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Boston is made for walking, study finds

Boston skyline

Northeastern researchers at the Dukakis Center created a performance metric to determine the social equity of the 57 WalkUPs in the Greater Boston region.

Metro Boston is on the leading edge of a national shift away from dri­vable sub­urban living and toward walk­able urbanism, according to a report released Wednesday and co-​​written by researchers at Northeastern’s Dukakis Center for Urban and Regional Policy.

The report found that average pre­miums for walk­able urban real estate in 2014 were 37 per­cent more than pre­miums for dri­vable sub­urban real estate. And from 2009 to 2014, 36 per­cent of the region’s income prop­erty devel­op­ment occurred in walk­able urban places, or WalkUPs.

The researchers noted that this shift toward walk­able urbanism has major impli­ca­tions for real estate investors and pol­i­cy­makers, and that if the trend con­tinues, dri­vable sub­urban real estate values are at risk of con­tinued stag­na­tion while values in walk­able urban neigh­bor­hoods will likely con­tinue to rise. They noted the find­ings can inform public policy and devel­op­ment plans moving for­ward as zoning and building reg­u­la­tions evolve to meet the walk­able urbanism demand.

Map of established and emerging WalkUPs in the Metro Boston area

A map of estab­lished and emerging WalkUPs in the Metro Boston area, as iden­ti­fied by the report. Con­tributed photo

The find­ings from this report allow us to be more sys­tem­atic and inten­tional about guiding upcoming devel­op­ment and policy,” said Anna Gartsman, a research asso­ciate at the Dukakis Center who worked exten­sively on the report. “We’ve iden­ti­fied the loca­tions where market forces are pushing devel­op­ment; now we need to make sure that we both encourage this devel­op­ment, by main­taining existing infra­struc­ture such as the MBTA, and that we sup­port cur­rent res­i­dents by insti­tuting proac­tive housing poli­cies to pre­vent fur­ther displacement.”

While invest­ments in walk­able urban infra­struc­ture and public transit are expen­sive, the researchers stressed that they pay off, noting that their find­ings indi­cate walk­able urban devel­op­ment gen­er­ates higher eco­nomic devel­op­ment and fiscal returns than dri­vable sub­urban devel­op­ment. They said the invest­ments must be cou­pled with a plan to achieve social equity, using tools such as expanding the cur­rent tax credit pro­grams for reha­bil­i­ta­tion, inclu­sionary zoning, and com­mu­nity ben­efit agreements.

We know that these places are eco­nom­i­cally pros­perous,” Gartsman said. “We wanted to deter­mine their strengths and weak­nesses based on acces­si­bility, housing afford­ability, eco­nomic oppor­tu­nity, and schools.”

The Dukakis Center released the report in part­ner­ship with the Center for Real Estate and Urban Analysis at the George Wash­ington Uni­ver­sity School of Busi­ness and the Met­ro­pol­itan Area Plan­ning Council. The report will be released at the New Eng­land Lead­er­ship Summit today in Boston.

For their part, the North­eastern researchers cre­ated a per­for­mance metric to deter­mine the social equity of the 57 WalkUPs in the Greater Boston region to ensure eco­nomic oppor­tu­ni­ties grow for dis­ad­van­taged res­i­dents, as the pop­u­larity of walk­able urbanism increases.

The metric ranks the WalkUPs from best to worst—platinum, gold, silver, and copper—based on afford­ability, acces­si­bility, and oppor­tu­ni­ties. The researchers studied data including the pro­por­tion of the region’s working-​​age pop­u­la­tion that can access the WalkUP by transit within 45 min­utes, job den­sity, and school reading proficiency.

Boston neigh­bor­hoods such as Rox­bury, Chi­na­town, and Mis­sion Hill earned plat­inum rank­ings because of their prox­imity to job cen­ters and to retain tra­di­tion­ally afford­able units.

Of the 57 WalkUPs, ones that earned the lowest ranking included Brockton, Marl­bor­ough, and Lower All­ston. Many of those com­mu­ni­ties are only served by the MBTA com­muter rail or regional transit, have fewer job oppor­tu­ni­ties, and high unem­ploy­ment, according to the report.

WalkUP com­mu­ni­ties that aren’t in the Met­ro­pol­itan Boston ‘core’ near Boston, Cam­bridge, and Somerville have an access problem,” Gartsman said. “You can afford to live there, but you really can’t get to and from there easily. And for places that are ser­viced by the com­muter rail, the schedule is not con­ducive to shift work like a chef in a restau­rant or a nurse.”

Boston is the third pilot city in this study of walk­able urban places, along with Atlanta and Wash­ington, D.C. The plan is to expand the study to dozens of other cities, which will be ana­lyzed in part by Northeastern’s social equity metrics.

This report is part of a larger ini­tia­tive at the Dukakis Center to bring its housing devel­op­ment and trans­porta­tion teams closer together like never before and make North­eastern Uni­ver­sity a cen­tral hub for future housing devel­op­ment, according to Barry Blue­stone, founding director of the Dukakis Center and the Stearns Trustee Pro­fessor of Polit­ical Economy.

What makes North­eastern and the Dukakis Center spe­cial is that our focus is on the local and regional level, and that gives us a base to build on,” Blue­stone noted.

-By Joe O’Connell

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