October 2, 2005

Striking That Balance Between Big Government and No Government

Since 1990, Minneapolis neighborhood groups "have received some $200 million to improve houses, schools, parks, and commercial boulevards," writes Archon Fung, who teachers at Harvard's Kennedy Schol of Government, in today's Boston Globe magazine. In Boston, meanwhile, there's still what he sees as a "relative lack of collaboration with neighborhood associations."

Because neighborhood associations [in Minneapolis] were empowered to make investment decisions, many residents became involved. The funds also allowed these groups to hire staff to keep the organizations going. As a result, even the very poorest have functioning community organizations. These groups use their money and mobilize thousands of volunteer hours on countless community projects that enhance the quality of the city's neighborhoods.

Fung's key point is that the "social network" including families, houses of worship and community organizations are criticial in disasters like Hurricane Katrina - government alone can't address all problems. He's annoyed that "many people still want government to be the sole savior." (He doesn't express the same annoyance that our federal appointed hacks don't seem to want their agencies to take any responsibility for adequately providing any services, beyond taking care of their cronies, but that's a rant for another time).

However, in general, it's a good and often overlooked point that the best service delivery - whether for local education, disaster relief or community planning - is a balanced partnership between government and non-government local entities. Simply funneling tax dollars to local community groups, which might or might not have planning and financial expertise, is not necessarily the best approach. But neither is the government coming in and deciding what's best for a neighborhood, without local input (as the demolition of Scollay Square for the hideously designed Boston City Hall Plaza makes clear).

That's one reason I was happy to hear that Framingham is considering creating a citizen's advisory group as part of a plan to investigate feasibility of depressing Rte. 126 under the railroad tracks downtown. Done well, such a project could theoretically ease downtown traffic snarls while helping revitalize the surrounding business district. Done with only automotive traffic in mind, a resulting traffic sewer could kill off any hope of creating a vibrant business community there. (It's nice that people think there could be for Framingham's version of a Little Dig massive capital project, while rebuilding our substandard branch library or actually putting pavement as opposed to crushed gravel on our roads is apparently too expensive, but that also is a rant for another post.)

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