Executive Summary

Recently throughout the country, legislators, researchers, land-use planners and not-for-profit organizations have increasingly emphasized the connection between the built environment and public health issues such as obesity, diabetes, and high blood pressure (Johnson and Marko 2008).  Many municipalities and states have proposed various measures to address these and related issues. Increasingly, the states have realized that zoning laws have the capacity to improve public health and the overall quality of life in urban areas by improving public transit, walkability, and access to healthy foods and other services, such as health clinics and public parks. Massachusetts legislators recognize the gravity of these issues and have in recent years proposed a variety of zoning reform legislation. Some of the proposed bills individually address smart growth, walkability and access to public transportation while others are comprehensive, proposing a fundamental reworking of much of the zoning code. Unfortunately, gaining support for even minor reforms is difficult because there are so many factions with vested interest in the status quo and the 351 municipalities in Massachusetts are leery of reforms that could require substantial costs and extensive changes in the way they operate presently.

The goal of this project was to assist Senator Chandler and her office in developing ideas for zoning reform to promote quality of life in Massachusetts. We conducted interviews and an extensive review of the literature in order to characterize the nature of the zoning reforms across the United States. In particular we researched Rhode Island, Utah, and California for their progressive statewide zoning reform laws and the city of Houston, Texas for their lack of any zoning laws. Stakeholders that were interviewed included legislators, planners and developers, and organizations with a large interest in statewide zoning reform laws.

While examining other states around the country, we found that cities with poor zoning laws at all have problems such as urban sprawl, excess of empty space, and increased waiting time in traffic.  Houston is a prime example of this, having no zoning laws at all. Problems in this city include excess parking requirements which lead to urban sprawl, creating unused space in the city. California, Utah and Rhode Island have taken a more progressive approach to zoning and already have statewide zoning reform laws passed. In California the municipalities have to follow the strict requirements of the state laws, whereas in Utah and Rhode Island the municipalities have to set up general plans that satisfy the objectives set by the state laws. The flexibility in Rhode Island and Utah provide a more feasible approach for Massachusetts due to the diverse population density throughout the state.

The team also conducted an extensive review of the literature, previous and pending zoning reform bills, and several interviews with opinion leaders in Massachusetts in order to characterize the current status and prospects for zoning reform in the Commonwealth, particular with regard to measures aimed at improving the quality of life in general and public health in particular. Throughout these interviews we were able to obtain current problems with the passing of legislation and the information needed to make our recommendations for key elements that should be included in Massachusetts legislation. We believe that key elements that should be highlighted in the bills are walkability, public transportation, and affordable housing. These elements would gain the most support from stakeholders and have a large impact of the quality of life of the citizens of the community. Municipalities would view a more streamlined process of their rezoning and variance process as beneficial and the efficiency would be less time consuming for the parties involved. Another recommendation that was suggested to our team by various interviewees is to further educate the general public in regards to the effect of zoning on the community. If more information was widely available to the public detailing the benefits of zoning such as improved public health, better transportation, and environmental advantages we believe that more residents would be in support of zoning reform and would recognize the current need in Massachusetts for updated zoning reform laws.

The group’s final task was to create a small model for one area of Worcester to show some of the advantages that zoning could have on public health.  After identifying the needs of the city of Worcester (healthy food options, after school programing, and affordable housing are only a few of the city’s needs) the team acquired a list of approximately 100 vacant properties that could be used to improve some aspect of the quality of life of the residents, whether that be walkability, healthy food options, or affordable housing.  After narrowing that list down the list of properties down to about 10 usable properties the team then looked into where the properties were located within the city and what they could be used for, doing this the team narrowed the list down to three properties that could be used for affordable housing (128 Chandler St), a food market (418 Chandler St) and a vacant lot of land (326 Chandler) that could be used for anything you can think of in terms of improving quality of life.