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On Borders (Fall 2016)

One thing that keeps us in Greater Boston is fierce pride in where we are from. However, “Borders” correctly probes at the underside of local pride and our insistence on maintaining control. From Jeffrey Rosenblum’s image of a disap­pearing bike lane over the Charles River (“The view from the street”) to the stubborn decisions of Weston and Belmont recounted by Dante Ramos (“Why can’t we all just get along?”), we are a region divided. Local control favors the status quo, but the stakes grow with the climate and demographic changes that demand coordinated, sophisticated regional responses. 

Yes, one approach is patiently building municipal collaboration. Ramos tells the story of one such model, Hubway. Another modest approach is doing more and better regional and state planning; regional planning agencies fight for money every year, and we haven’t had a state planning office for decades. It may be time for the state to require every municipality to do some of what is needed, such as the multifamily zoning requirement in the housing/zoning bill passed by the Massachusetts Senate this June.

But if regional problems are rapidly gaining on us, can we stay ahead if we crawl one step at a time? Here is another approach: change the incentives that drive municipal decisions. Our problems are compounded because each municipality has the incentive to do what is in its own financial interest. Massachusetts restricts local revenue sources more than many other states, Prop 2½ restricts property tax spending, and state aid to municipalities has fallen since 2001. More local or state revenue options that encourage mixed-use development and housing (such as local sales taxes or tying state aid to housing production) would facilitate better decisions for the region. 

Andre Leroux
Executive director, Massachusetts Smart Growth Alliance

Jeff Rosenblum’s “The view from the street” doesn’t look at regional transportation systems in quite the same way as the Boston Transportation Department. Go Boston 2030 has cultivated public involvement and online engagement at each phase of a two-year planning process. Last spring we convened two intermunicipal sessions and developed “Go Regional” as one of the transportation futures proposed in the public survey. We are excited about its policy coordination with Cambridge, especially the announcement of Vision Zero initiatives to eliminate traffic fatalities. We’ve joined forces to advocate for lowering default speed limits and share best practices. Mayor Martin Walsh continues to advocate at the state level for improvements that help Bostonians and regional workers alike, including the establishment of the Greater Boston Regional Compact to improve coordination of economic development and transportation initiatives along the Red Line corridor.

Gina N. Fiandaca
Commissioner, Boston Transportation Department

Joel Kotkin’s and Allison Arieff’s articles in “Borders” raise challenges and oppor­tunities facing our evolving metropolis. Kotkin (“Suburbia reconsidered”) pre­sents data calling for affordable housing while warning us about our aging demo­graphic profile. He argues that Boston’s revitalization has priced out middle-class families, noting that metropolitan areas like Houston creatively embrace suburban development that provides the affordable housing expansive work­-forces demand. His underlying position: Suburban development deserves attention comparable to urban redevelopment.

But Boston differs from cities like Houston, whose girth expanded outward, a suburb at a time. Instead, Greater Boston is a collection of towns (Lexington, Concord, Milton) that over time were absorbed into a larger metropolitan area. Each has a history with a distinctive town center and common. Flying over Boston reveals a rich network of rivers, lakes, farms, woodlands, and wetlands interspersing urbanities of varying size and density. Our organic, chaotic metropolitan form is constrained by our rugged landscape, which restricts typical suburban sprawl patterns. It can also limit economic development.

Arieff (“Company town 2.0”) aptly notes that today’s company town must be multi­-use, multitenant, and multigenerational. Taking cues from Bay Area/Silicone Valley communities where large corporate head­quarters reside, she describes how once-single-use domains like North Carolina’s Research Triangle Park are becoming amenity-rich environments where people live, work, and play. Boston has many such suburban corporate campuses (Burlington, Waltham, Braintree), which could become denser community forms and develop distinctive identities. They could conserve and generate energy in ways that minimize carbon footprints. A vibrant form of urbanity may evolve, punctuated by density while preserving ecology and character.

Paul Lukez FAIA 
President, Paul Lukez Architecture
Somerville, Massachusetts

“Borders” addressed the regional chal­lenges of metro Boston — transportation, food security, watersheds, and demo­graphic trends. An important omission was any mention of two of the area’s foremost contributors to regional planning: Charles Eliot and Benton MacKaye.

Eliot, a landscape architect, laid the groundwork for the Metropolitan Park Com­mission. In 1896, he led a campaign to consolidate the region’s water, sewerage, and transportation services into a never-realized “County of Boston.” MacKaye, a conservationist, envisioned a regionalism far greater than the scope of most planning today, through the Regional Planning Association of America (RPAA). Its principles framed the New Deal’s foremost environmental accomplishments, including the Tennessee Valley Authority and the Green­belt Town Program, and contrasted sharply with those of its much-loathed antipode, “metro­pol­itanism.” RPAA leaders called for a radical restructuring of the landscape and economy that would bring the bioregional resources of town and country into balance.

We believe in reigniting regionalism at the scale espoused by Eliot and MacKaye. A conference and exhibition at mit last spring began a dialogue about the future of suburbia and the pressing need for a new model of bioregionalism; Infinite Suburbia (Princeton Architectural Press), coedited with Joel Kotkin and Celina Balderas Guzman, will be published next fall. 

Contemporary efforts like Hubway and the Mystic River Watershed Association offer counternarratives to the parochial localism that dominates planning today. Yet these projects fall short of the visionary regionalism conceived by Eliot, MacKaye, and the RPAA. We must continue to develop models that go beyond the obsolete “cities versus suburbs” dichotomy.

Alan M. Berger, Co-director
David Vega BarachowitzVisiting researcher
Leventhal Center for Advanced Urbanism
Massachusetts Institute of Technology
Cambridge, Massachusetts

I am teaching a seminar on the relationship between real estate development and design at Northeastern University; one of the issues we are exploring is the correlation between parcelization strategies and housing types and their combined impact on neighborhood patterns. Given our focus, the photographs by Roberta Neidigh (“Buffer zone”) are a perfect case study. They tell the story of the sometimes unresol­ved tensions at property lines that were not predicted by the planners who initially conceived them. Compare the negotiated landscape between the single-family houses featured in Neidigh’s photo essay with the emphatic (and efficient) zero lot line between the rowhouses of the Back Bay. 

Tim Love AIA
Principal, Utile

This summer, A Better City released a report called “The State of the Built Environment” that projected a 17.5 percent population increase within the 16 municipalities that make up Greater Boston’s inner core by 2030. To handle this, we need a transportation network that keeps pace with ridership demand, connections to the urban core, and emerging job centers. The city and state are taking steps toward a regional approach to transportation and economic development. 

Mayor Martin Walsh has reinvigorated the Metro Mayor’s Coalition, which represents 14 communities; his endorsement makes it easier to collaborate on regional challenges starting at the city level. The city’s Go Boston 2030 aims to keep commuters on major arterials, like I-93, instead of having drivers take shortcuts through local roads. To meet this goal, Boston will need to operate closely with state and regional partners. 

The Baker administration’s Focus40 asks the MBTA to create investment pri­or­ities to meet Greater Boston’s needs. The winter of 2015 taught us that the eco­nomic health of Boston, Cambridge, Somerville, and the rest of the region are related, that each community depends on a reliable public transit system. We are becoming a more unified region than ever before because of our transportation system, commuting needs, and economic activity — a welcome change from the com­petitive governing philosophy of the past. 

Rick Dimino
President and CEO, A Better City