The Many Dimensions of Change in Boston, Day 1: “Seeing” Investment in Boston’s Neighborhood’s through Building Permits


Building permits offer a unique window into patterns of investment across Boston–literally capturing the physical work being done by property owners to expand, improve, and newly construct the buildings of the city. In recognition of this fact, BARI has created a series of ecometrics (i.e., descriptors of a neighborhood) that quantify the investment in every census tract in Boston on three different dimensions: renovations, additions, and new constructions. These categories are developed for each parcel in the city based on the types of permits that it pulled (see documentation for the Building Permits data set  for more information). We release these measures annually for census tracts in multiple forms, including total count of parcels undergoing each type, percentage of parcels undergoing each type, and total value generated by each type.


The 2017 measures of investment tell us where the “action” has been in the past year on two dimensions. First, we can combine additions and renovations because they both reflect alterations to existing structures, whereas new constructions do not. Further, they are highly correlated across tracts (i.e., tracts with lots of renovations also have lots of additions).[1] We will look at them in terms of percentage of parcels undergoing alterations in a neighborhood; across the city, 17% of parcels experienced a renovation or addition in 2017. New constructions, however, are far rarer–only 410 were undertaken in the year, less than .5%–for which reason we analyze them as raw counts in each neighborhood.


Using BostonMap, we can visualize the distribution of projects altering existing structures and constructing new buildings across the city. Laying them side-by-side, we see that they are highly dissimilar. Neighborhoods where property owners are improving their current property are not the same neighborhoods where larger investors are building new structures. In fact, they are in many cases opposites.[2] They clearly tell different stories, but what are those stories? The story of new constructions is probably a little simpler as such projects are isolated in certain regions. Some of these are oft discussed in the media, like the constant development of the Seaport District of South Boston. Others, like the Harvard III Commons in western Dorchester, are probably less well-known.


Figure 1. Investment in Boston tracts in 2017 measured in terms of (a) the proportion of parcels experiencing a renovation or addition and (b) the number of newly constructed buildings.


The map of additions and renovations shows a more concrete set of trends, however, with a strong concentration of such work in neighborhoods in and around the core of the city–Downtown, Back Bay and Beacon Hill, Fenway/Kenmore, and South End. This is not the whole story, however, as there are other hubs of activity, like eastern Charlestown. We can isolate these localized hubs by removing the impact of average neighborhood investment.[3] This gives us the additional map below, in which red census tracts are experiencing fewer additions and renovations than other parts of the neighborhood, and blue tracts are experiencing more. On this map, we see a few hubs of interest, including: the coasts of both east Charlestown and west East Boston along the Mystic River; the Dudley Square area of Roxbury; and, to a lesser extent, the west side of Dorchester Ave. near Codman Square and along Centre St. near the Roslindale-West Roxbury border.



Figure 2. Proportion of parcels experiencing renovations or additions above (blue) or below (red) average for each census tract’s planning district in Boston in 2017.


What accounts for these additional areas of activity? Interestingly, the answer is not what one might expect.[4] Property owners are not investing more in richer or poorer census tracts, nor in tracts with a particular racial composition (e.g., predominantly White or Black). There is however, one feature that seems to matter, hinting at the way investment in Boston is motivated right now: neighborhoods with higher levels of homeownership had fewer additions and renovations in 2017.[5] This resonates an ecological perspective known as invasion-succession that argues that change occurs in neighborhoods when there are opportunities for new elements to enter. Neighborhoods with fewer homeowners likely operate more as a pure market, with property owners buying, selling, and renovating as they see opportunities for business gain and have fewer emotional and personal considerations that might interfere. Similarly, local communities of renters may be less likely to push back against building efforts than homeowner neighbors would be.


This amounts to one short story of how investment has occurred across Boston in 2017, as well as an illustration of what can be done with BARI’s ecometrics of investment and growth. These annual ecometrics go back to 2010, and we encourage others to do additional tests of the geographic and longitudinal trends of investment in the city.


[1] r = .66, p < .001 for tracts with greater than 75 parcels (limited to avoid undue influence of outliers).

[2] r = -.31, p < .001.

[3] Calculated by extracting tract-level residuals from a linear model with Boston Planning and Development Agency’s Planning Districts as the sole set of predictors.

[4] Results that follow based on a multiple regression.

[5] 𝛃 = -.30, p < .01 in linear model controlling for planning district, income, and racial composition.


Published On: April 10, 2018 |
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