A planning process underway in Burlington this winter could be the herald of a dramatic and much-needed reinvention of Greater Boston’s suburbs. But it also exposes a fatal flaw in how Massachusetts thinks about its future.
Largely built out in the car-obsessed 1950s, 1960s and 1970s, the area around Burlington Mall Road is a nightmare for pedestrians. Single-use office buildings and retail plazas sit like lonely islands in seas of hostile asphalt parking lots. To get anywhere requires climbing in a car, then taking a circuitous route from one cul-de-sac to another, in an area not much bigger than the vaunted and highly walkable downtown Boston core.
Burlington officials are hoping to lead the town away from this past as a canonical example of the auto-dependent “edge city” and towards a mixed-use, walkable future. The method? rezoning the neighborhood for more compact, mixed-use development and spurring pedestrian connections between commercial properties. At one stroke, town officials hope to offer a wider range of more affordable housing, reduce traffic by reducing the need for car trips, pave the way for more growth, add valuable community amenities and buttress existing retail businesses by letting customers live conveniently close by.
As Jay Fitzgerald reports in this week’s issue, this is clearly the way of the future, and a path that state policy is urging other towns and cities to follow with reforms like new transit-oriented zoning requirements.
Our society’s overwhelming imperative today is to head off a climate catastrophe while building a more just society – just the sort of thing walkable, mixed-use developments help create. More walking and cycling in place of car trips means less carbon dioxide emitted. More shade from trees and taller buildings, instead of dark parking lots that soak up the sun, reduces “heat island” effects. And denser development often allows builders to offer units – particularly for-sale homes – at lower prices per home because land costs, profit margins and some construction costs can be spread more widely.
But Burlington’s impressive plans also are missing a vital link. Developed around Route 128 and Route 3, this highway-dependent community has no direct transit link. This means residents and customers of any development that grows out of the town’s rezoning effort will still need to rely on cars for big parts of their daily lives, undercutting the entire aim of efforts to densify the area. And without the financial firepower that only the state can provide, Burlington can’t build even a bus link to the MBTA commuter rail in Woburn with enough capacity and frequency to meet the needs of the city-sized Burlington Mall Road district.
The state is asking municipalities to aim for a denser and more walkable future to help solve our housing and climate problems. But local officials won’t be able to achieve that dream steps up to build out transportation and water infrastructure to match.
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