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A Sprawling Problem, Not Solved by Seeking Space

Originally published in The Boston Globe

April 1, 2001
Charles C. Euchner, Rappaport Institute for Greater Boston and James N. Levitt, Internet and Conservation Project, Harvard Kennedy School

CAMBRIDGE, Mass. -- The release of the 2000 Census figures for Massachusetts has prompted a civic conversation about the makeup of our cities and towns. The new numbers raise basic questions about political representation, fair distribution of public subsidies, and the best ways to bring immigrants and minorities into community life.

But as important as these questions are, the numbers pose more fundamental challenges. The state's population for the most part held steady in old urban areas from 1990 to 2000, but exploded in ''greenfields,'' the relatively open areas on Cape Cod and the Islands and the rim along Interstate 495.

It is this migration away from established communities and the accompanying development of our diminishing open spaces that pose potential risks - especially when it is happening at the speed now seen in parts of New England.

Indeed, the Commonwealth loses 44 acres of woods, fields, or farmland to residential, commercial, or industrial development each day - about 16,000 acres each year, according to the Massachusetts Audubon Society's recently revised report ''Losing Ground.''

Take a look at some of the communities that have gained the most population over the past decade. The two fastest growing counties, Nantucket and Dukes (Martha's Vineyard), grew at the stunning rates of 58 and 28 percent, respectively. These traditionally remote counties added almost 7,000 residents to a base of 24,000.

In raw numbers, that might not seem like much, but the change heralds a national movement toward areas with high levels of recreational and natural amenities.

Echoing the growth on the Cape and Islands, growth on the outdoor amenity-rich South Shore is large both in percent and in numbers of new residents. Barnstable and Plymouth counties, in the southeast corner of the state, combined to add 49,000 residents to their previous population of 621,000.

Most of the rest of the growth occurred along the I-495 corridor. Essex, Worcester, Bristol, Norfolk, and Middlesex counties all grew at a rate between 5 and 9 percent over the last decade. Cities like Worcester and Lawrence added a few thousand residents, but most new population took root in suburban communities outside urban cores, such as Hopkinton and Boxborough that boast both access to the interstates and strong ties to their traditional rural character.

The state's 15 biggest cities accounted for just 10 percent of total population growth. Boston, Cambridge, Chelsea, Everett, Lynn, and Revere all gained population, but not at a very fast rate and only because of the influx of immigrants. You could say that the 1965 immigration law that opened the United States to non-Europeans after decades of exclusion has saved Massachusetts' cities. But at the same time, domestic in-migrants settled overwhelmingly in suburbs.

That trend toward sprawl is troubling for a number of reasons. As we gobble up open space at an alarming rate, we lose a complex set of assets of great value to the state. Scenic vistas and recreational opportunities so highly valued by potential in-migrants disappear; so does habitat critical to wildlife, from uplands to coastal zones, that are attracting increasing numbers of nature-oriented visitors. And we degrade the watersheds and estuaries essential to our water supplies, and on which life on earth ultimately depends.

Beyond the damage done to the region's ecosystem, sprawl also undermines the environmental character of older cities and towns. Rather than tending to the quality of old urban areas like Lawrence and Lowell, we look for a new life in a new land. Those left behind must struggle to maintain a healthy and vibrant urban life as best they can.

What explains our region's sprawl?

In part, it's the money factor. The increasing affluence of the economy has allowed more people to trade up for bigger homes in leafy, low-density communities. Real estate agents report that affluent families are looking for larger homes away from the hustle and bustle (read: the congestion of the region's urban core.)

The taste factor feeds off the money factor. So-called ''BoBos'' (bourgeois bohemians) and the first wave of the retiring baby boom generation are seeking communities with a full range of recreational and cultural amenities. That means everything from beach houses and ski slopes to hiking trails.

Meanwhile, the technology factor, in the form of the automobile, lends a particular shape to emerging settlement patterns. The number of vehicle miles traveled in Greater Boston has increased at an annual rate of 1.2 percent, about 15 percent over a decade. People in the Boston region now drive more freeway miles than do people in Los Angeles.

We have reached a point where we are designing our cities and towns to accommodate cars. Our so-called ''carcatecture'' includes a wide range of settlements accessible only by car - housing developments, office parks, shopping malls, even recreational spaces.

But technology goes far beyond the car. High-tech industries are the regional economy's most powerful engine, and companies like EMC, Cisco, and Oracle seek out larger building footprints than can be developed easily in urban areas. To direct this development to urban areas would require greater state and local incentives than are now in place. And while high-tech employment does increase the number of telecommuters who can live in far-flung locations, there is no good evidence those telecommuters drive fewer miles than ordinary workers.

Developing a response to sprawl in New England requires addressing all these factors. For people to live in the compact urban areas of the state, those places need to be connected to strong economic sectors. Revitalizing old cities, which can stem the tide of sprawl, requires fostering the kind of economic complexity that mimics ecological complexity. That requires reducing zoning and regulatory barriers and improving the connections and livability of physical spaces.

Old communities also need to meet the demand for more amenities. We need to build communities that provide lively downtowns, reliable new forms of transit, artist and other live/work spaces, better-designed and maintained parks, great schools and public buildings, and lakes, rivers, and beaches that are alive with activity. Communities need to offer excitement, not just functionality.

We need to explore new ways to integrate the demands of technology into our communities. Wiring urban buildings is a start. Creating alternatives to car travel is another. Upgrading our public buildings and spaces is a third.

Beyond revitalizing our urban centers, Massachusetts offers small and large communities a new tool to protect existing open spaces, preserve historic structures and promote affordable housing. The Community Preservation Act, passed by the Legislature after 15 years of effort, allows towns and cities to tax themselves to pay for conservation and preservation initiatives.

Bedford and North Andover are the first communities outside of the Cape and Islands - where the concept was pioneered - to use this tool. Interest in following their lead is building rapidly in communities whose essential nature is threatened by rapid and relatively unmanaged growth.

Addressing regional sprawl is not simple. It's not just a matter of transit or housing or jobs or open-space preservation. A successful response to sprawl requires a combination of efforts that foster the kind of density and complexity in old cities and towns that attracts people of all backgrounds and income levels.

Charles C. Euchner is executive director of the Rappaport Institute for Greater Boston at Harvard University's John F. Kennedy School of Government. James N. Levitt is director of the Internet and Conservation Project at the Taubman Center for State and Local Government at the Kennedy School of Government.

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Arnold Arboretum

We have reached a point where we are designing our cities and towns to accommodate cars. Our so-called ''carcatecture'' includes a wide range of settlements accessible only by car - housing developments, office parks, shopping malls, even recreational spaces.

Old communities also need to meet the demand for more amenities. We need to build communities that provide lively downtowns, reliable new forms of transit, artist and other live/work spaces, better-designed and maintained parks, great schools and public buildings, and lakes, rivers, and beaches that are alive with activity. Communities need to offer excitement, not just functionality.