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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Old Colony Railroad

Air Date: Week of

The southeastern corner of Massachusetts is known as the "Old Colony." Its towns, including Plymouth, are some of the earliest settlements in the nation. The restoration of an abandoned railroad connecting the area to Boston has sparked a lively discussion about future development in this region known for its cranberry bogs, pine barrens and farmland. Environmentalists are of two minds on the rail project, seeing it as a way to offset pollution from cars, while they worry about the unwanted growth, or sprawl, the new trains could promote. Jeb Sharpe of member station WBUR in Boston has our report.


KNOY: The southeastern corner of Massachusetts is known as the Old Colony. Its towns, including Plymouth, are some of the earliest settlements in the nation. The restoration of an abandoned railroad connecting the area to Boston has sparked a lively discussion about future development in this region, known for its cranberry bogs, pine barrens, and farm land. Environmentalists are of 2 minds on the rail project. On the one hand they see it as a way to offset pollution from cars. On the other hand, they worry about the unwanted growth the new trains could promote. Jeb Sharpe of member station WBUR in Boston has our report.

(Train bells clanking)

WOMAN: Good morning. Thank you for riding Commuter Rail Old Colony. Good morning.

(Bells continue; ambient conversation)

SHARPE: When the Old Colony Railroad chugged to life again after more than 30 years of silence, no one was happier than commuter Dan Olbrook, who until then had driven to work.

OLBROOK: Driving into Boston's almost indescribable. (Laughs) It's totally frustrating, time-consuming, and very unpredictable. There's really, on a day to day basis you don't really know when you're gong to get to work, you know, how aggravating the commute's going to be. So this is much nicer.

(Echoes, trains moving)

SHARPE: The appeal to commuters of the gleaming new trains is undeniable. The big question is whether the region is ready to handle the growth and development they could trigger. The Old Colony region, between Boston and Cape Cod, is already among the fastest-growing areas in the northeastern United States. Planners predict even more newcomers will be attracted by the new rail line and an influx of state dollars to improve the region's roads. That growth spurt could alter the landscape forever, warns Mark Primack, director of the Wildlands Trust of Southeastern Massachusetts.

PRIMACK: If we don't take care, we will not just see suburban sprawl, but I think we will see the worst kind of suburban sprawl, because many of the towns are small, they don't have paid planners. They don't have paid conservation agents. You've got volunteer boards who are going to be dealing with large developers, with lawyers, with engineers, and their own surveyors. And I think that we're going to see towns just get bowled over and then 10 years from now they're going to wake up and they're going to say, "What happened?"

SHARPE: But according to Bob Yaro, who teaches at Harvard's Graduate School of Design, this development nightmare need not take place. He suggests the region take a lesson from the past.

YARO: We could use these commuter rail lines, for example, as the impetus for a whole new approach to development that in fact is very much like the approach to development that was the norm before World War II in this country.

SHARPE: More village-scale development with a mix of shops and offices and residences, close enough for kids to walk to schools and commuters to train stations. Bob Yaro says local officials should act now, while the majority of the region is still undeveloped.

YARO: What they need to do is to adopt new zoning and subdivision controls that essentially revert to the traditional patterns of growth in this region. And again, this is the oldest settled region in the country and the traditions are right there. So it's going back to much smaller lot sizes. It's certainly higher densities, although they don't need to be urban densities. They can still be densities that are very consistent with the patterns that used to be the norm in these places.

SHARPE: Dense development around commuter rail stations and town centers allows communities to preserve open space. But according to planner Peter Calthorpe, saving green space is only one reason to create tighter, more walkable communities. Mr. Calthorpe is an influential proponent of New Urbanism, an approach to development that advocates such clustered layouts.

CALTHORPE: People I think are quite hungry for a stronger sense of community and connectedness. I mean, the isolation of moving from one parking lot to the next is deeply frustrating to lots of people, and clearly takes a huge toll on kids and the elderly. A lot of people say that's nostalgic. I think it's terribly healthy. A longing to kind of re-establish a more diverse and more interesting sense of community than we get through our TV sets.

YANKOPOLOUS: There are urban planners who have this, "This is the way things ought to be if I were God" syndrome.

SHARPE: Gus Yankopolous is development director for the town of Wareham, one of the Old Colony region's poorer communities.

YANKOPOLOUS: And unfortunately, the grand scheme guys really don't understand how the market works. What do you do with a person who happens to be, own a lot of land in the middle of that best zone, doesn't want to sell the developers land, but someone on the outskirts of it does?

SHARPE: Planners admit there are plenty of obstacles to managing growth. City officials have trouble coordinating regional plans. They're generally more preoccupied with competing with their neighbors for precious development dollars. And developers and banks aren't used to building the kind of mixed use centers New Urbanists advocate. Harvard's Bob Yaro says southeastern Massachusetts is as good a place as any to tackle the problem.

YARO: We're facing these same development pressures, the same very damaging patterns of suburban sprawl. And this, you know, changed the landscape a little bit. And the same images could have been portrayed for suburban Phoenix or suburban Dallas or suburban Seattle, from the people who brought you Plymouth Rock and the American Revolution. Let's hope that, you know, we'll have another shot heard 'round the world here.

SHARPE: Nothing explosive is happening yet. But state officials have acknowledged the region needs serious attention. They've started with $125,000 in grant money for local planning agencies and $30 million to buy and protect open space, both in the Old Colony region and on nearby Cape Cod. Some grumble it's too little, too late. Others say there's time to save the character of the land the Pilgrims settled. For Living on Earth, I'm Jeb Sharpe in Boston.



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