Master Plan and Growth Policy

The Cambridge Master Plan is composed of a set of documents: The Zoning Map and the Zoning Ordinance, the City’s growth policy document, Toward A Sustainable Future, and the major area-wide planning studies that are currently applicable across the city.

These documents, taken together, reflect the evolution of the city over the last three centuries, and provide a planning framework into which new projects must be inserted with care and with attention to many trade-offs. The regulatory underpinning for the plan is the Zoning Ordinance and its map which together define land use constraints and limits on the physical aspects of new development. Zoning in Cambridge has always been a dynamic tool, with many refinements being made year after year, as needs and development opportunities change.

Growth Policy: 1993

The creation of a growth policy document to complement the zoning was initiated in 1992, when the City undertook a process to create a growth policy plan that would analyze the previous decade of extensive development and provide a framework for managing future growth. As a result of that process, the City published Toward A Sustainable Future in 1993, which has, in combination with the zoning and area-wide plans, served as the City’s master plan throughout the last decades of growth and change.

Prior to the creation of the 1993 document, planning policies had been expressed in a series of plans for discrete areas of the city, such as the 1978 East Cambridge Riverfront Plan, the 1979 Alewife Revitalization Plan, and the 1983 Cambridgeport Revitalization Plan. These plans helped the City guide both public and private development, and were incorporated by reference into the Zoning Ordinance. The City had also developed objectives for other topics of concern, such as affordable housing, recreational programming, and institutional planning. Given the major redevelopment that was occurring in the 1980s, it seemed useful to coordinate all those underlying policies and objectives into a single master plan.

In addition to providing the policy context for an urban design or land use plan for portions of the community, the growth policy document helps guide the rezoning process that may be needed from time to time to achieve the visions of such plans. It also provides a policy context for evaluating specific actions, such as the creation of new open space areas on public or private land. Further, it is helpful at a more detailed level in evaluating small-scale zoning changes in neighborhoods and in considering permitting conditions such as those that may be appropriate to attach to special permits or variances.

Moving into the 2000's

The original growth policy document anticipated that periodic revisiting of the text would be fruitful, as the community continues to evolve. An update was published in 2007, as the community had recently accomplished the most ambitious recommendation from 1993, which was to restudy the zoning ordinance in light of development trends. This study culminated in the Citywide and Eastern Cambridge zoning updates of 2001. The principal area needing further study was the Concord-Alewife section of western Cambridge, and a plan for that area was completed, with rezoning adopted by the City Council in June 2006.

The growth policies continued to be remarkably pertinent in each of those planning efforts; the next logical step was to update the growth policy document, and in so doing, describe the many significant community-building accomplishments that had occurred in Cambridge since the publication of the original document. The wording of the policies remains unchanged in the 2007 update. Certain policies may be more or less relevant depending upon the topic at hand; every policy cannot always prevail in every land use decision. The array of policies in the document provides a range of considerations, but the policies by themselves do not obviate the need to make choices.

Related Initiatives

It is useful to note the range of planning initiatives that have been undertaken with reference to the growth policy document in recent years, including the following area-wide plans:

The ongoing Kendall Square/Central Square study was initiated with the full set of master plan documents as a key guide to questions about development in this vibrant part of the city.

In addition, a series of studies address issues of growth and change in the neighborhoods:

For More Information

For more information please contact Stuart Dash at 617/349-4640 or