Residents think highly of the town but see room for improvement
Do you ever wonder what the residents of Needham actually think about their town?
Town officials do. Since 2008, Needham has been one of more than 600 U.S. municipalities that participate in the bi-annual National Community Survey (NCS).
According to the most recent NCS results in 2022, Needhamites report a far higher overall level of satisfaction than a vast majority of residents in other participating communities.
On a number of fronts — including safety, schools and general ‘liveability’ — Needham residents feel the town is doing exceptionally well. But satisfaction dwindles when it comes to specific things like street repairs, the commercial center, housing and cost of living.
On the positive side
Town Manager Kate Fitzpatrick, the town’s chief executive officer, said multiple ratings in the upper 90s has been a consistent result across the 15 years that the survey has been done, especially when it comes to public-safety.
“If ‘Needham as a safe place to live’ were to fall below 95% good or excellent, I would be like, oof, that hurts,” she said.
She said the surveys have been a great help in alerting town officials to residents’ concerns that might be flying under their radar.
“As a general proposition, we watch for outliers to see what is catching people’s attention,” Fitzpatrick explained. “If, for example, satisfaction levels for access to trails and recreation amenities appear low, we may prioritize funding for these items, as well as publicize the amenities that we do offer.”
Room for improvement
On the not-so-positive side, Needham residents are decidedly lukewarm about the following aspects of their town:
When asked to rate the quality of services provided by the town, the overall level of satisfaction was a healthy 82%. And when the survey called out particular town services individually, a significant majority of the categories showed that more than two-thirds of residents are quite satisfied.
The outliers, however, fall into a couple of different categories. For example, while 87% of residents gave high ratings to the overall quality of the infrastructure in Needham, some specific services fared less well:
This last category is a bit of a head-scratcher as, technically, the town doesn’t provide garbage collection. It’s hard to say whether this is a poor reflection on the private vendors who do collect garbage, or perhaps a measure of how many residents do not view the Needham Recycling and Transfer Station as a fully adequate solid-waste-disposal option.
As for the town’s big-picture approach to long-term needs, results show lower resident satisfaction levels on:
The lowest satisfaction levels were found in issues related to housing in particular and affordability in general. Only 20% of residents were satisfied with Needham’s cost of living. Housing also emerged as a major area of concern, with the following satisfaction levels:
While not dismissing those concerns, Fitzpatrick attributed them partly to background noise. She noted the most recent survey was conducted at the same time the Needham Housing Plan Working Group was holding its public meetings. Also, discussions around the impacts of zoning changes for the former Muzi site were before the Planning Board.
“Over the 15 years of doing this, we have seen anomalies in the data depending on what else is happening in the world,” she said. “So, if the commonwealth is every day bombarding us, saying we don’t have enough housing and a person is asked, ‘Is housing a problem?’ then well, yeah, people think housing is a problem.”
This doesn’t mean Fitzpatrick thinks housing is NOT a problem.
“That West Street project that was originally envisioned as independent living. I’d like to see that rise from the ashes,” she said, referring to the long-stalled plans for the former Carter building, which has been vacant since early 2018. “I’m really hopeful that our huge push on rezoning for more housing will result in more affordable places for people to live.”
Overall Fitzpatrick considers the resident survey useful but recognizes the notion of being careful what we wish for, noting the high mark for ‘feeling of safety’. “When you’re at 99%,” she says, “it can only go down.