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Carroll School of Management

Boston College Citizen Seminars: Jan 27, 2005

sponsored by the chief executives' club of boston

MetroFuture: Making a Greater Boston Region

Presented by Boston College and the Metropolitan Area Planning Council

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Patrick Purcell, President of Herald Media, Inc. and Chairman of Boston College Citizens Seminar, opens the seminar.

Bostonians weigh in on region's growth

Following in the footsteps of Salt Lake City and Chicago, planners in Greater Boston are winding up an ambitious multiyear initiative to determine how people want to see the region develop in the years ahead.

The MetroFuture project, which has included 21 workshops and hundreds of surveys since May 2002, collected the opinions of more than 2,000 Boston-area
residents on future housing, transportation, and open-space policies.

The Metropolitan Area Planning Council, which is leading the effort, is also allowing residents to see what the Boston region will look like in the future based on those policies - a kind of real-life Sim City game that uses global satellite images and computer simulations to illustrate future growth.

About 300 people voted for their preferences on electronic touchpads at a Boston College Citizens Seminar gathering at the convention center in Boston on Jan. 27, and saw results projected on a huge screen instantly.

The use of technology and the goal of broad public participation have been prominent features of similar efforts across the country, including Envision Utah andChicago 2020. Rather than professional planners or top state officials deciding how to manage development, the thinking goes, ordinary citizens can tailor a growth plan and tests how it works.

The results of the surveys and workshops, as well as an additional poll conducted by the University of Massachusetts at Boston, show that the high cost of housing is the biggest challenge the Boston metropolitan area faces in the near future, said Marc Draisen, executive director of the planning council.

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The Honorable Thomas M. Menino, Mayor of Boston, speaks with Robert Culver, President & CEO MassDevelopment.

The council, which covers 101 cities and towns, also gets the clear picture that most residents want to see more regional cooperation on such issues as affordable housing and transportation, Draisen said.

"People value town and neighborhood control, but they recognize that local actions have regional impacts - and that local problems require regional solutions," Draisen said.

Asked an open-ended question in the UMass-Boston poll (of 400 people, conducted in November), 14 percent said housing was the most critical issue facing metropolitan Boston, followed by transportation (13 percent), education (10 percent), and the environment (10 percent).

Nearly half of the residents polled said they support a regional approach to creating more affordable housing, while nearly 40 percent said decisions about land use in general should be made on a regional basis, and 77 percent said there should be a regional policy in Eastern Massachusetts on water supplies.

Most participants also envisioned development that would result in reduced commuting times, allowing people to live closer to where they work. Many clamored for more public transportation in the suburbs, and for more reverse-commuting opportunities for city dwellers who work at jobs on Route 128 or Interstate 495.

Like first-time gamers playing Sim City and struggling to balance a municipal budget, the citizen planners in the MetroFuture project quickly discovered that changing housing or transportation policy isn't easy in Massachusetts.

Cities and town base many of their housing and development decisions on tax revenue and school costs, for example. A review of municipal plans, done to supplement the results of the surveys and workshops, found that virtually every city and town around Boston seeks to bolster the rate of economic development locally - with office buildings or retail stores, which generate much needed tax revenue - while slowing down the rate of housing growth.

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Attendees gather and discuss the potential growth priorities in Metropolitan Boston.

Local leaders tend to fret that building more housing in their communities will generate negative impacts, such as stress on school systems and municipal services, while not making much of a dent in the region's need for affordable housing, Draisen said.

Harriet Tregoning, director of the Smart Growth Leadership Institute and former secretary of planning in Maryland, told the Jan. 27 gathering that the established framework for development is always difficult to modify, because of self-reinforcing elements that can range from zoning to municipal finance to road-building standards.

Tregoning advised the group to embrace the idea that "paradigms can't be destroyed; they have to be replaced."

The gathering at the convention center came after an October 2003 meeting at which the first phase of the project was formally launched. The next step in the process, which was funded in part by the Boston Foundation, is to create a comprehensive regional plan.

Article by Anthony Flint, Boston Globe, Sunday, February 6, 2005