Commentary: Debunking the “U” Word

“Urbanization.” That word has taken on special meaning in this season’s Aldermanic election. It raises the specter of The Garden City slowly becoming The Bronx. Apart from its use as a slogan, it adds nothing to a legitimate debate about Newton’s future.

Because here’s the thing: the City of Newton has been an urban place for decades with a population above 80,000 since 1950. Unlike towns with acre zoning on the urban fringe, Newton has amenities like sidewalks (still controversial in some towns), good transportation links to Boston, small scale village commercial areas, and a diverse population (which is a plus for most Newton residents). The combination of these urban characteristics with trees, gardens, and lots of public open space is why people want to live in Newton.

How about the “S” words: sustainable and smart growth? A few people believe that these are part of a United Nations plot to subvert the American way of life (a claim actually heard in some Massachusetts political debates), but many reasonable people also worry that these “S” words will change the character of Newton for the worse.

What those words really mean is that there is enough population density to make good things happen: decent public transportation, active streets, successful local business areas. And these characteristics make the city’s environmental footprint smaller. More density = less carbon per capita.

OK, there can be too much of a good thing, but Newton is already fully developed. The phenomenon of tearing down two small houses to build one big one is actually reducing density, but most Newtonians are not happy to see that happening.

The answer that has worked in many places is to put more density in village centers, where people can walk to restaurants, food stores, and other local businesses. Places like Lexington Center and West Concord are examples. There are not many opportunities to change village centers, so parking lots, like the one on Austin Street in Newtonville, are rare chances to move in the right direction.

People who like Newton the way it is are justifiably worried about change. But in fact, Newton has a good process to review and permit land use changes that protects our values.

It’s a bit like bike paths. People worry about what a new path near their home will bring, but time after time, once a path is built, it becomes an amenity that the early opponents are proud of. Similarly, good sustainable development in Newton’s villages will make the streets active, local businesses more successful, and the city more livable.

By Jim Purdy, Vice President of Green Newton