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Building blocks

When I pick up my hometown paper each Thursday, it's almost guaranteed that a story on housing will be front-page news. Lack of affordable homes, a former shipyard's development, senior housing, traffic – all parade regularly above the fold as my town of 20,000, just south of Boston, struggles to confront intense development pressures.

I never thought such articles would grab my eye. But housing decisions deeply affect our lives. Get some major projects going – where I live, three or four are in various stages of approval or development, including a 2,000-unit complex for seniors – and traffic thickens, services strain, schools fill up, town employees can't afford local homes.

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Much of the building is to the good. The Boston area is one of the highest-priced in the US, a result in part of too little construction in recent years as more people looked for homes. But in this state, many towns' hands are being forced by a law that allows developers to circumvent local zoning rules and build more densely if a certain component of the project is "affordable." That makes development more controversial: Is raising questions about rapidly multiplying projects stonewalling, or just trying to ensure a thoughtful approach?

In areas where space has long been at a premium, careful planning, often around public transportation, has been a given. The Dutch are masters of this, as our article on page 13 points out. Yet even they, spurred by prosperity and the lure of the auto, are proving susceptible to US-style sprawl.

Anyone who's idled too long on an expressway knows the value of careful development. Pave paradise, even legitimately, without solid transportation and services plans, and you may get a house – but in a place that feels like anything but a home.