Focus on cars is suffocating Springfield and other mid-sized Massachusetts cities, report finds

Springfield and other so-called “Gateway Cities,” mid-sized cities seen as powerful drivers of economic development opportunities in Massachusetts, can strengthen their vibrancy and sense of shared community in a post-pandemic era by investing in their walkable and diverse trade in downtown areas, among other considerations.

A new report examines the obstacles to cities’ ability to use their social infrastructure, which is described as “aspects of the built environment that create social capital by sustaining human interaction,” according to the MassINC Gateway Cities Innovation Institute.

Vacant storefronts, inadequate public transportation and struggling community centers like libraries have kept Gateway Cities from reaching their full potential, according to the report, which analyzed dynamics in Springfield, Brockton, Fall River, Fitchburg and Haverhill. Downtowns remain too car-centric, as the report urges cities to shift their focus to protected bike lanes and improved pedestrian infrastructure — and highlights the importance of lower fares for the MBTA’s commuter rail and regional transit agencies.

“Pedestrian spaces and public transport to enable dense development patterns form the basis of social infrastructure in cities. Other major components include libraries, parks and recreation centers,” the report states. “In vibrant neighborhoods, coffee shops, barbershops, gyms and other ‘third spaces’ represent a large share of the social infrastructure. By promoting good neighborliness and bridging great divides in an era of increasing division, political scientists, sociologists and urban designers believe that social infrastructure is more valuable than ever.”

In Springfield, 42 percent of downtown land is primarily dedicated to cars, the report found. This includes 20% of city center land used for off-street parking, 1% on-street parking and 21% on-street.

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To combat this “abundance of underutilized property,” the report recommends pursuing mixed-use, mixed-income projects, with Gateway Cities receiving state financial assistance to help them cope with “extremely high” construction costs.

“Fortunately, this barrier to urban vitality also represents an opportunity for infill, bringing more residents into downtown neighborhoods and reconnecting blocks that have suffered from disinvestment, fire, demolition and abandonment over the past 80 years,” the report states. “The state has a compelling interest in maximizing the development potential of these areas and should provide projects with modest subsidies where appropriate.”

Surface parking also impedes the vibrancy of streetscapes – including access to ground-floor establishments and ground-floor windows – which affects whether they are walkable and therefore can encourage social interactions.

About 41% of the streetscapes in Springfield have inactive frontage and another 20% are considered limited frontage. That’s partly because of another statistic in the report: 29 percent of the built-up land in downtown Springfield is used for parking.

“While accessibility is critical to a vibrant downtown, the experience of the pandemic shows how turning even a relatively small number of parking spaces into active use can significantly increase the number of people interacting with others in our urban neighborhoods,” the report states.

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The report recommends Gateway Cities create centralized parking garages, in hopes of making other downtown buildings denser and more pedestrian-friendly.

A new state bond program, the report suggests, could offset the high costs of building parking lots and allow smaller cities to invest in new smart parking technologies. These garages “can be designed and operated in ways that mitigate the underlying equity issues with the upcoming transition to electric vehicle charging infrastructure,” the report states.

Social infrastructure is further diminished by capital problems in libraries, which the report says are “vital institutions” for Gateway Cities. Springfield library staffing is 66% of the Massachusetts state average, and program participation is only 32% of the state average.

“Of course, some will argue that we no longer need to bear the costs of physical spaces in a digital world where borrowing an e-book is far more convenient than visiting a public library, even for city dwellers,” the report states . “However, the experience of the pandemic strongly suggests otherwise. By cutting off access to public spaces for collective experience and consumption, people have struggled greatly to find social connection, with very real consequences for both physical and mental health.

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Other tools to strengthen social infrastructure include Gateway Cities, creating public-private nonprofit partnerships that can revitalize downtown spaces by providing more resources to small businesses and promoting arts and culture. This can be accomplished through state policymakers dedicating a percentage of online sales tax revenue to district management funds, supported through matching grants and cross-sector partnerships.

Older buildings and smaller storefronts can see increased growth through more government funding, “financial mechanisms” to make ground-floor retail space more affordable, and low-interest loans and grants to reduce code compliance costs .

The mobility-focused report said walking and biking could breathe “more life” into downtown Springfield and other Gateway Cities.

Yet for now, the lack of cycling infrastructure is “striking”, the report laments. There is also a need for traffic calming features, signaling opportunities to invest in parks and public gardens.

“Achieving the full potential of these centers as regional hubs and gathering places will require significant transit improvements,” said the report, which outlined the need to transform the city’s rail into a “more user-friendly and electrified regional rail system.”

“Investments in regional rail will only pay off if they are coupled with RTA improvements that shift car trips to transit,” the report continued. “Increasing RTA service will dramatically improve mobility for the nearly one in five households in the Gateway City who do not have access to a car.”

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