Historical geographer says local control has been enemy of efforts to preserve community character
Nelson says regional planning elsewhere has produced better results
IT’S A FAMILIAR REFRAIN in the push and pull over development in Massachusetts: When a project of some kind is proposed, local officials and residents who oppose it often say the development would harm the historic character of their community. Maintaining local control over what gets built and where it gets built is often viewed by communities as the last line of defense in the battle to preserve what’s made them special.
But Garrett Nelson says just the opposite is true. Nelson, the president and head curator at the Leventhal Map & Education Center at the Boston Public Library, maintains that local control has often been the driving force behind development that has been destructive of the historic character of Massachusetts cities and towns.
“I’ve always been interested in this kind of way that localism and small-scale neighborhood-scale government gets portrayed in the United States with an automatic golden glow,” he said. “We think of local control almost always as a good thing — more democratic, more participatory. Certainly, when you think about the kind of historic myths of a place like Massachusetts or New England, the image of the town meeting looms large in that myth making. And so we kind of tend to take it as a default that more local participation, more local control will help ameliorate some of our concerns about modern development.”
The issue at the center of his argument, in many ways, is the rise of suburban sprawl – the post-World War II build-out of communities that has been dominated by single-family homes on large lots. While that model is the one that has prevailed through local control of development across Greater Boston, Nelson says it has cut sharply against the grain of how those communities lived before then.
Communities in Greater Boston had smaller populations before the mid-1900s, Nelson said, but they nonetheless generally had greater density, with most housing clustered close to town centers.
The rise of the automobile – and roadway expansion to accommodate it — along with a home financing system that Nelson says favored “spatial segregation,” turned what had been largely small rural towns into bedroom communities for commuters to Boston as well as the office parks that sprang up along Route 128.
Communities realized they were “sitting on a gold mine of potentially developable land,” Nelson said, with plenty of incentives to steer growth toward large houses on big lots, which would draw better-off residents.
“They were acting in an economically rational fashion,” Nelson said. “If you are in a town that’s fortunate enough to have a relatively affluent population and relatively few demands on its public services, then you understandably will want to continue the privileges afforded to you by that position.”
He said that development pattern helped promote racial and economic segregation, and did much to undermine the longstanding historic character of those communities.
In his CommonWealth essay, Nelson says a visit to most any small town center in Sweden or Poland, to give two examples, will “almost certainly find a landscape that better preserves the character of centuries past than any town in Massachusetts. And although these countries each have their own unique planning idiosyncrasies, all of them provide far more centralized control to regional and national political units. The United States is an outlier in terms of how much power local authorities have over land-use decisions—and also an outlier in terms of how many historic landscapes have been wiped out.”
He used the Middleborough example because the Plymouth County town of 24,000 residents has been among the most outspoken in raising objections to the MBTA Communities Law, passed in 2021, which requires the 175 cities and towns served by the T to create at least one zoning district that allows denser, multi-family housing.
By linking the new zoning requirement to the MBTA service area, the law is acknowledging the interdependence of communities. That’s something that often gets ignored, Nelson said, by communities as they plan only with thoughts of what happens within their borders, not the regional need for more housing at various price levels or other factors critical to the regional economic health.The MBTA Communities law looks like at least a step in the direction of addressing these issues, Nelson said. But he’s reluctant to say it signals a major turning point.
“I’m a historian. I’m working on a book that’s about 150 years of attempting to solve this geographic problem in the Boston region and elsewhere, and history is littered with attempts to figure this out,” he said. “We don’t necessarily imagine ourselves as being part of these more modern urban and regional geographies. And if we can’t imagine ourselves as part of them, it’s very hard to make political decisions for them.”