|In the 1990s, the Boston metropolitan area developed into one of the United States’ major high tech centers. As the home of MIT and Harvard, the major magnets, Cambridge found itself at the focus of this phenomenon. |
Cambridge is a remarkably diverse community of historic neighborhoods, state-of-the-art research facilities, world-renowned universities, vibrant traditional main streets and downtowns, and cultural activities - all within a short distance of each other. The resulting mix provides the basis for a uniquely vital community - a quality often sought but rarely achieved in other urban communities. The rapid development to accommodate the growth of the Internet economy caused tensions and conflicts with this existing fabric. The City’s planning staff worked with residents, property owners, businesses, developers, and the universities to address these impacts and create a strategy for growth management. Urban design, open space, land use, zoning, transportation, economic development and employment were considered.
While most communities in the US create physical master plans that establish 5-10 year visions for growth, Cambridge is in an unusual position. It’s vision is not physically determined, but guided by a growth policy created in 1993. On re-evaluation, this vision was found to just as valid at the end of the decade. It provide the advantage of a framework within which land use and zoning decisions can be made to cater to specific conditions at a given time.
The core mission of the City’s planning is to preserve and enhance the benefits of Cambridge’s diversity, maintain its competitive advantage to attract high-tech businesses, while managing and diminishing the accompanying negative impacts. This mission translates into broad goals that govern planning for future change:
- Promote land use patterns that improve quality of life in residential neighborhoods and foster a vital public realm in mixed-use districts
- Expand housing opportunities for a wide range of residents, across the community
- Maintain a strong, predictable, and supportive environment for high tech businesses
- Support economic development that addresses the needs of small and start-up businesses and people in need of jobs and public services
- Shift transportation patterns toward more walking, transit use, and bicycle use, reducing reliance on automobiles
- Pursue urban design policies that support creation of lively, pedestrian-friendly areas
The results of the planning of the past few years based on the above mission was a rezoning of large parts of the city (Citywide Rezoning Petition, ordained February 2001 and Eastern Cambridge Planning Study and Rezoning, ordained October 2001) that included the following key components:
- Adjustments to the amount of development allowed providing incentives for residential development
- Project review special permit for all projects over 50,000 square feet, with strong urban design and traffic components. This strategy was introduced as an interim measure in 1997 and found to be invaluable to address long term impacts of development, while providing predictability for developers and businesses
- Revisions to parking requirements to discourage driving and preserve the pedestrian and bicycle friendly character and quality of life of Cambridge
While other communities struggle with the economic recession, Cambridge is less affected because during the boom it was able to attract a diverse set of high tech businesses, not just Internet based ventures. The biotech sector continues to be strong and enterprises such as Genzyme, Biogen, Wyeth Labs and related businesses continue to grow spurred by the genetic and biotechnology revolution.
Cambridge’s growth management approach serves as a valuable model for managing unexpected “big bang” events such as the Internet boom for three reasons. First, the City’s policy approach to planning rather than a physical planning focus enables rapid course corrections and fine-tuning, when needed. Second, diversification of the business base allows the City to cope with spikes and troughs in the demand cycle for a particular industry. Third, the approach of using large project review to mitigate long term impacts of development and leveraging development to create enhancements to the city’s vibrancy and livability sustain an attractive housing market even in a slow economy and keep people invested in the downtown. This paper will examine these three aspects and discuss the lessons learned from Cambridge model of dealing with the Internet boom as they apply to future efforts in Cambridge as well as in other communities.