Local News
9:55 am
Mon July 28, 2014

Massachusetts Is Growing Again — But Is It Smart Growth?

In this Friday, April 4, 2014 photo several commercial construction projects in the Seaport district of Boston are seen against the backdrop of the city skyline. Friday, April 4, 2014.
In this Friday, April 4, 2014 photo several commercial construction projects in the Seaport district of Boston are seen against the backdrop of the city skyline. Friday, April 4, 2014.
Credit (AP Photo/Stephan Savoia)

If there’s a fundamental American credo, it’s that growth is good. Whether it’s a family moving into a new home, a small business adding customers, or the stock market setting a new record, getting bigger means you’re getting better — or so the thinking goes.

Cities and states prize growth, too, and in recent years, both Boston and Massachusetts been adding residents. But what that really means is debatable — and so is whether we’re growing smart.

If you live in Massachusetts, you know that the state has plenty of fine qualities — from world-class universities to a gorgeous coastline to a local sports scene that’s second to none.

But living here also has its downsides. The winters are long. The commutes can be longer. And Massachusetts is expensive —whether buying a home or just getting around. Still, after bottoming out in the mid-2000s, Massachusetts is growing again — and Gov. Deval Patrick says that’s something to celebrate.

"Growth is good!" Patrick said in an interview last week.

The governor, who hails from Chicago, says adding new residents makes Massachusetts more dynamic.

"It’s great in a Commonwealth to have newcomers who are choosing to be here," Patrick said. "And I think with that newness comes talent, and energy, and ideas that make us stronger."

Harvard University economist Ed Glaeser says growth shows that the Massachusetts brand is desirable — and more accessible than it used to be.

"People want to live here, and we haven’t built enough housing to accommodate them," he said. "If our population grows, it means that we’re accommodating them with more housing supply. And that means we’re building the houses to enable ordinary people to be able to afford this currently overpriced area."

Glaeser thinks we should build even more aggressively. And that means changing basic assumptions — like the suburban ideal of a single-family home with a sprawling lawn.

"I don’t think putting super-high-rise buildings in Lincoln is likely to be particularly sensible, or that that’s where demand is," he said. "I could imagine more townhouses in those areas."

But Suffolk University economist David Tuerck says more density could diminish the quality of life.

"I think the reason we have large tracts on which people build houses is because that’s how they want to live," he said. "And if we make that less available, by forcing housing to take a different path, where the lots are smaller, I think we discourage people from coming here."

And for Tuerck, Massachusetts’ modest growth rate is pretty underwhelming.

"Don’t get too excited," he said. "I mean, we’re moving back, but it’s at a snail’s pace over the last year or so, so it’s nothing to cheer about."

Tuerck doesn’t think development drives growth. He thinks a good economy does — and that Massachusetts still has some work to do.

"If you look at taxes per capita, we’re still a high-tax state — and that’s a growing concern," he said. "Our corporate income tax is still too high. And our personal income tax, I think, to our great advantage would go down a little bit, along with our sales tax."

And that’s exactly why talking about growth is so challenging. Because while there’s widespread agreement that growth is a good thing, there’s disagreement over why it’s good — how we should manage it going forward. But that’s also why it’s a conversation Massachusetts needs to have. Because the way you think about those questions is going to shape the way you think about a host of big public-policy debates.

Do we build out or up – or both? Do we prioritize green space or new development? Is the state’s gas tax an investment in the future or a regressive grab for cash? Growth may be good. But that doesn’t mean it’s easy.

Rappaport Institute Executive Director Steve Poftak and former Boston City Council President Mike Ross discussed the state's growing pains on Greater Boston: