Emily Norton
City Councilor (Ward 2)
Newton, MA

Dear Councilor Norton:

A year-and-a-half ago, in the comments to this thread, you and I heatedly debated whether the climate crisis demands greater housing density. I suggested that aggressive housing growth in Newton was urgently necessary, on environmental grounds. You disagreed. I urge you to reconsider. 

No one on the City Council or running to join the City Council has quite your environmental bona fides or your record of advocacy for climate-saving policies. Except on this one topic: housing. You continue to be one of the most prominent leaders in the development-skeptical community in Newton, which community has sufficient influence, for example, to reduce the Riverside proposal by 151 apartments. Newton needs you, the planet needs you, to join the forces supporting more housing in our community, not slowing it.

Last March, you were not alone among development-skeptical environmentalists. Notably at the time, the Sierra Club opposed California State Senator Scott Weiner’s pro-housing proposal — SB 827 — to ease zoning restrictions statewide. At the time, you were the Massachusetts Chapter Director of the Sierra Club. At the very least, you were consistent with a well-regarded national organization.

Whatever environmentalist opposition there has been to density, that opposition is now evaporating. The Sierra Club is now explicit about the need for greater density. It’s even an issue for the presidential race: Bernie Sanders draws the connection between density and reducing carbon emissions.

It is very simple argument. Cars are killing the planet. The more people who live closer to transit, the less driving there is. Newton has transit. The more people who live closer to where they work, the less driving there is. Newton is closer to Boston than are the communities experiencing suburban sprawl. Even if people have to drive, it’s a shorter trip from Newton to Boston. The more density, the richer array of amenities within walking distance, the the less driving there is. Newton has 13 village centers and other commercial districts ripe to be revitalized as true walkable destinations.

Newton doesn’t have to have perfect transit-oriented development tomorrow to contribute to saving the planet.

What would it look like for you to recognize the environmental case for density and become a champion? Generally, I would hope that you would state explicitly that we need significantly more housing in Newton. More specifically, I would hope that you would state unequivocally that Newton needs:

  • To end single-family-only zoning in Newton, allowing duplexes, triplexes, and maybe fourplexes by right on any lot in the city.
  • To allow small to medium (4-6 story) apartment buildings by right in village centers.
  • To, yes, encourage intense residential in large developments.

These are not standalone policies. There are a whole host of related issues that would need to be addressed, too. Affordable housing. Gentrification and displacement. Traffic. The state of our transit. Developers.

Will simply building more alone achieve our affordable housing goals? Absolutely not. We’ll need to take other measures, but in addition, not instead. Will building more increase the risk of displacement? Maybe yes, maybe no. But, we’ll certainly need to be mindful of the risk and take the right steps to protect current residents appropriately.

Is our transit system robust enough to support full car-free living across the city? Of course not. But, we can’t wait for transit to support density or density to support transit. We need to proceed on both tracks aggressively. Would loosening our building restrictions create opportunities for developer wealth? Sure. But, we can impose conditions on large projects. And, by making more by-right development opportunities, we expand the diversity of developers who can build in our city, including smaller developers and not-for-profits. Ultimately, if additional housing is our objective — as it should be — we need to recognize that we are aligned with developers. We just need to be sure to manage the relationship carefully. Strange bedfellows and all that.

Will adding housing to Newton make Newton traffic worse? Sure. There’s a ton to discuss here, but the key is to think in terms of vehicle miles travelled (VMT). While a new family in Newton adds to the total miles driven in and to/from Newton, it will almost assuredly be less than that family would add to the region if their home is out among suburban sprawl.

Bottom line: there are two basic questions. 1. Do you agree that, if reducing carbon emissions is the goal, more housing in Newton is better than more housing farther out from Boston. 2. If the answer to 1 is yes, what issues are more important than reducing carbon emissions?

Answering 1. Yes and 2. None doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t also attend to the other issues. We can — and many of your colleagues on the City Council already do — think we need to add significant housing and that important issues need to be addressed to make any new housing work.

You might be wondering why this letter is to you alone and not to other development-skeptical councilors and candidates. First, I hoped to revisit our “discussion”* from last March in light of the direction that national discussion has been going. Second, whether you intended it or not, you have become the face of the development-skeptical in Newton. No other city-council incumbent, for instance, has earned a Right Size Newton endorsement. Third, as has been pointed out on these pages previously, your advocacy for environmental causes both in and out of Newton and your position on housing remains a jarring contrast to some of us. Fourth, you are in a hotly contested city council race.

Most of all, I recognize that you are a very skilled, passionate, and dogged advocate for the positions you take. Nothing would move the conversation forward more than your advocating for our obligation to add density to help alleviate the climate crisis.

Please join those of us advocating for more housing in Newton.


Sean Roche

* In preparing this post, I re-read the discussion. For my part, I wish I had improved the light-to-heat ratio.