Background                                                                  Download the PDF

Like major metropolitan areas across the country, the Greater Boston region saw poverty climb during the course of the economically turbulent 2000s. As poverty grew it became increasingly regional in its scope. The number of residents living below the federal poverty line ticked upward in places that have struggled economically for decades—in Boston and in densely populated neighboring communities such as Lawrence and Lowell—and in traditionally more affluent suburban communities such as Randolph and Danvers.

As poverty touches more people and places in the Greater Boston region, the metro area is grappling with affordable housing challenges: almost one-half of renters face a housing cost burden, meaning housing costs take up more than 30 percent of their gross monthly income. In addition, the metro area’s jobs base continued to shift away from Boston’s central business district during the 2000s, so that by 2010 more than 47 percent of the region’s jobs were located more than 10 miles from downtown. Given that only 30 percent of the region’s jobs are reachable by public transit within a 90 minute-commute, the outward shift of jobs and people has not only taxed the metro area’s transportation infrastructure, but it has also complicated efforts to connect low-income residents to economic opportunity, particularly if they cannot afford to live near their place of employment or own a reliable car.

In 2008, the region’s Metropolitan Area Planning Council—recognizing the complex challenges facing the region—adopted a 30-year plan calling for Greater Boston to grow more sustainably and equitably. Titled “MetroFuture,” the plan identifies land use, transportation, water, public health, energy, and housing strategies to guide the region’s growth in ways that will make it not only more competitive but more inclusive. To achieve these goals, the plan calls for strengthening connections between the region’s low-income and minority residents and economic opportunity.

The Massachusetts Smart Growth Alliance (MSGA) is a nonprofit coalition helping realize the MetroFuture plan. Founded in 2003 by seven Massachusetts-based organizations to improve state policy on land use and development, MSGA members comprise many of the state’s leading housing, design, and environmental organizations. In recent years, MSGA became increasingly concerned about development patterns that favor sprawl and undermine investment in low-income areas and communities of color, and it saw a need for new strategies to improve outcomes throughout the region.

The Innovation

MSGA launched the Great Neighborhoods initiative at the end of 2010 to build a regional nonprofit infrastructure that supports local partners and accelerates their community transformation work. As part of Great Neighborhoods, MSGA developed a framework to articulate shared goals and improve coordination among local, regional, and state stakeholders (“collective impact”); establish strategic partnerships and effective engagement (“network organizing”); and drive momentum for large, long-term investments through visible, short-term change (“placemaking”).

MSGA first identified local groups working to make their communities more affordable, diverse, vibrant, and walkable. More than 30 community coalitions from across the region’s cities and suburbs responded to MSGA’s initial request for interest in the program. Great Neighborhoods began by targeting five of these sites in the Greater Boston metro area: the Roxbury neighborhood and the Fairmount transit corridor (which runs through the neighborhoods of Dorchester, Roxbury, Mattapan, and Hyde Park) in the city of Boston, and the communities of Lawrence, Somerville, and Winchester. With the support of Great Neighborhoods, these places are tackling a range of issues, from the development of affordable housing and commercial spaces near transit stops, to the creation of parks and community paths, to improved multimodal transportation and the reduction of greenhouse gas emissions.

Across these five sites, Great Neighborhoods engaged dozens of local partners, mostly nonprofits but also municipal and private partners, in a collective impact approach to development that focuses on five elements: creating a common agenda, committing to shared measurement, providing mutual support, participating in continuous communication, and benefiting from the presence of a strong “backbone” organization in the collaborative process.

In keeping with this framework, each of the five Great Neighborhoods communities created a work plan informed by conversations with grassroots community leaders, municipal officials, businesses, and service providers. The plans include a 10-year vision of what the communities want to achieve in their collaborative development efforts, with identified deliverables and outcomes and shorter-term two-year goals to advance the long-term vision. Each site also crafted a communications plan to engage the community and share early successes.

As the regional backbone for the local strategies, MSGA supplies coaching, technical assistance, funds, fundraising support, and policy advocacy to strengthen the effectiveness of local groups. Specific tasks may include helping with media and public engagement, conducting market analyses and zoning assessments, or holding regular meetings to check in on tasks, timelines, and progress toward work plan goals. MSGA also helps connect these efforts to a regional framework. From its regional perspective, MSGA adds up the lessons from the various projects to inform a statewide policy agenda to support community development, undertaking advocacy on issues such as zoning reform, transportation spending, recapitalizing the Massachusetts Brownfields Redevelopment Fund, and aligning state infrastructure investments. A broader Great Neighborhoods Network extending to other communities connects practitioners working on similar issues throughout the state to one another, providing peer learning opportunities and advocacy tools.


Since the initiative began in 2011, MSGA has tracked its impact across the five sites with an annual progress report. By June 2013, $3.7 million of investment in local organizations had already leveraged more than $215 million in direct project investment, resulting in:

  • 455 affordable housing units completed or under construction, with an additional 1,067 in predevelopment.
  • Nearly 100,000 square feet of commercial space completed or in development.
  • 52.3 acres of new or reconstructed parks completed or in the planning stages.
  • 16.3 miles of new community paths under construction or in the planning stages.
  • Nearly 15,000 residents engaged in local activities or advocacy.

In addition, MSGA and its Great Neighborhoods Network successfully advocated for $45 million in the housing bond bill to support mixed-use projects that include affordable housing; helped assemble the coalition to pass transportation reform, which allocated more than $600 million to fix the state’s transportation infrastructure; and extended the Brownfields Tax Incentive for an additional five years, while securing $25 million to recapitalize the state’s Brownfields Redevelopment Fund.

Building on its initial successes, Great Neighborhoods expanded in 2014 to New Bedford, where it is working to support the transformation of a low-income, high-crime commercial corridor with a large immigrant community into an international marketplace with a high quality of life that attracts new investment and promotes economic growth. MSGA seeks to expand the Great Neighborhoods Network throughout the Greater Boston region and beyond. Ideas include turning the Great Neighborhoods model into an assessment tool and certification for place-based initiatives, as well as developing effective mechanisms for “place governance” such as business improvement districts, parking management districts, and community benefit districts.


Great Neighborhoods participants and partners have encountered institutional, political, regulatory, and financial barriers in their efforts to pursue collaborative and integrated community development approaches:

  • Although the networked structure of Great Neighborhoods helps connect local initiatives to a regional framework and additional capacity, the level of civic and political fragmentation in Greater Boston continues to complicate the implementation of scaled and integrated community development strategies.
  • Mistargeted regulation and a lack of coordination among programs and policies that address infrastructure, housing, land use, and transportation create a challenging and fragmented framework for communities to navigate as they address multifaceted and interrelated needs.
  • Outdated local zoning and permitting practices, coupled with the lack of affordable housing options in high-opportunity areas, create obstacles for efforts to develop mixed-use and mixed-income communities.

Implications for Policy

To better support organizations and models such as MSGA and Great Neighborhoods, local, regional, and state leaders should:

  • Explicitly encourage and reward collaborative strategies that break down policy and sector silos and overcome political fragmentation, and better align existing policies and funding streams to support strategies that take integrated and multifaceted approaches to complex development issues.
  • Strengthen and preserve funding mechanisms such as the Community Investment Tax Credit, Smart Growth Trust Fund, and MassWorks Infrastructure Program, and reform the state’s business improvement district statute to enable communities throughout the state to enact Community Benefit Districts that include public, private, and nonprofit participation in financing and governance.
  • Make competitive grant dollars available for local groups to modernize zoning codes to help address issues of racial and income segregation, create more affordable options in high-opportunity areas, and promote mixed-use and sustainable growth in struggling communities.

Photo credit: Flickr user @aaron.knox