Anthony Flint

Filling in the gaps in the city

By Anthony Flint
December 17, 2009

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THE MACHINATIONS in Copenhagen, where international negotiators hope to reach an accord on climate change, have had a remote and almost otherworldly quality - China refusing to be monitored, the island of Tavula pleading for its continued existence, the financiers pushing cap and trade, the magic number of 350 parts per million of carbon in the atmosphere as far as away as Christmas seems to my 5-year-old son.

Right here in Boston, however, there is something tangible we can do to help reduce greenhouse gas emissions: support infill redevelopment.

You can’t feel good about driving a Prius and be a NIMBY, proclaiming “not in my backyard’’ anytime a proposal comes along for a little additional density in the neighborhood. Well-designed, walkable, mixed-use, transit-oriented development is more important than all the hybrid taxis and green roofs the city could require.

The urban fabric is a key weapon against climate change. Cities allow us to walk, ride a bike, and take transit. “Growing Cooler,’’ a study by SmartGrowth America and the Urban Land Institute, showed that compact development - basically, being able to live, work, and shop within a 20-minute radius - can reduce vehicle miles traveled by as much as 30 percent. There is still much empirical analysis to be done on the relationship between the built environment and greenhouse gas emissions, but walking to the corner store for a gallon of milk is one of the greenest contributions any of us can make.

Our cities provide that opportunity. But we need more city. That’s where infill redevelopment comes in - filling in the acres of vacant parcels, abandoned industrial and contaminated sites, and surface parking lots that are sprinkled across the metropolis. Many of these vacant patches are near transit stations. But building at these sites is much more difficult than starting from scratch in a cornfield outside the urban periphery. Outdated codes and requirements are among the barriers.

Boston does a good job doing master planning, but the city could go much further on the zoning side. We might learn something from Miami, where Mayor Manny Diaz recently won approval for a citywide rezoning, known as Miami 21, which encourages compact, mixed-use development. Zoning used to be concerned with the separation of uses. Now it can be a blueprint for sustainable urban form.

The city can also do a better job placing redevelopment projects in a more regional context, using visualization technology and available data to show how an infill project will reduce vehicle miles traveled, home-to-work trips, and greenhouse gas emissions, and promote more efficient economic development, compared to a site off a beltway in the suburbs. One can easily imagine a point system or scorecard, to show how individual projects fit in to the bigger picture.

As it is now, when a developer proposes an infill project, politicians typically make a political risk assessment based on neighborhood opposition before saying anything publicly. Often only a handful of residents concerned about views or congestion are enough to grind the process to a halt.

Even seemingly innocuous sites are heavily scrutinized. David Greaney of Synergy Boston envisions a 1.8-million-square-foot, mixed-use urban village on an empty lot next to the JFK-UMass station. The elevated Southeast Expressway is between the site and the nearest house in the St. Margaret’s section of Dorchester, and more than a half-mile from residential Savin Hill. But the project, potentially a key part of the larger Columbia Point master planning process, has begun to attract critics from those areas. Some of the objections concern density and the project being “out of character’’ with adjacent neighborhood scale. Too often that’s code for not wanting anything to change.

A survey done recently for the Lincoln Institute showed that local government officials in the West were pursuing land-use planning that resulted in lower emissions - but that they were reluctant to label those efforts as directed against climate change. Around here, we don’t have that problem. Bostonians should be proud to help thwart global warming. We can do that, in part, by filling in the gaps in the city, one vacant lot at a time.

Anthony Flint is director of public affairs at the Lincoln Institute of Land Policy in Cambridge.

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