Eclectic Neighborhoods are Good Neighborhoods
In some spaces, the demand to “protect neighborhood character” is a common refrain from those who oppose building new housing in cities, especially when there’s a desire to build more densely. These defenses of neighborhood character have always rung hollow to me because the variety of buildings in a neighborhood is what makes it feel alive to me — and the desire to do so via restrictive zoning is a complete misrepresentation of how that neighborhood character came to be in the first place.
One of the things that I love about my neighborhood is the variation in the buildings in it. The neighborhood has existed since the 1860s-1870s, and as a result of its history, it has an eclectic mix of buildings that makes it feel varied as you walk down the streets.
This is true throughout Cambridge: whether you’re walking down our commercial boulevards or through our neighborhoods, every house along the block tends to look different. A multi-story apartment building can be directly next to a cheap pizza joint, while the four story tall church has been rebuilt into condos across the street from the park. The 6 story tall granite-lined apartment is almost directly next to the one story flat-topped bar — with only an oddly shaped house tucked in between.
This experience means a lot to me in part because I’ve experienced what things can be like without it. I grew up in the midwest — specifically, I grew up in St. Charles, Illinois, which is a suburb of Chicago. (Excellent.) When living in the suburbs, my family looked at buying a house in a new development: they had cleared out a farm and were turning it into a new housing development of single family homes. I remember going through the catalog: there were 3 styles of house you could pick from, and each style of house had 3 different looks for the front of the house. That combination was it: there were 9 different buildings they would build, and they would apply to the entire development of hundreds of houses. The result is that the whole development looks very much the same: every house you go by looks mostly like the house you just went by, because, to a large extent, they are.
Compare to Cambridge: within 6 blocks of where I live, there are 10+ story buildings, a 4 story church, 4-story multi-family housing units, single story restaurants, laundromats, clothing stores, auto-repair shops, plus a range of housing in all shapes and sizes. In many places, properties have added on additional housing units in backyards and back lots, or built up over existing commercial structures. We’ve got a pretty diverse mix — largely driven by the fact that most properties in the area were built before zoning came into existence in Cambridge in 1924!
When I give tours of Cambridgeport to visiting friends, the experience that people have of our neighborhood character is driven by the diversity of the construction in our neighborhood. Sadly, under our current zoning code, most of the buildings in it could never be built again. The eclectic mix of low density, moderate density, and higher density construction is no longer possible, because the rules have changed over and over again over the past 100 years to limit more and more of what can be built.
In theory, these zoning restrictions are meant to ensure that neighborhoods maintain their character: to prevent skyscrapers from being built right next to people’s homes, or to ensure that no one puts up a rubber factory right in a residential neighborhood. In reality, these restrictions — and objections to them — almost always boil down to steps which work to protect property values, not the existing character.
The strongest evidence of the reality of zoning is the extent to which our current zoning code no longer resembles the built environment. In Cambridge, over 80% of the properties in the city simply aren’t allowed under the current zoning code. If one of the buildings was to be removed, you’d need to build something smaller to replace it. Zoning codes no longer protect the character of the neighborhood (if they ever did), but rather, describe a completely different reality, where new structures must be different than existing structures in order to exist.
My home has always been special to me because the fabric of the neighborhood is so diverse in how varied the properties are. That diversity, however, stems largely from a history of being built before there were rules that prevented it! Whether it’s the beautiful Victorians, Greek Revivals, or Mansards: they all come from an era of development that no longer exists, because our zoning restrictions now prevent them.
Why do modern properties in Cambridge that are rebuilt have flat roofs? With small lots, you’re restricted based on your setbacks from property lines — and setbacks are computed in part based on the height of your building. Your best choice for building a new building is to build with a flat roof, limiting your height ratio to your usable building area. Why do we no longer see new buildings with sweeping entrances? With strict limits on floor area to lot size, there’s a need to maximize the usable space. Why do we not see newly built triple deckers? Zoning has changed to prevent the construction of triple deckers on the standard 5000 square foot lot size under which Cambridge was developed — meaning that in neighborhoods like mine, 90% of lots are zoned such that you can’t build a triple decker!
The neighborhood character that our existing neighborhoods have was not created by our current zoning: for the most part, it wasn’t created by any zoning at all. Our eclectic neighborhoods were created in a situation where there weren’t rules on what could be built. The neighborhoods that we live in were created not by central planning or by a planning board, but by a million individual decisions that got us to where we are today, and that’s what makes the communities feel alive: their decisions reflect individuals.
When we take away that individual autonomy, we lose the character of our neighborhoods. Our current zoning is not reflective of the reality of our city, nor is it based on maintaining or protecting neighborhood character: much of it is based around the idea of freezing the city in amber, keeping it the same forever, despite our growth in the 150 years since my community was first created.
When making a decision where there is some idea that things might just be different, I say: Different is good! The community that we love today was built by letting people be different, and those differences are what makes our community the place I love to live. Making our community better means letting individuals continue to make those choices, to continue to allow the variety that exists today. The best way to protect our neighborhood character is to allow it to continue to flourish, grow, and change — just as the city always has.