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Boston Indicators report explores the potential for ’15- Minute Neighborhoods’ in Greater Boston

Paper looks at opportunities for more equitable, walkable city and town centers, explores four case studies

September 29, 2021

Boston – A new paper from Boston Indicators and the Center for Housing Data at the Massachusetts Housing Partnership suggests Greater Boston is well-positioned to create networks of more walkable neighborhoods and town centers. However, capitalizing on the opportunity will require policy changes to improve housing access, mobility infrastructure and equitable economic development. The paper, 15-Minute Neighborhoods: Repairing Regional Harms and Building Vibrant Neighborhoods for All, was released at a Boston Foundation forum today. In it, the authors detail a vision for building a regional network of these neighborhoods by leveraging their strengths and addressing many of their persistent challenges, using case studies from four Massachusetts communities to explore how they provide equitable access and opportunities to residents.

15 Min Cover Download the report from Boston indicators

The ‘15-minute neighborhood’ model aims to build vibrant, mixed-use neighborhoods where all residents can reach their daily needs within a 15-minute walk of their home. The concept has been a popular shorthand for more walkable and vibrant areas. In laying out their version, however, the research team added three twists to make the concept more impactful.  They designed their vision to be regional in nature, moving toward an interconnected network of 15-minute neighborhoods across Greater Boston. They also emphasized high-quality public transit and bike options as supplements to improved walkability, and made creating neighborhoods that reflected and supported the region’s racial and socioeconomic diversity a priority.

“The ’15-Minute Neighborhood’ concept alone is an opportunity, not a guarantee, for addressing some of the inequities we have let fester in our communities for decades,” said Dr. M. Lee Pelton, President and CEO at the Boston Foundation. “With this report, the Indicators and MHP team has created a vision that recognizes the needs for infrastructure and affordable housing that equitable development requires, and the policy changes needed to make that development more possible.”

The paper lays out a vision for what equitable 15-minute neighborhoods could look like and where Greater Boston falls short of making that vision a reality. It then explores how four Massachusetts neighborhoods: Boston’s Jackson Square, Somerville’s Assembly Row, The Canal District in Worcester, and downtown Reading, stack up against the various elements of the 15-minute neighborhood concept. Lastly, it explores the policies and decisions that are keeping the region from creating more equitable mixed-use neighborhoods and the levers that could unlock the potential of a regional network of vibrant, equitable places where daily needs are more readily accessible.

“The case studies highlighted some of the great elements that many communities across Greater Boston have in place already - compact downtowns, ready access to transit, shared public spaces and more,” said Luc Schuster, Senior Director of Boston Indicators. “But they also show the ways in which policy and infrastructure decisions can undermine how well these elements are used.

What Makes an Equitable 15-Minute Neighborhood

The report highlights five elements that together help create an equitable version of the ’15 Minute Neighborhood’. They are:

Redesigned Streetscapes That Include Space for Walking, Biking and Gathering - The pandemic illustrated the power of reutilizing outdoor public spaces. In fact, many communities that expanded outdoor spaces because of the pandemic have extended or made permanent their use. Deprioritizing roads for cars improves safety and provides opportunities to invest in accessibility, green space and public transit options.

Accessible Commercial Spaces - Improving resident access to a mix of commercial spaces provides the goods and services that residents need, generates new job and entrepreneurship opportunities close to home, and enlivens neighborhoods. Focusing on strengthening local ownership and innovation can feed a circular and inclusive economy within the neighborhood while also supporting job and wealth generation for residents.

Diverse Housing Options: Renter and Owner-Occupied, Mix of Building Types, Mix of Unit Sizes, Mix of Market-Rate and Income-Restricted Units - Equitable 15-minute neighborhoods require abundant housing options available at a range of price points, including duplexes, triple-deckers,  and small apartment buildings that ultimately support the creation of a  socioeconomically and racially diverse resident population. By mixing building types and unit sizes, and providing a mix of market-rate and income-restricted units, neighborhoods can create opportunities through the “life cycle of housing” for residents.

Diverse and Empowered Resident Population - Places and infrastructure only work if they work for people. An equitable 15-minute neighborhood should reflect Greater Boston’s tremendous diversity and be accessible to all, regardless of socioeconomic status or background. Well-integrated neighborhoods must also equitably distribute power and resources among residents to prioritize the voices and needs of the most vulnerable among them.

Strong Social Infrastructure - In addition to residential and commercial spaces, equitable 15-minute neighborhoods require social infrastructure - the places and spaces where people can relax, congregate, learn, worship and participate in civic life. These spaces don’t simply provide needed services. They also supply connection points and, in the case of green spaces, improve healthy access to the environment.

Case studies and policy imperatives

Creating these attributes is impossible without the policies and decision-making that make them viable. The other sections of the report examine how a cross-section of communities - an inner core Boston neighborhood (Jackson Square), a newly-built neighborhood (Assembly Row), a Gateway Cities neighborhood (Worcester’s Canal District), and a suburban town center (Downtown Reading) have fared in creating equitable 15-minute neighborhoods.

And the report recommends a series of state and local policy levers that could accelerate the building of a regional network of 15-minute neighborhoods. Transportation and land use policy has favored cars over other transportation modes, and single-family-exclusive zoning has contributed to persistent residential segregation by race and income and a regional housing shortage. But both state and local policymakers could readily implement ideas that would unlock new potential.

“Through policy actions and inactions, both the state and local communities have made equitable neighborhoods more challenging over the past decades,” said Tom Hopper, Director of Research and Analytics at the Massachusetts Housing Partnership’s Center for Housing Data. “Policy changes and critical investments, particularly in housing and transit, can unlock new opportunities and address some of our most critical housing needs.”

Among the recommendations:

State-level Actions:

  • Legalize multifamily housing by right, especially near existing or planned transit nodes.
  • Enact policies that encourage a mix of uses across neighborhoods and within individual buildings and properties.
  • Increase the provision of affordable housing and strengthen tenant protections.
  • Enact policies that better capture the cost of cars and rebalance streetscape design to include alternate uses.
  • Eliminate minimum parking requirements, especially near transit nodes.
  • Invest in local economic development in low-wealth communities.
  • Support local planning efforts for walkable neighborhoods and open space.
  • Invest in high-quality public transportation.

Regional and Local Actions:

  • Allow regional ballot initiatives.
  • Invest in regional transit agencies and regional mobility efforts, such as bikeshare programs.
  • Enhance community engagement to plan with communities, instead of for communities.
  • Design for people, not cars.
  • Zoning reform for density and affordable housing.
  • Leverage economic growth for equity-focused investments, either directly through taxation or indirectly by requiring contributions from developers.

The full report, including greater detail on the policy recommendations and the four case studies, is available on the Boston Indicators website, bostonindicators.org.