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Q&A Series with Iram Farooq, Assistant City Manager for Community Development in Cambridge, MA

Cambridge

This month we are featuring the City of Cambridge, MA, which is the most recent Certified 5-STAR Community. On March 17, Cambridge became the fourth 5-STAR Community and the fiftieth certified community in the nation. We caught up with Iram Farooq, Assistant City Manager for Community Development, to hear about Cambridge’s certification, highlights from their submission, and what’s next for the City.

Iram_FarooqCongratulations on the 5-STAR Rating! It is a huge accomplishment for Cambridge and a testament of your hard work. After a year of data collection and reporting, what were your highlights from the process?

Thank you! We are extremely proud of the result, and our high rating validates the energy and resources dedicated to making Cambridge a great place to live, work and visit. The STAR data collection and reporting process was a substantial effort by many departments, coordinated by our planners here at the Community Development Department. That collaboration itself was a real highlight of the process as it brought staff together across a wide range of disciplines, eager to demonstrate their efforts and contribute to the project.

Sustainability is very much a part of Cambridge’s DNA. STAR’s triple bottom line approach focusing on environmental, economic and social standards really resonates with how we think about the future. As the process unfolded, we found that the STAR framework was able to present the overall work of the City in a more unified way. Seeing the results of our work across multiple disciplines in one comprehensive package certainly helped create a holistic picture of the work we do across the city.

Data for STAR certification comes from many entities inside and outside of local government; did you engage or develop any new partnerships as a result of data collection?

The data collection process highlighted the positive impact that our community partners have in making Cambridge a great city. We are fortunate to be deeply staffed across all departments with engaged, committed staff. Our elected officials are also deeply committed to enhancing the quality of life for our residents. Yet our partnerships with local non-profits, businesses, institutions and citizen groups are essential.

These collaborations were essential in achieving our strong result and that speaks to the crucial role these groups play in a healthy, high-functioning city. From the conservation work of the Friends of Fresh Pond Reservation citizen volunteers, to the universities and local businesses participating in the Cambridge Compact for a Sustainable Future, it is clear that Cambridge works best when all stakeholders take responsibility and work together to achieve shared community goals.

Cambridge received 97% of the points in the Built Environment goal area and 14.2 of the available 15 points in the Housing Affordability objective, an area where many communities struggle. How has Cambridge made housing affordability a priority?

The affordability and availability of housing has been a long-standing issue in Cambridge, and a very real challenge that impacts many residents. We are fortunate that the City had the foresight to establish a set of tools that enable us to address the problem in multiple ways. The City adopted Inclusionary and Incentive Zoning Ordinances that leverage new development to create affordable units and funding dedicated to affordable housing. Also key to our efforts is the Cambridge Affordable Housing Trust, which manages the City’s affordable housing funds, leverages funds from other sources and working with staff, acts to protect, expand and maintain affordable housing units. The Trust has supported a variety of non-profit partners to develop new affordable housing and preserve expiring use units throughout the city.

Over the past 20 years, the demand and cost of housing have increased tremendously. We continually examine the problem and look for ways to expand housing opportunities to everyone on the income spectrum. We are now we are in the process of updating our Inclusionary Zoning policy to account for recent changes in the housing market.

The City received Innovation and Process points for a variety of outstanding community efforts, such as youth empowerment programs and community policing initiatives. How does the government foster innovation and collaboration?

The standards that the City sets for its staff are very high, and that is a reflection of the expectations of our residents. We are fortunate to have resources to support our work and our culture actively encourages creativity, innovation and exemplary performance. We know from experience that when you aggressively pursue proactive solutions, the results are often well worth the investment.

With the two areas you mentioned, youth empowerment and community policing, our goal is to take a preventative approach. For example, middle school years are when young people often start veering off course, so we waived fees to attract more tweens to programming that provides them with fun and creative pursuits that keep them on-track and healthy. When we looked at the graduates of our school system, we found that many were having difficulty completing college. In response, our Human Services and School Departments, along with a number of community partners, set up the Office of College Success to support students while they transition out of high school on through college. And those are just two examples.

Our Police Department has long relied on a careful analysis of metrics. They found a relatively small number of persons without adequate community supports are responsible for a large proportion of calls for service. The result is two programs, one for troubled youths and another for adult offenders. Both have shown great success in preventing crime and keeping people out of jail by working to get participants the services they need, be that evening and weekend programming, counseling, addiction treatment, or employment.

What areas do you see needing the most improvement in Cambridge? Did the STAR certification reveal any gaps you did not anticipate?

We entered the STAR process feeling that we had a good understanding of our strengths and weaknesses. One issue we discovered during the process is that there are a number of areas where our long standing actions, what we think of as “the Cambridge way,” meet the intent of STAR’s goals and objectives, but we didn’t score high marks in the absence of formal policies and plans. While we do not see this hampering the work we do day to day, we hope to foster discussions about how we formalize and communicate our plans and ideas on these topics.

Moving forward, how do you anticipate Cambridge will utilize the STAR Certification?

The City is in the early stages of Envision Cambridge, our citywide comprehensive planning process. The data and policy information we compiled for our STAR certification will certainly help inform that process. We already used data collected for STAR to make some modifications to our annual budget document and hope to bring more information in next year. Looking to the future, we think that STAR Certification will prove to be a great tool both internally and externally.

Data and in-depth information has always been of vital use to planners, and increasingly, is of interest to the broader public. We need to be aware and well versed in data that impacts our community, and STAR Certification is a great foundation for that effort. Having an objective assessment of our community from a group like STAR helps us communicate our successes and put our challenges in perspective.

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