Opinion

Malden makes room for squares

MALDEN — Some communities spend a lot of money to have experts tell them how to plot out development strategies and redesign neighborhoods and downtowns. Not Malden. The city hired a survey company to ask residents questions about development, and the answers that came back are surprising.
City residents would “like to see squares come back in the neighborhoods,” said Boston-based consultant Roberta Cameron.
At first glance, that conclusion makes people who live in Malden sound like they yearn for a return to the 19th century when the nicer streets in communities included pocket parks or a nearby Common.
But Cameron’s statement makes more sense when it is compared to interesting statistics about Malden and the city’s available open space. With 415 acres of open space, the city ranks in the top 15 percent of Massachusetts’ 351 communities in terms of available green space. But statistics on available open space per resident rank Malden near the bottom compared with other communities.
The survey conducted by Cameron’s group concluded responding residents want more open space and smaller residential construction projects. Consultant reports typically get praised, debated and, finally, dumped in a municipal office filing cabinet on top of similar reports commissioned over the years.
But Malden city officials backed up their desire to solicit residents’ opinions by imposing a residential construction moratorium a year ago. Instead of plowing ahead with development schemes hitched to grandiose visions of new parks or pedestrian paths, Malden is proceeding cautiously in its twin evaluation of development and open space goals.
Moratoriums are a pretty big deal — especially in an attractive community such as Malden, where builders and developers want to do business.
Malden deserves credit for stepping back in a meaningful way and asking residents to weigh in with their views on how the city should look in 10, 20, even 50 years into the future.
Municipal officials like to spend public dollars on experts who tell them to “build this, don’t build that.” But the resident survey came back with development suggestions every bit as sophisticated as any drawn up by high-paid consultants.
Residents who participated in the public meeting component of the survey process identified mixed-use developments in downtown and in Malden neighborhoods as their development preferences.
They laid out visions for how open space can fit into these projects and concluded, in Cameron’s words, that smaller-scale projects with open space components can create “a greater sense of community.”
How much more of a sophisticated analysis of city development options does Malden need? It will be interesting, if not exciting, to attend the Malden City Council’s May 2 meeting and hear the results and analysis of the complete, 2,000-response survey Cameron’s group undertook.
The results could well determine Malden’s future.

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