ULI Boston/New England Blog

City Planning Must Go Beyond Roads And Parking Lots

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Prioritizing A Future With Infrastructure Investment And Design  

It was the urban activist Jane Jacobs, author of “The Death and Life of Great American Cities,” whose loud criticism of master urban planner Robert Moses ushered in the end of development based on the notion that cars come first. While Moses’s legacy lives on through the parkways, freeways and other transportation structures he designed in and around New York City, his disdain for public transportation and walkable cities has only strengthened the view that infrastructure needs to do more than just provide roads and parking lots.

The Urban Land Institute – and its Boston/New England District Council – sees infrastructure as a key priority for 21st century American cities. Through its Infrastructure Initiative, ULI is helping promote and identify infrastructure investment choices that are more sustainable and foster an improved understanding of the links between infrastructure and land use. We know that today’s urban dwellers are focused not just on having a place to live, but on living in a place that offers multiple transportation options, which include walking, biking, ride-sharing and public transportation.

Boston and its surrounding communities are already taking great steps forward in catering to a lifestyle that doesn’t put the automobile above all else. Cambridge and Brookline are among those municipalities weaving bike lanes into the urban landscape; Boston is lowering its speed limit and increasing the cost to park on the street; and communities everywhere are finding places to park ride-sharing vehicles, which reduce the overall numbers of cars on the road.
Jacob’s criticism of Moses’s urban plan was years ahead of its time. But today, the way people interact with their built environment is shifting again. Boston’s newest neighborhood, the Seaport District, is home to apartments that feature bike racks but don’t include parking. Employers provide private buses to move their people to and from public transit nodes, even as the MBTA says Silver Line service to South Station is overburdened.

Municipal leaders in the Hub have responded by evaluating the integrity of the roads, bridges, and rails that make the region go, as well as implementing more progressive transit policies, the need for which was magnified by the record-breaking winter of 2015. Still, major infrastructure investments remain a fiscal challenge. Building new sidewalks and extending MBTA transit lines are expensive and time-consuming. A new administration in Washington is promising to unlock the coffers and provide the millions of dollars necessary to rebuild crumbling roads and bridges, but as the new president has threatened to withhold federal funds to “sanctuary cities” like Somerville – where the Green Line extension hangs in the balance – it remains to be seen whether federal and state infrastructure investment will prioritize transportation options beyond those envisioned by Robert Moses, where everyone drives oneself to and from work.

At the same time, the real estate community is playing a greater role in determining how infrastructure and transportation are prioritized in urban development. Millennials who prefer to walk, bike and share rides are driving demand for homes that offer such options. Cities and towns are reviewing development plans to determine how a new building or block will integrate with its existing environment, and whether bike racks, walking paths and access to transit can be a greater piece of the whole.

unspecified by Manikka Bowman, ULI Boston/New England manager of policy

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