Growing Up: Boston's Colleges and Universities and the 2024 Summer Olympics

The US Olympic Committee has selected Los Angeles, San Francisco, Washington and Boston as finalists for the US bid for the 2024 Olympics, with a decision announced in 2017.

While the pundits have already had their field day in the local press, the vast overruns that defined Sochi suggest that developed global cities with significant infrastructure in place will be more attractive in future competitions. Certainly, the Olympic administrative gods fully understand that the price tag is limiting their number of bids in a growing global public relations fiasco.

The Olympic predicament positions Boston perfectly. It is, arguably, the "eds and meds" capital of the world. Boston has an international airport, emphasizing new connections recently to Tokyo, Hong Kong, Beijing, Dubai, Istanbul, with a host of other cities seeking partnerships with a global concentrations to Boston's asset management, biotechnology, pharmaceuticals, health care and education companies and non-profits. Boston's small, walkable geographic size, existing infrastructure, and history disguise a combined statistical metropolitan region of 7.6 million people. It is easily reached using land routes by 50 million more along the Eastern Seaboard, near Midwest, and eastern Canada.

In short, the foundation for Boston to build a strong US bid for the 2024 Summer Olympics is almost overwhelming on paper. That said it's critical to ask the right first questions if a serious bid proceeds.

Is the growing media hype really about Boston's Olympic bid, or actually about its future -- indeed, the heart and soul of what Boston is to become?

The right first question it turns out is a simple one. In the midst of a growing urban boom that highlights its strengths as well as much of the unfinished work in race relations, education, and a host of other issues, what does Boston want to be when it grows up?

Is a successful Olympic bid the impetus to future growth or is it a result of addressing broader questions better than other cities? Does Boston's regional strategic plan address the need for partnerships, housing for the middle class, education, an aging transportation network, and the homeless, among others? Does the Olympic bid mirror this strategy?

In the urban laboratory that Boston could become, does hosting the 2024 Summer Olympics become an effect of good strategy rather than the cause of a successful, transitory bid?

If the first question is about strategy, then the logical next question must be taken straight from the character of Ray Kinsella in the movie version of Field of Dreams: "What's in it for me?"

The region's colleges and universities should think carefully about this question. Are the right questions for them really about their willingness to host media and crowd overflow in a reactive response to the needs of the Olympic Committee? It would be a shame to let the bid force tactics on Boston's higher education community when they need instead to shape strategy.

Here are some thoughts on the parameters governing Boston's colleges and universities participation in a 2024 Olympic bid:

  • Most colleges and universities stress an urban residential experience, with some portion of undergraduate years tied to off campus housing. What can private developers do to provide safe, affordable housing? How can the city, private foundations and corporations match housing needs to reconstitute emptied, substandard former student housing as a rechristened solution to the middle class housing shortage in the city? Can preparing for the Olympics solve Boston's housing problem?

  • How can the Olympics promote grant and gift support for university affiliated hospitals, centers and institutes that address technology, security, and health and public safety advances? Is it possible to imagine a new kind of Olympics that leaves behind ideas, solutions, and new technology that benefits on a global scale? Would Boston be the best place to launch this new Olympic initiative?
  • Can colleges and universities build out neighborhoods beyond housing stock through linked, regional, transportation-friendly enhancements to campus edge developments, again supported by private and corporate partnerships and tied to a regional infrastructure plan for a growing metropolis?
  • Can higher education alumni and advancement networks bring broader global corporate and foundation support to Boston projects through existing but historically untapped funding networks if identified, prioritized projects built out from urban space now redefined also to host Olympics visitors?
  • Can the partnership base emerging end the contentious, debilitating debate over tax exempt properties, carbon footprint size, and crowd control because Boston built smarter, taller, and more densely on taxable sites that produced the revenue to improve the education and human service infrastructure?
  • In the new partnership, everyone has a role to play, including the state and federal governments and the global corporate community. But if Boston is left with a richer tax base leading to better schools, improvements to health and human services, better parks and recreation sites for citizens, and an updated and expanded local, regional and state transportation network, there might be room for the 2024 Summer Olympics in regional strategic planning.

    Maybe it's time for Boston to move beyond the splendid parochialism that characterized its recent development. It might even welcome an Olympics if proponents ask the right questions, including "what's in it for me?" Since substantial growth is likely because of what Boston has become, perhaps it's time that Boston understood how the Olympics can contribute to but not dominate how Boston defines its sense of self.