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A BETTER BOSTON | NEAL PEIRCE AND CURTIS JOHNSON

Help wanted: leaders for the 21st century

(First in a series)
SERIOUS interruptions in global oil supplies imperiling energy-dependent New England. Global warming that raises the sea levels. A terrorist attack -- perhaps biologic agents employed against the Boston region's world-famed universities. Federal politics or budget squeezes triggering sharp shrinkage of the billions of dollars of research grants that fuel Greater Boston's biotech preeminence.

As scary as those scenarios sound, they're entirely plausible. But is the Boston region resilient enough to cope with any of them?

It ought to be. Seen from the outside, the region has amazing strategic resources at its command: Depth and variety of intellectual power rival few places on the planet. Amazing laboratory-to-product breakthroughs. Established financial power. A world-renowned collection of universities, colleges, health institutions, and laboratories.

For a dawning century of the intellect, what better strengths could a region enjoy?

Greater Boston's advantages are in fact so enormous that it might even rest on its laurels, and with a little luck, stumble past most early 21st century challenges.

The problem is that stumblers don't build muscle tone and easily miss big opportunities. Which would be a tragic error for Greater Boston. Why? Because this region has such immense resources. If it mobilizes them, if it moves vigorously to deal with its critical challenges, it can become one of the most rewarding places on Earth to live, learn, and prosper in the 21st century.

But it's not there now.

Take the region's social chasms, its highly paid educated elite distancing themselves geographically and economically from working classes, many heavily immigrant, that are barely scraping by in poor neighborhoods and threadbare old mill towns. This ominous divergence evokes deep ironies in a region that literally gave birth to American ideals of shared democratic rights across lines of birth and class.

What institution, by its public service mission and sheer magnitude, should be addressing that issue? We'd nominate Boston's world-renowned collection of colleges and universities and hospitals, repositories of global knowledge, now the region's largest employers. But they continue to float blithely in their archipelago of advanced thought, generally resisting suggestions that they focus their immense skills on how to assure a cohesive, equitable civil society in their home region.

Alarmingly, a single crisis is already poised to have devastating impact on the region: soaring house prices and America's highest rental costs. Starter apartment rents are too steep for many technicians and nurses, and housing sticker shock is now rattling even highly professional or MD levels -- people critical to building and maintaining a strong economy. There's peril of severe labor shortages when the regional economy hits full tilt again.

As if that weren't serious enough, the region's very birthright -- its wondrous New England town and countryscape -- is in a state of serial sacrifice to the gods of subdivision building. How incongruous -- at the very moment the notion of real town centers and walkable neighborhoods is catching hold around the country, the vast majority of new developments in the Boston orbit reflect characterless, cookie-cutter generica.   Continued...

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