The Many Dimensions of Change in Boston, Day 2: Residential Growth in Boston: Evidence from Building Permits


The City of Boston’s building permits dataset allows us to see both how much development is happening and what types of development this is. Overall, building permits are needed for construction of new buildings, demolition of and addition to existing structures, and renovation. The occupancy type of the buildings for which these permits are granted can tell us more about the character of development in Boston. Over time, the overall number of building permits granted by the city has increased – by about 25% since 2011. The breakdown of occupancy type shows yet another dynamic: while the majority of these permits are for residential buildings, the trend in this breakdown over time shows that residential development has not kept pace with other categories of occupancy for building permits – though some of this may be driven by the increasing number of uncategorized permits in the data since 2015.



What kind of residential development is happening, though? Some residential development is for single-family houses, while other development may be for large apartment complexes. The building permits data also allow us to unpack this aspect of development in Boston. Since 2015, the majority of permits for residential development have been for single-family and two-family housing, as shown below.



One of the things that might be limiting this residential development, however, is the lack of vacant land or space for larger building (such as those that might fit more than a single family). The dataset can give us a hint as to why that might be happening – and why it also restricts where new residential construction can occur. The building permits data show what type of work they are for – some of them are for new construction, but some are for additions and demolition of existing structures or renovations. Overall, most of the building permits in these data are for renovation, but there is still some percentage of the permits that are for new construction. BARI’s ecometrics, posted on the BARI Data Portal, indicate these type of development in the geographic aggregate tabular files and shapefiles.


The below maps demonstrate where the new construction is occurring in the city during the years of 2016 and 2017.  Census tracts with a high proportion of all parcels being permitted for new construction are plotted in blue, while those with fewer of their parcels being developed with new construction plotted in rec. As these maps show, the development in Boston is fairly mixed across geographies, with some census tracts with higher amounts of new development immediately next to census tracts with lower amounts of development. One such area is Boston’s Seaport, where in 2016 there was a high proportion of parcels with new construction in the tract immediately next to downtown, but a low proportion in the tracts towards the harbor and Southie. In 2017, however, this changes – the areas of Southie next to the harbor have more permits issued in them for new construction, and the area of the Seaport immediately next to downtown and the Fort Point Channel continues to have a high degree of new construction.



You can access the building permits dataset on the Boston Data Library, and explore these metrics visually on BostonMap.

Published On: April 11, 2018 |
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