HERE
In this report, we address each of the six categories and address them separately as they have been presented to us by CDD without addressing their specific link to the language and itemization of each goal in the original report. In addressing this report, we took up each category and offered an overall assessment of these goals - what has been achieved and what has not – as well as what has been left out of their findings.
All the charts and data in this post are from the CDD report presented on the site indicated above.
On why these issues matter: based on what we are seeing in the May 2022 Envision update report, it is clear that the city will meet very few of the Envision Goals by 2030 in most of the major categories.
In the graph at the top of this page CDD has presented us with what they see as the successes and losses on key issues they have chosen to address in the Envision Report. They chose only certain goals to feature and address here, but even with this minimal part of the whole report, the chart clearly shows where the problems lie.
In another graph (shown below in blue) provided by CDD one sees just how little has actually been accomplished to meet our 2030 goals now less than 8 years away.
This set of indicators is deeply disturbing. The pounds of trash collected has gone down a few percentage points but not enough to show any real progress. The percentages of Cambridge lands at risk for flooding have flatlined for both 10- and 100-year storm preparation.
Equally troubling are the missing data in this section: tree canopy coverage; percent of roof area covered in “cool” roofs; percentage of land area covered by non-building impervious surfaces; average daily potable water use by billed usage. Part of CDD's work should be to do regular inquiries of those they have contracted for work (on tree assessments for example) to making sure that this data is available, including how many saplings have been planted and how many have died.
-Also troubling is how the issue of Climate and the Environment has been politicized by pro-development supporters. CDD staff has done nothing to mitigate this divisiveness, which is necessary to meet the Envision goals.
Community Well Being receives mixed reviews. Most Cambridge residents feel very good about community life here. The percentage of survey respondents who feel safe in the city is even higher than it was. That is good news and we can thank the City Police, Social Services and others for their work. On health and wellness, a sizable number of our adults and students engage in physical activity. It will be important to see if those numbers rise in the post-COVID period to meet 2030 Goals.
Considerable attention in the report - and rightly in the city itself – focuses on questions of racial and ethnic diversity. Here we see mixed reviews. It is great that most residents, regardless of race see Cambridge as a welcoming place for everyone! We have serious questions about the data sets used specifically on racial/ethnic composition of city residents. We know that more and more African American families are moving out of the city (costs and gentrification are a key factors); we also know that more and more Asians are moving into the city, some with the large biotech and infotech companies. Asian students are also increasingly a larger part of the Cambridge school population and their scores remain high. Why did CDD choose to co-join African Diaspora and Asian residents here? Comparative data from the Cambridge Community Foundation 2020 report shows a different picture.
All told, this is a very mixed Community Well Being report. There are some serious questions about how the data on race and ethnicity were used ? to come up with these conclusions.
Cambridge may be one of the top ten richest cities in the country, but we are not using our resources well. There are serious problems in the economic sector. Small businesses, particularly local businesses are the mainstay of any community - often paying the highest salaries, contributing more to the community, and being more responsive to events on the ground. Before COVID, our numbers of small retail, food service, and accommodation (inns, B&Bs etc.) businesses were down, with COVID they are likely to be even worse. The city has tried to help some during the critical COVID period, but we need to be far more proactive if we are going to bring any real change.
On the plus side, more minority-and women-owned businesses are participating in city grants and other programs. However, while the numbers for Hispanic-owned businesses are up slightly, those of Blacks are down. For those with disabilities the numbers fluctuate, but are largely flatlined.
On median income by race and ethnicity Blacks and Hispanics have roughly remained the same; were we to add to this graph both Asians and Whites the results would be even more telling. On educational attainment the statistics are terrible, especially for a city that places so much emphasis on education and where we dedicate so much funding for it. The data show Blacks to be sliding down hill while Hispanics are increasing in achievement scores. Lower income more generally has flat lined. If we add Asians and Whites to this data set the results would look even worse.
To get a far better sense of what is happening in Cambridge in terms of income differentials including school outcomes one needs to look at the Cambridge Community Foundation
We need to use our resources better. We are wealthy. Cambridge has experienced the greatest percentage increase in median household income since 2010 out of all U.S. cities with more than 100,000 population. The Cambridge median household income has grown by 59% according to an April 2021 Forbes report, likely skewed by recent bio/tech and info/tech jobs. We must find the means and will to address equity even with this change.
Much of CDD's focus in the last couple of years has been on housing, consistent with the widespread concern that housing costs are going up in the City as they are in many other places in the area, the country, and internationally. How is Cambridge handling this both important and deeply fraught issue? Not well. There is too much data missing in this interim report that the City should be providing. For example: what share of new housing produced in Cambridge is affordable; how many new affordable housing units have been produced; what is the annual investment in affordable housing initiatives from City sources. CDD clearly knows what these data are (many of them have been widely published) but have chosen not to do so here.
The number of total housing units has increased slightly. This is a good thing considering how dense a city we already are. Simply adding more market rate housing to an already over-heated housing market will not help us get to where we need to be. The city should be using its own properties for housing and should buy more for this purpose – particularly along major corridors. Ongoing gentrification appears to be a factor, yet to date no actions have been put forward by the City or City Council on how to counter this.
Among the data that CDD has chosen to share with us is the change in race and ethnic composition of the city. Here we see too that CDD has placed Asians with Blacks rather than showing them separately. The comparative decrease in African diaspora residents is important to know, particularly since it is delineated as a significant issue for schools and the economy. We can also see here how few residents have children under 18, likely a result of job increases for younger residents and the growing number of our senior population. Wealthier individuals and developers continue to buy properties here; too often converting rental apartments into expensive condos or large single-family homes. Despite all the effort put into housing, the changes that the report has chosen to show, are not going in a positive direction except for the total number of housing units.
Despite all the effort put into housing, the changes that the report has chosen to show, are not going in a positive direction except for the total number of housing units.
Transportation is a critical issue for Cambridge which is not only already very dense city but also has considerable cut-through traffic going to other places and more and more commercial development (adding tens of thousands of employees). Let's start with the good news.
The rest of the mobility report is disappointing. We see key categories with no data even though we know such data exist. Why? CDD’s missing data include: available mobility options; the number of residents that live within 0.5 walking distance miles of an MBTA subway station; and the number of residents that live within 0.25 miles walking distance of an MBTA high frequency bus line.
Sadly, the vital goal of getting more Cambridge residents out of their cars and traveling by public transit, by foot, by bike or other means shows flatlining both for those who live in Cambridge and for those who do not live here, but work in our city. One key problem is a lack of viable public transportation in key parts of the city. Another is So, in the end, there are major pluses (steep drop in accident seriousness and numbers) and serious minuses in this section.
In sum, there are decided pluses (steep drop in accident seriousness and numbers) and minuses (key goals have flatlined or data is not included in this section.
The good news first: Residents are happy with the overall appearance of the city. In part we can thank the Cambridge Historical Commission and Neighborhood Conservation Districts for that. We also must thank our terrific Sanitation staff, as well as the BID in Central Square and the local Business Associations (in Harvard Square and East Cambridge) who undertake part of this work themselves.
Here’s the bad news: Important Envision goals are left out of CDD's assessment for this section, including providing plans and design criteria for different city areas and various kinds of development that would be allowed or encourage. What has happened instead is developers putting forward a plan and then assuming that citizens and the Planning Board or BZA to tweak around the edges. We had hoped to get a new city plan, but CDD chose instead to give us Envision (with goals that are often contradictory).
The City also has acquired little if any new land for critically needed new green spaces in the denser parts of the city to address both health and environmental inequities and justice. On private land, where green spaces and trees also matter for neighborhood vitality, CDD has been pushing for more infill market rate housing which will increase heat island impacts in much of the city. Why do we see the ongoing lack of City Planning? Why are only certain items in this section of Envision discussed in the report, leaving out other Urban Form goals, such as the need to preserve historic buildings, or to add greater height/density on some of the corridors for housing.
There is further bad news in the many sections with “Missing Data,” including information on new units near MBTA subway stations. The city should have acquired more properties specifically to meet these goals; the recent Lesley University/Porter Square sale is a case in point. We are missing data on residential proximity to parks even though we know this data is available. And why have no new areas for green space in our city's denser areas been acquired? Finally we are missing data for reversing the declining tree canopy over streets and sidewalks. Why? This is critical to making residences in denser parts of the city cooler, and for enhancing shopping in our Squares.
In the end, Envision’s Urban Form Goals are some of the most important for the city, and this is one of the largest sections of the Envision Report. Without strong planning we do not get to where we need to be for this generation of residents, much less for the next generation, and the one after that.
In conclusion, the CDD report and the progress to date is replete with failures, missing data, problematic presentation of data, missed opportunities, and a lack of vision on how to bring about the kinds of changes that the residents of this notably wealthy, progressive, and caring city had hoped for and deserve. Residents had asked for a city plan but the city chose not to do one. Instead, we got a myriad of Envision "goals." But even in this they have failed to come through with what they promised and in far too many cases the city is backsliding. This was all happening before COVID. We need to do far better. And with new leadership, hopefully this will be possible.
The report is deeply disappointing from the vantage of both progress and results. Based on what we are seeing here, it is unlikely we will reach the 2030 goals we set for ourselves in most areas.
If the report were the work of any executive director of any professional organization, the individual and staff would certainly be held accountable for not meeting both annual and long-term goals (here our Envision Plan).
To receive such bad scores on the Envision Goals Assessment at this juncture is deeply problematic.