As part of its Civic Life Lunch series, Tisch College hosted a webinar with Somerville Mayor Joe Curtatone titled “Somerville on the Move: A City Transformed & Forging a New Path Forward” on Oct. 27.
The webinar was moderated by Jeffrey Berry, John Richard Skuse Class of 1941 professor of political science, who began by asking Mayor Curtatone about his decision not to run in the 2021 mayoral election which took place on Nov. 2.
“[At] the beginning of 2021 … I just asked myself two basic questions. One, would I still be standing up at the end of the calendar year? And also, would I still love the job?” Curtatone responded. “I said … I’ll serve the community better if I focus on getting us through COVID and all the things we need to do, especially taking on the systemic failures which were glaringly obvious during the pandemic, if they weren’t already.”
Curtatone was elected to the office in 2004 and has since spearheaded a number of initiatives that have shaped the lives of Somerville citizens.
Now that he is stepping away from public office, Curtatone has accepted the role of president of the board of the Northeast Clean Energy Council, a position he will begin in 2022.
“It is a small but impactful and influential organization,” Curtatone said of the NECEC. “It’s currently in New England states and New York State … but expanding throughout the Mid Atlantic to have the entire Northeast corridor . . . [It is] engaging and aligning all allies and stakeholders from industry, academia, to advocacy and nonprofit organizations already doing this work.”
Many of Curtatone’s policies as mayor of Somerville have focused on countering climate change. Programs such as the Somerville Climate Forward Plan, which charts a path to carbon neutrality for the city by 2050, work to integrate environmental legislation with community development.
Curtatone noted the importance of including diverse voices in the fight for climate justice.
“[The NECEC is] amplifying — not just giving a seat at the table, amplifying — the voices of Black, brown, poor people,” Curtatone said. “I’m … understanding very clearly that I am getting into an industry and an organization that is white-male dominated, and it’s an opportunity to lead with those values which, again, just embody so much of what … I’ve had the pleasure to do as mayor.”
Berry asked Mayor Curtatone about the problem of affordable housing and gentrification in Somerville.
Curtatone’s affordable housing policies include the 2,000 Homes Initiative, which works to support Somerville residents at risk of eviction.
“We’re seeking to buy residential units in existing neighborhoods to preserve housing,” he said. “We’re doing a competitive job building the new units, but losing on our streets and our neighborhoods where people live.”
Berry also noted that some long-time Somerville residents are wary of the extent that the city has been changing over time, and asked how Curtatone has responded to complaints that “the old Somerville is dying.”
“We need to be good listeners, though, and recognize and accept that opinion, that commentary, that criticism, with grace,” Curtatone responded. “When we’ve developed, as a community, SomerVision, we try to embrace those values.”
SomerVision2040 is a comprehensive plan for development of the City of Somerville with goals of advancing equity, preventing displacement, encouraging community involvement and making citywide progress over the next 20 years.
“We need to make sure we’re leading with equity and we’re not leaving those voices behind,” Curtatone said regarding the varying opinions on community progress in Somerville.
Curtatone then took questions from attendees. Rockford Weitz, director of the Fletcher Maritime Studies Program, asked how Curtatone would enhance public transportation in Somerville if given the opportunity.
“We need a plan for transportation that offers green, clean, equitable mobility options,” Curtatone said. “We should be electrifying the commuter rail … we need to lead with those progressive values. If we want 21st-century transportation that is equitable, that is green, that sparks a 21st-century global economy, we need to build it. We need to stop planning our cities and towns for cars.”
Curtatone emphasized the importance of starting small, focusing on projects like extending the Green Line, as a means of bolstering the local Somerville community and fighting the climate crisis.
“Too much of the work is focused only at the nation[al] and some at the state [level],” he said. “If we’re going to cultivate this tapestry of an ecosystem to [fight] the climate crisis, it involves having a carbon-free transportation system in every city-region around the country and bringing those regions to the table.”
Curtatone underscored his appreciation of the mutually beneficial relationship between Tufts and the City of Somerville.
“Tufts understands the benefit and value it has of being in a community like Somerville, and we recognize the value and benefit of having such a great academic institution and community partner,” he said.