Massachusetts has 351 cities and towns, and if you spend enough time in any one of them, you could almost convince yourself that the known world ends at its municipal limits. The principle of local autonomy is enshrined deeply in the culture in the Bay State — sometimes in ways that make the place seem well cared for, as when homeowners tend their own shrubs, but also in ways that make the greater good seem elusive.
Under state law, for example, a casino’s host community can wring major financial concessions from it, while neighboring cities and towns have far less leverage — even when the casino is right on the border. That’s why Boston and Somerville have fought a Wynn Resorts casino just over the line in Everett. And then there’s the issue of housing. Despite a serious shortage inside Route 495, local governments have defended their own ability to refuse new construction, regardless of the effects on everyone else.
Municipalities go it alone in still more stubborn ways. In the 1990s, Weston opted out of an effort to convert an unused railway into a recreational trail. Sentiment against the trail has mellowed, advocates believe, but the town’s refusal lingers two decades later, in the form of an awkward detour between Waltham and Wayland. Belmont has been slow to deal with sewage leaks that pollute a brook in ways that mostly affect areas downstream in Cambridge.
In the ultimate testament to the power of local control, even the exceptions to the pattern — the initiatives that transcend municipal borders — are profoundly shaped by it.
Exhibit A: the bike-sharing network Hubway. It first launched in Boston in 2011, as longtime mayor Tom Menino got more serious about promoting healthy transportation and fighting climate change, and expanded to Cambridge, Brookline, and Somerville the following year. At that moment, Boston wasn’t playing well with its neighbors. Around the same time, there’d been a move afoot to create a common website listing commercial properties available in cities and towns throughout Greater Boston, but the Menino administration wasn’t interested. The mayor used tax incentives to poach Vertex Pharmaceuticals from just across the river in Cambridge. He fumed when Partners HealthCare decided in 2013 to centralize its administrative offices in a new complex in Somerville.
But from the beginning, there was no question that a bike-sharing network had to stretch past Boston’s city limits to places such as Kendall Square, Cambridge; Coolidge Corner, Brookline; and Davis Square, Somerville. “It is so much better for the user,” says Nicole Freedman, a former Olympic cyclist whom Menino had hired to oversee the city’s bike programs. “It is the difference between a niche, fun way to get around and real public transportation.”
On a summer weekend, Hubway operates seamlessly. Yet the equipment is owned by four different municipalities that have separate contracts with Motivate, the contractor that operates the system. During the winter, Hubway operates only in Cambridge. The system’s business model involves some revenue from outdoor advertising, which Brookline doesn’t allow. Corporate memberships are another source of money, but who gets the revenue from, say, Harvard, which is based in Cambridge but has students and staff on both sides of the river? These weren’t big roadblocks, but they were problems that smart, busy people from multiple municipalities needed to sit around and negotiate.
The very map of Massachusetts reflects a strong belief in local governance. Almost all of the state’s 351 municipalities were established in the horse-and-buggy era. Their list of duties was shorter then, and there was a far greater possibility that a citizen’s needs would be ignored if town hall were more than a few miles away. The view that larger units of government are unaccountable and prone to bloat helps explain why counties — the principal form of local government in much of the United States — have withered in Massachusetts.
But localism has its own shortcomings. Like the flora and fauna of remote archipelagoes, the political and regulatory cultures of individual towns diverge in exotic and sometimes random ways. In one city, a homebuilder can arrange for a curb cut at a short meeting with an inspector. In another city, it’s a drawn-out process involving public meetings. “There are communities that I know of where the town manager is basically king, and there are towns where the town manager doesn’t move without asking three different boards,” says Marc Draisen, executive director of the Metropolitan Area Planning Council (MAPC). “The towns have just evolved differently.”
The parochialism that dominates planning and zoning in eastern Massachusetts is at odds with the lofty reputation that the region enjoys elsewhere. The world knows “Boston” as much for the universities and tech firms scattered around the region as for Fenway Park, Faneuil Hall, and other landmarks of Boston proper. In their book, The Metropolitan Revolution, think-tank scholars Bruce Katz and Jennifer Bradley argue that metro areas as a whole are the key unit of economic growth. Other globally competitive urban agglomerations have long recognized that. New York took greater control over its destiny by consolidating with its neighbors in 1898. Many large Sun Belt cities keep growth within their borders by aggressively annexing unincorporated areas around them.
In the last 20 years, provincial governments in Ontario and Quebec forcibly merged Toronto and Montreal with some of their innermost suburbs. Voters in Greater London created a unified mayorship for their city, which has long been divided into smaller boroughs. But structural changes of this magnitude are almost unimaginable in Massachusetts.
“It’s not entirely arbitrary why we have boundaries where we do,” says Ryan Centner, a London School of Economics urban geography professor who used to teach at Tufts University. Even so, he says, “those borders outlive their initial use but become difficult to change. Every time you create a political boundary, you create some kind of context for power.” Money and jobs depend on the amount of control every city or town exercises over its own affairs.
The growing complexity of government in the 21st century is nevertheless forcing some cities and towns to rethink which tasks they undertake on their own. Regional organizations such as the Cape Cod Commission and the Franklin Regional Council of Governments offer member towns many of the services that counties in other states would ordinarily provide. Massachusetts has large-scale mutual-aid pacts for public safety and public works equipment, and there are dozens of multitown school districts. When recessions squeeze municipal budgets, town governments look harder at ways they can cut costs by working with the neighbors.
But many efforts at cooperation still fall short. Ashland and Hopkinton have spent years discussing a merger of their fire departments, to little effect. Local politics, the details of labor contracts, and sheer inertia are powerful disincentives. David Panagore, who’s now the town manager in Provincetown but worked in municipal government in Chelsea in the 1990s, recalls when the sewer and water system in the latter community had a major rodent infestation and city administrators tried to enlist Boston’s help. Boston agreed but demanded that workers receive time and a half. The joint rat-abatement effort soon petered out.
Tradition and human nature are hard to overcome even now, and Draisen thinks the state needs to offer more carrots — and wield more sticks — to encourage cities and towns to collaborate more. “Most of our communities have literally been on the map for more than 200 years,” he says. “And if you ask the average person, ‘Would you rather make the decision by yourself or with three neighbors?’ most people will say, ‘Well, I’ll do it alone.’”
Despite everything, Hubway turned into a success story. “Honestly, it’s one of the few examples of a place where four municipalities actually get together and run something,” says Eric Bourassa, director of the transportation division of MAPC, which helped Freedman coordinate the effort.