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What are 15-minute neighborhoods? New report calls for state action.

Transit? Check. Groceries? Check. Open space? Check — all within a 15-minute walk from your home.

A young family takes a stroll along the Mystic River on Sunday Morning, Nov. 26, 2017 in Somerville's Assembly Square. Photo by Dina Rudick/Globe Staff

Imagine being a 15-minute walk from the shops, community resources, and transit options that meet most of your daily needs. Some may not have to imagine it, already living in a walkable area of Greater Boston, but for many, that convenient reality is many policy decisions away.

In a new report, authors from the Massachusetts Housing Partnership and Boston Indicators make a case for a broader approach to the 15-minute neighborhood model, in order to build an interconnected network of these neighborhoods across the region and ensure equitable access to resources. This, however, won’t be possible without committed policy action from the state.

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“It might be surprising to see us focus so much of a neighborhood development paper on state policy, but our view is that we have a wrong level of government problem,” report author Luc Schuster said during a recent webinar, WBUR reported. “While jobs, transportation and housing markets increasingly operate at a regional scale, the state has left too many land use and zoning decisions up to local governments, where elected officials represent only small, often quite homogenous town populations.”

The report noted the state has already taken some action in supporting this kind of development: in January, Governor Charlie Baker signed the Economic Development Bond Bill, which included a provision requiring MBTA communities to develop at least one multi-family zoning district. Though implementation hasn’t begun, the authors wrote that it “represents an important step toward revitalizing these transit-rich neighborhoods and requiring them to build housing that’s more accessible to low- and moderate-income families.”

Supporting multi-family zoning and transitioning away from prioritizing cars are two of the most important things the state can do, according to the report. The authors emphasized that while some cities and towns have already been taking action in that direction, true connectivity will not happen if it’s entirely left to municipalities.

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“Transportation and land use policy has prioritized cars for generations, encouraging sprawl, separating residential from commercial uses, and relinquishing large amounts of public space to single-occupancy vehicles,” the report reads. “Furthermore, while jobs, transportation, and housing markets increasingly operate at an interconnected regional scale, the state has ceded too many land-use and zoning decisions to the purview of small local governments. This has allowed many of these communities to adopt single-family-exclusive zoning, contributing to persistent residential segregation by race and income.”

This map, from the Metropolitan Area Planning Council, shows just how many communities are dominated by single-family zoning. – Boston Indicators & Massachusetts Housing Parthership

The map shows just how little multi-family housing is — or can be — built in the Greater Boston area. 

“These places are effectively inaccessible to those who can’t afford to purchase or rent a single-family home,” authors wrote. “Other than housing produced through the state’s 40B requirement, the development of new income restricted housing is essentially prohibited in these places since those projects are almost always done as multifamily units. …[S]uburban neighborhoods with little rental housing also end up excluding subsidized rental voucher holders since those can only be used in rental properties.”

The 15-minute neighborhood model, or something similar, has already been put into practice in Paris, France, Portland, Oregon, and Barcelona, Spain. Many Boston area residents already live in communities that have the same kind of connectivity, and the report included Somerville’s Assembly Square, Worcester’s Canal District, Boston’s Jackson Square, and downtown Reading as examples of communities that are heading in the right direction.

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The authors see real potential in the region, but say it will require urgent political action from state legislators.

“Where I think we are falling short is really on political will,” Tracy Corley, director of research and partnerships at the Conservation Law Foundation, told WBUR. “We really need to have not just elected officials, but also policies and laws that are made that actually reflect the will of the people, what people say they want to see happen.”

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