March 31, 2004

New Urbanism in Massachusetts

Where can you see "New Urbanism" projects in Massachusetts? New Urban News has put together a list of projects around the U.S. , including a dozen here in the Bay State. They include Assembly Square in Somerville, Fan Pier in Boston, University Park in Cambridge and the Village at Hospital Hill in Northhampton.

Sprawl Is Inefficient

"Modern suburban growth that separates residential and commercial development is inefficient, deters pedestrian use and causes gridlock, said Jeff Speck, a planner and leader of the New Urbanism movement," the Mobile Register reports from a conference on smart growth.

Although called "New Urbanism," the movement is actually highly relevant for suburbs, because its goals are to return to traditional, pre-World War II community design: streets equally good for walking and driving, and neighborhood destinations that are possible and appealing to walk to -- local shops, human-scale offices and so on.

"In his presentation, Speck showed a picture of a suburban convenience store: a rectangular shaped business, the storefront surrounded by a parking lot. He said residents do not want that type of design in their neighborhoods. But put that store in a building that looks like others in the area, Speck said, and it can benefit the neighborhood," the article notes.

Speck is co-author of one of my favorite books and community planning, Suburban Nation: The Rise of Sprawl and the Decline of the American Dream. I can't recommend it highly enough to anyone interested in creating pedestrian-friendly, livable communities.

March 29, 2004

Does Where You Live Affect Your Waistline?

The University of Minnesota is launching a study to investigate "the relationship between how neighborhoods are built and how much walking people do," the Pioneer Press reports.

Your neighborhood environment may be a key factor in how much you choose to walk instead of drive, Kathryn Schmitz, assistant professor in the university's School of Public Health, told the paper.

"Are trees more important (to walkers) than street lights? Are short blocks more important than being separated from cars?'' she said, according to the article.

"The study, paid for by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation of New Jersey, may identify factors that can be used by urban planners," the article notes. The hope is that results will help planners not only create more appealing communities, but help in the fight against obesity, diabetes and heart disease.

The foundation sponsored earlier research that showed a link between suburban sprawl, activity levels and obesity (see report, PDF format).

Seminars For Rails-to-Trails Projects

The Rails-to-Trails Conservancy is sponsoring a Trails and Greenways Seminar Series "to bring you information you need to build, advocate for and manage your trail," the organization announced. Programs throughout the spring include fundraising, design, maintenance and land acquisition. For full details, visit the RTC Web site.

March 28, 2004

$52M Arcade Project OK’d For Downtown Framingham

In a meeting that ended after 1 a.m., the Planning Board approved a major mixed-use project that will bring 260 apartments, 40 hotel rooms and 50,000 square feet of commercial and office space to downtown Framingham, the MetroWest Daily News reports.

I haven't seen Arcade design plans yet, but I fervently hope that great attention is placed on making an attractive, inviting streetscape around the complex.

Mixed use is a great idea, but mixed use alone will not revitalize downtown. Design is critical.

Imagine a wide, well-landscaped front patio area, with an outdoor eating area in the nice weather (restaurant or cafe), interesting store fronts that appeal to pedestrians strolling by. Sort of a Copley Square feel on a smaller scale.

If the Arcade project is going to be set in a sea of uninviting asphalt and concrete, it's not going to do much for the surrounding neighborhood.

Have you ever been to Detroit? The Renaissance Center was supposed to revitalize downtown there, it brought all sorts of great mixed-use space, but it was a hideous monstrosity of "modern architecture" -- massive, cold, dark, confusing and off-putting. Or, think of the failed Lafayette Place in downtown Boston.

Don't mimic a mall in a downtown setting, because the downtown usually loses -- it can NEVER be as drive-in convenient. But it can win big-time if it creates what malls can't match -- a sense of place. Successful revitalizations like Waltham's Moody Street do this not only with a careful mix of residential, commercial and retail, but with an inviting streetscape, creating a destination where people want to arrive, park and stroll.

March 27, 2004

Federal Transportation Bill Funds Highways, Not Mass Transit or Walking/Biking Infrastructure

"At a time when the nation is obsessively worrying about obesity, [the pending federal transportation bill] seems to do everything it can to make sure that Americans continue sitting in their cars for as much time as possible," the New York Times wrote in an editorial this week.

About 80% of the proposed $300 billion would go toward building roads. Less than 1% would go for pedestrian and bike paths.

"By giving Americans more reasons to pick up the car keys instead of their sneakers, the bill gives new meaning to the word pork," the Times notes.

March 26, 2004

Shrewsbury ‘Smart Growth’ Plan

Shrewsbury is talking about a smart growth, New Urbanism-type plan for its Rte. 9 corridor -- replacing unloved and ugly auto-centric suburban sprawl with a more traditional "town center" idea.

Some people think "smart growth" is a code word for "no growth," but that's not the case. Instead, it's development that balanced: making it appealing for walking around as well as accessible by car.

Buildings could have ground floor retail with residences upstairs, the Boston Globe reports. And, the buildings would need to have pedestrian-friendly features like front patios and seating areas (I find little more delightful in an urban environment on a nice spring day than strolling a wide, well-landscaped sidewalk filled with people enjoying the day at outdoor cafes).

These kinds of developments can still provide parking -- but not as a sea of asphalt with buildings in the middle, hostile to any access by foot. Put parking in the rear, and things work well for everyone -- think Concord center, for example.

There's a bit more info on the Shrewsbury town Web site.

Dennison Project

You hear local officials talk about the upscale apartments to be built at the old Dennison complex "revitalizing" downtown Framingham. But will they?

Only if they're built in a way that encourages residents to venture out.

For sure the Dennison plan will bring in tax revenue. But if the residents of that complex are going to add to the vitality of downtown, they have to BE downtown. What's going to draw them there? Will there be appealing sidewalks leading out of the complex to the neighborhood? Equally important, will there be an attractive walking environment from Dennison to downtown businesses?

I DON'T MEAN WILL THERE BE SIDEWALKS. There have to be sidewalks where people actually ENJOY WALKING. Cracked concrete, with lanes of cars whizzing by and no separation between traffic and pedestrian, will not do it. Sidewalks abutting a sea of asphalt, metal guard rails, auto dealerships and junkyards won't do it.

You don't have to yuppify the neighborhood to make it appealing for walk it. But you do have to spruce up the pedestrian experience.

Remember: We've already got a train station drawing hundreds of people into downtown, but I doubt there's a whole lot of spillover to the business district. People drive there, and drive out. It's not a pleasant stroll from the station to the stores.

I can't recommend the book Suburban Nation highly enough for a blueprint on how to create pedestrian-friendly business districts.

Study: Smart Growth Helps Create Jobs

Some believe that smart growth advocates really want no growth, but that's not true. We want better growth.

And in fact, a detailed analysis of more than 150 metropolitan areas shows that smart growth helps create jobs.

A study by Good Jobs First shows that "contrary to common belief, smart growth policies are good for construction jobs. The report provides evidence that smart growth can create more employment opportunities than sprawl for workers who build residential and commercial structures and transportation infrastructure. "

Earlier this year, unions decided to back a San Diego plan to protect rural land from exurban sprawl, concluding that unwise development patterns have hurt construction works, USA Today reported.

March 25, 2004

A New Vision

Where would you prefer to spend an afternoon? Walking along Newbury Street or fighting traffic on Rte. 9?

63% of Americans surveyed say they'd like to walk more to stores and other places to run errands (2002 study, Belden Russonello & Stewart). Yet current development patterns make it MORE difficult for increasing numbers of Americans to actually walk to shops, offices and other destinations. Despite the cluster of stores, restaurants, theaters and apartments along Rte. 9, it's almost impossible to actually walk from one mall to the next, or a hotel to a restaurant right across the street. People aren't simply taking their cars to get to the store; they feel they've got to drive between places that are less than half a mile apart.

It doesn't have to be this way.