Marc R. Pacheco – ‘Political will’ lacking

With the gubernatorial race just starting to kick into gear, Bay State planners and architects are hoping to push sprawl and growth management into the campaign as key issues.

The Boston Society of Architects will host a gubernatorial debate Feb. 4 with growth issues as a focal point, and just last Thursday the group had a panel discussion on the topic.

The panel included Sen. Marc R. Pacheco, D-Taunton, a supporter of anti-sprawl measures and chief sponsor of a bill that would encourage better growth planning.

Pacheco was also recognized as the BSA’s 2002 Legislator of the Year.

The discussion was part of a two-year project by the BSA called The Civic Initiative: A Livable Future for New England.

As part of the initiative, state leaders, designers and planners have gathered at events and workshops to talk about growth issues in urban, suburban and rural areas of Massachusetts. Their hope is to come up with a regional approach to handling growth, instead of the local or town-to-town approach that is practiced today.

The BSA is planning to publish a report with findings and recommendations in upcoming months.

Sprawl is not something anyone has done to us, said Boston’s Chief Planner Rebecca Barnes during the panel discussion at the Boston Public Library. We have all contributed to it.

Sprawl – the spreading out of homes and offices away from concentrated urban areas – has been blamed for everything from increased traffic and commuting times to disappearing open space and farmland. Planners also argue that sprawl has led to more pollution, intensified the affordable housing shortage and concentrated poor families and children in cities.

‘Cartoon Messages’
David Dixon, BSA vice president, explained that the Greater Boston region has lagged behind other cities, like Atlanta, in embracing smarter growth. In a slide presentation, Dixon showed how the region has been affected by sprawl.

As development in the region has sprawled outward, communities have become more segregated by income and race, according to Dixon.

We have become a society that is far more fragmented, said Dixon. It is sprawl that is preserving patterns of racial segregation.

Dixon said the reason the region has experienced more sprawl has little to do with population growth. In Massachusetts, population has not increased dramatically during the last two decades, but people living in the region have become much wealthier.

Because of the increased wealth, people had more housing choices, and many sought out bigger and more affordable homes with more land in the outer suburbs, he said.

People’s irrational fears and concerns about school quality and crime were also driving them away from cities, he said.

In addition, many developers drifted away from concentrated cities in the 1990s, choosing to create office complexes in the suburbs. This pushed even more people out of cities.

That’s why it’s critical to tackle growth issues during this economic downturn, Dixon argued.

We can’t survive another economic boom without changing our growth patterns, he said.

Possible solutions, he said, include encouraging development at former industrial sites, including places like Assembly Square in Somerville.

The large riverfront parcel near transportation has been underutilized since the closing of an automobile plant some 50 years ago, according to a BSA brochure.

Dixon also said it’s important to get political support and to get the message out that managed growth is related to other issues – transportation, affordable housing and education.

Pacheco agreed, saying that average citizens don’t connect growth and sprawl with other issues, like education.

He also said the political will to solve sprawl problems has not been evident. For more than two years, Pacheco has struggled to get a bill passed that would give financial aid to communities that are developing long-range growth plans. Pacheco said the measure’s price tag is $35 million.

To illustrate his point about political resistance to smart-growth measures, Pacheco recalled how challenging it was in 1989 to pass a bill that ultimately established the Cape Cod Commission, a regional planning agency.

People said it [the commission] would stifle growth, said Pacheco.

Part of the battle in trying to get anti-sprawl measures into the forefront of the political agenda is eliminating the stereotypical cartoon messages of the smart-growth movement, said Larissa Brown, chairman of the Cambridge Planning Board.

Smart growth and regional planning is often portrayed as a local vs. state control struggle or as an elitist movement that pits open space preservationists against affordable housing advocates.

To combat sprawl, planners also say that the negative perception of density must be erased. Well-designed and well-located density, concentrating living and working space in urban areas can be key to fighting sprawl, according to planners.

But local communities haven’t been quick to welcome that concept.

People are mostly afraid of density because they don’t know what it looks like, said Dixon.

Architects, Planners Campaign For Attention to Smart Growth

by Banker & Tradesman time to read: 3 min