Mike Ciolino asked, in a thoughtful series of questions in response to my post on Councilor Jake Auchincloss’s (Ward 2, at-large) (and others) and Marc Laredo’s (Ward 7, at-large) divergent views on auto-inevitability, why can’t we just leave Newton as it is?
I love where I live, I’ve got a good life, and I’m able to make a decent living here. Personally, I don’t need Newton to grow.
Fair enough. And, I understand the sentiment. My wife and I chose to move to Newton some twenty years ago, because of the Newton that was twenty years ago. I didn’t move here with the intention of upzoning Newton. In fact, one of my first bits of public testimony was at a hearing to rezone a nearby street from multi-family to single-family-only. (Oy, if I could take that back.)
My answer: the world is changing all around us, and Newton needs to grow in response. Not to do so would create or exacerbate a series of injustices: environmental, economic, and social.
The most immediately pressing issue is the global climate crisis. As an inner-ring suburb to Boston, with a host of transit options, Newton is uniquely situated to provide car-free or car-lite living for many thousands more than live here now. At around 30%, transportation is the biggest contributor of carbon emissions. Increased density, especially near transit and close to job centers, like Boston, could be an effective tool to reduce carbon emissions. Newton already has plenty of amenities within a walk or a short drive for many. And, density creates a virtuous circle: the more density, the more close-by amenities, which reduce the need to drive.
No matter how much we like the Newton life, the urgency of the climate crisis compels us to sacrifice the status quo.
The ubiquitous stories about Boston-area traffic congestion highlight the economic injustice of Newton’s (and other area communities’) residential zoning. Regional employment growth is outpacing planning estimates and way outpacing regional housing growth. The consequence: more and more people spending more and more time in their cars commuting from far-flung suburbs in increasingly congested traffic. This costs folks money — hard transportation costs, like gas — and time. Allowing more folks to live in Newton, with its relatively rich transit options, would reduce the economic burden of working in the region.
Mayor Ruthanne Fuller is among 15 metro-Boston mayors who have signed a compact to increase housing by 185,000 units by 2030. Our pro-rata share of that is 11,000 new units. We currently have about 32,000 housing units in the city. It’s going to be difficult to absorb that growth. But, to deny people badly needed housing a reasonable commute to Boston exacerbates an economic crisis.
We benefit from a robust, growing Boston economy. We must do our share to ensure that everyone can live within an affordable commute to that economy.
Finally, but by no means least, our current low-growth is enforced by exclusionary zoning. It is extremely difficult to add new units in Newton. It’s illegal in most cases. There is no polite way to put this: exclusionary zoning is one of many tools historically used to segregate white America from black America. In Newton, the tool forged in racism has had its effect. Newton has about half the black population as Boston, which is about half the black population of the country. Certainly not everyone in Newton who enjoys, like Mike does, the benefits of exclusionary zoning is a racist or actively seeks the segregating effect that exclusionary zoning has.
It is a moral stain on our community that we have exclusionary zoning on our books. It is unforgiveable that we are considering a “reformed” zoning ordinance that maintains the social injustice of single-family-only zoning.
These are the reasons that some of us pursue growth. Not, as a recent post suggested, because we want to revitalize our village centers. The stakes are far more urgent.
How we manage that growth to ensure that we do not displace the vulnerable, that we do not concentrate growth in the already dense areas, that we create affordability across a spectrum are complicated issues that merit further posts and discussions. We need significant transit investment to actually enable car-free and -lite living at that scale. We will need to invest in schools, open space, and other civic amenities to match the growth.
But, not growing is not an option.