If I said there was a tool to grow our economy, increase our housing options, make our streets safer and less clogged, preserve our natural spaces, and fortify us against climate change, you might think that’s impossible. And if I said this tool could help Connecticut grow to 5 million residents by 2050, you might think I’m crazy. 

I’m not crazy and there is such a tool.

I want our local and state leaders to seize it. That’s why DesegregateCT, the pro-homes coalition where I work, is introducing a proposal in the Connecticut General Assembly this session to promote Transit Oriented Communities, a popular, practical, and proven zoning concept that calls for building more homes and centering more jobs around our bus and rail routes.  

In the immediate sense, the proposal, called Work Live Ride, aligns forward-thinking local planning with state support and incentives to help any of the 111 communities in Connecticut with public transportation map out a brighter future.

Taking the longer view, it is, I hope, an overdue embrace of a militantly pro-Nutmeg State vision. Such a vision believes in Connecticut’s future and will hustle now to make it happen. It will help Connecticut break the fever of our housing crisis and the malaise of our economic growth – and dismantle the racial segregation underwriting both.

The United States has been undergoing epoch changing events seemingly one after another. The Great Recession fractured our economy into pockets of greater inequality; climate change is rapidly altering where we can or should live; and COVID19 has accelerated a shift in the modern workforce towards remote work and megaregion economies.  These events have shaken our politics and destabilized many families and communities across the country. We’re all feeling that in Connecticut, but it’s hit our working families and communities much harder.

However, Connecticut is also uniquely positioned to be a proving ground for solutions to these problems to everyone’s benefit. If geography is destiny, then we’re truly blessed – if only we adjust our mindset and embrace what we, myself included, have long complained about.

Sure, we’re a small state – but one that has a multi-century legacy of industriousness and infrastructure connecting almost every community to one another. OK, we’re a cold state – but one that will remain livable as other states dry up or cook. Fine, we’re not New York or Boston – but we’re the land bridge that links them. 

It might surprise some of the naysayers and scolds that haunt local zoning meetings, but those things mean Connecticut as a home is really attractive and that’s a good thing.  As someone who grew up here and recently moved back after more than a decade away, I can attest to that. It is not an exaggeration to say that millions of people looking for a new home in the decades ahead will agree with me. We should want as many of them as we can to come to Connecticut – and we want the people already here to benefit when they do. 

But right now, that’s unlikely. Decades of anti-homes local zoning policies have made Connecticut into an exit-door-only state. As someone who is also currently renting a home, and feels lucky to have found it, I know firsthand how hard it actually is to move here and to think about making it a forever home. I can’t find an affordable home in the town where I grew up, or one in a walkable, transit-rich neighborhood where I don’t need a car every trip. Or one in an economically and racially diverse community.

The people of all ages and backgrounds that we need to remain in or follow me to Connecticut want those kinds of homes, too. We have lots of big and small communities where they can go seamlessly, but we need new tools to get there. Work Live Ride is one of them.  With it, we can build – and rebuild – the full spectrum of homes that plays to our state’s embedded advantages in the coming decades. It’s up to us to make our leaders see this vision today.

Steering Connecticut away from the car-centric sprawl that’s dominated our planning and stunted our imagination for nearly a century won’t be easy, and it won’t happen in one bill, but we must start now. The economic and racial segregation that’s frozen our future was a choice and we must choose a new path to unfreeze it. It’s a path that can absolutely get our economy and infrastructure to comfortably support 5 million residents sooner than we think. I can’t wait.

Pete Harrison is the Director of DesegregateCT and lives in Simsbury.