February 27, 2005

It All Comes Down To Neighborhood

"In the end, urban planners and residents say, when we choose a place to spend our time, to live our lives, it always comes down to location, location, location.

"In other words, the neighborhood," writes Martin Merzer in today's Miami Herald.

What do people want in a neighborhood? It's an interesting question. Sometimes, I feel that in Framingham, the only time that "neighborhood" enters the political conversation is when people want to "save" their neighborhood by keeping out inappropriate development. But what should our neighborhoods be? What do we want to CREATE in our neighborhoods, not just keep out? Anything more than a subdivision with homes? What about neighborhood businesses, little parks, public meeting places, some kind of civic heart & soul?

Urban planner James Murley lives in an area called Shenandoah, Merzer writes, "which turned largely Hispanic several decades ago and remains so but is proving attractive again to non-Hispanics who crave a walkable neighborhood close to downtown Miami. 'Neighborhoods change all the time,'' he said. 'That's the beauty of them. They change because they are made of the people who live in them.'' "

February 21, 2005

What Happens When You’re Too Old To Drive?

It's not something we like to think about here in America, land of age-denial and worship of perpetual youth. But in fact, people who live to old age often live to be too old to drive safely.

If they live in the suburbs, what then? They may be otherwise healthy, and perfectly able to still live alone in their homes. Should they be forced to move anyway? And if so, where to? Or do we expect their younger relatives can provide chauffer service every time they need to go shopping or visit a doctor?

This is an important issue that people simply don't think about when they design car-centric suburbs where it's impossible to get anywhere by any means except the private automobile.

It also becomes a public safety issue, when the elderly refuse to voluntarily give up driving, even if they know their skills have deteriorated.

"The problem is that there are no good alternatives," Natalie Lipman, 85, told the Boston Globe. ''If you want to go somewhere at night, or on the weekend, forget about it."

"As a society, we plan for everything, our retirement, vacations, but none of us plan for the day when we won't be driving, and we need to plan for that day. We need to be prepared," advises Michele Ellicks, the state Registry of Motor Vehicles' elderly outreach coordinator.

Great advice, but how are you supposed to "plan" to give up your car if you live in a town where you can't walk anywhere, there's no decent public transportation, and taxi service is either unreliable or requires significant advanced booking?

February 18, 2005

Walkable, Livable Suburbs: Will We Fail To Act?

The town of Ashland is working with Boston consultants Von Grossman & Co. to create a master plan for "downtown, the commuter rail stop and the Rte. 126 corridor" to attract more people to the areas with things like a mixture of shops, cafes, residences, office space and day care, the MetroWest Daily News reports.

The project will "recreate or strengthen the heart of Ashland by recreating the density of activity and development that supports a walkable, vibrant place through transit-oriented development," Von Grossman's initial proposal promises, according to the article.

Yes, suburban officials are finally acknowledging that a pedestrian-friendly streetscape is critical for revitalizing existing downtowns and making communities appealing places to live and work in the 21st century. Unfortunately, there doesn't seem to be much attention being paid to this in Framingham right now -- an oversight that is likely to have a major, negative impact on the community if it starts falling behind its neighbors.

"The great challenge of the 21st century, not to mention the main economic opportunity, lies in transforming suburban sprawl into something more efficient, interesting and humane," notes an interesting piece by Joel Kotkin in the Washington Post. "City living won't die; instead, it likely will become, as urban analyst Bill Fulton has put it, primarily a “niche lifestyle” preferred mostly by the young, the childless and the rich.

"But just as cities won't prosper if they don't cater to the niche resident, the suburbs must evolve from a pale extension of the city into something more like a self-sustaining archipelago of villages."

Many downtowns across America are trying to appeal to young professionals with condos or lofts, restaurants and nightlife, Valecia Crisafulli, a revitalization consultant for the National Trust for Historic Preservation, recently told a packed meeting of the Downtown Winston-Salem Partnership.

"But Crisafulli said that baby boomers are pursuing the same amenities and in many instances have more disposable income. They also have a greater interest in being closer to their children or grandchildren than previous generations," according to the Winston-Salem Journal. " 'They want walkable downtowns, eclectic food and entertainment choices, same as the creative class,'" she said.

Trend alert! These are important and seismic market shifts going on! We need to pay attention!

Notes Kotkin: "The urbanization of suburbia — the creation of a more sophisticated, self-sufficient community — is already beginning. Cities are restoring the commercial cores of what had once been autonomous small towns. Often devastated by malls and bigbox shopping centers, these downtowns once gave suburban towns a sense of distinctiveness — something many now wish to recover. Other places are attempting to create whole new communities, with their own defined town centers complete with fine restaurants and smart shops. ...

"This new principle can be seen in some newer developments, such as Valencia in Southern California. With a well-defined town center, paths for pedestrians and cyclists, a lake and a range of housing types, Valencia is closer to a traditional village environment than the prototypical sprawl suburb. This model is being repeated in numerous other places. ...

"The opportunities to develop suburban identity will grow as baby boomers look to trade in their tract houses for something more walkable and compact. ... Many developers see suburban villages as ideal for the swelling ranks of empty nesters."

Are we ready to take advantage of these new generational trends? Or will our community be as left behind as traditional downtowns were half a century ago when they failed to adapt to the important trends of those times?

February 17, 2005

San Francisco Mulls London-Like Downtown Driving Toll

"Supervisor Jake McGoldrick, chair of the San Francisco Transportation Authority, will ask the agency to study a downtown toll zone -- whereby drivers would need to purchase a daily pass to drive in The City's most congested streets -- as a potential solution to the Municipal Transportation Agency's woeful budget problems," the San Francisco Examiner reports.

"Modeled on similar 'congestion charging' zones in London, cameras would record license plates and tickets would be issued for motorists who failed to purchase a pass. The intent is for drivers to pick other routes, avoid coming downtown or switch to Muni, which would travel more efficiently in the faster flowing streets."

Interesting idea. In a fair number of U.S. cities, there are simply too many vehicles wanting to drive in an area that just can't support them. And there's only so much more pavement you can add to a congested downtown -- already, too many cities have highways in/through them, that have a dreadful impact on the urban streetscape and neighborhood.

Governments currently subsidize private vehicles, through road building (can someone say multi-billion-dollar Big Dig?), road repair and road plowing. Why not finally use the "market" approach so beloved by conservatives? The key here, though, is ensuring that there's truly available, convenient and affordable public transit for those who can't afford the fees.

February 16, 2005

Walkability Amidst Calif. Suburban Sprawl

"Amid a suburban county's gated communities, three-car garages and megamalls, Santa Ana is a fledgling hub of 'new urbanism,' an increasingly popular antidote to sprawl that promotes dense, walkable neighborhoods where people live, work and play," USA Today reports.

"But it's new urbanism with a twist: Latino new urbanism.

"Advocates of this budding movement suggest that places where Hispanics are fast becoming the majority could help rein in sprawl by capitalizing on Latino cultural preferences for compact neighborhoods, large public places and a sense of community."

Actually, many Europeans also experience what Mario Chavez-Marquez said of his hometown in Mexico: "We had a traditional urban square and plaza where everything is happening." The same can be said not only of Spain, but of Italy, France, and many places in central Europe that are "cafe societies."

An increasing number of Americans, too, want the option of walking places. We want public spaces where the aesthetic as well as safety needs of walkers are on an equal footing with automobiles.

We are tired of ugly "traffic sewers" like Rte. 9 where no one can walk even a quarter mile from one hideous looking, asphalt-moat-surrounded strip mall to another. LET'S START DESIGNING FOR PEDESTRIAN APPEAL.

February 15, 2005

The Costs Of ‘Extreme Commuting’

"Most people travel long distances with the idea that they'll accept the burden for something better, be it a house, salary, or school. They presume the trade-off is worth the agony. But studies show that commuters are on average much less satisfied with their lives than noncommuters," says a Business Week article on so-called "extreme commuters" -- people who travel 90 minutes or more each week to work. (I noted a USA Today article on the subject in a December post).

"A commuter who travels one hour, one way, would have to make 40% more than his current salary to be as fully satisfied with his life as a noncommuter, say economists Bruno S. Frey and Alois Stutzer of the University of Zurich's Institute for Empirical Research in Economics. People usually overestimate the value of the things they'll obtain by commuting -- more money, more material goods, more prestige -- and underestimate the benefit of what they are losing: social connections, hobbies, and health. 'Commuting is a stress that doesn't pay off,' says Stutzer."

And the problems go far beyond cranky, stressed-out workers. Society pays, too. "The costs of commuting -- in gas, congestion, pollution, sprawl -- are high," the article notes, adding that long commutes are "associated with raised blood pressure, musculoskeletal disorders, increased hostility, lateness, absenteeism, and adverse effects on cognitive performance. Harvard University public policy professor Robert D. Putnam, author of Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community, says that for every 10 minutes of commuting time, one's social connections get cut by 10%."

February 13, 2005

LA Condo Development Focuses On Walker-Friendly Streetscape

Developers planning close to 2,000 new housing units in downtown Los Angeles are paying keen attention to walkability issues, in what has traditionally been one of the most pedestrian-hostile U.S. cities.

"[South Group principal Tom] Cody said [the development] will be dotted with cafes, retail stores and plazas that build street life and bring the condo towers down to a pedestrian-friendly level. The developments along Grand Avenue, for example, will be broken up with townhouses accessible from the street, while mid-block pocket parks will add greenery," reports Los Angeles Downtown News Online.

" 'The blocks are so big around here it's not really a friendly place to walk around,' Cody said. 'But one of the things that attracted us to the area is that there are so many parcels available for development that you can master plan and create something really special.' "

172 of 181 lofts in the first phase of South Group's plan have been reserved, although the building isn't slated to open until next year.

February 12, 2005

March 15 Town Meeting Will Decide Library Fate

Framingham selectmen have called a Special Town Meeting for Tuesday, March 15, after supporters of a new McAuliffe branch library gathered enough signatures to try again to win funding for the project.

At an earlier Special TM, members voted to fund purchasing land for a new branch library, but narrowly defeated funding to actually construct the building. The project needs a two-thirds majority to pass.

Hey, I’ve Got An Idea! Sorry If It’s Deadly….

Imagine for a moment that I've designed a brilliant new transportation system: Individual supersonic shuttlecraft! They can get you wherever you need to go conveniently and incredibly quickly, and they have anti-collision systems that guarantee you'll never have a crash. And, they're so cheap, the vast majority of Americans would be able to afford them.

However, there's just one problem with them: They sometimes blow up. I calculate that they'll blow up at a rate that, if people used them for all their transportation needs, they'd kill about 40,000 people a year.

Are you interested?

OK, now change the scenario. Same speed and affordability for my shuttlecraft, and they don't blow up anymore. However, they also don't have the anti-collision system. And they're kind of difficult to learn to pilot and navigate. If everyone uses them for all their transportation needs, I estimate that the difficulties in avoiding deadly collisions will kill about 40,000 people a year.

Is that more palatable?

Final scenario: A transportation device that is orders of magnitude faster than walking, but when used regularly by the vast majority of Americans, consistently kills about 40,000 people/year. It's called the automobile, and our society simply accepts these deaths as a cost of the modern era. WHY???

Says the Orlando Sentinel: "The art and science of driving safely is so overlooked these days, it seems, that despite enormous progress in vehicle safety features and roadway design, despite massive campaigns against drunken driving and for seat-belt use, we're still killing more than 40,000 of our fellow countrymen every year."

I disagree with some, but not all, of that.

February 10, 2005

Safety Takes A Back Seat To Appearance

Governments in Europe and Japan are looking at ways to make cars less dangerous for pedestrians, so walkers hit by vehicles are more likely to survive.

In the U.S., though, automakers are resisting such regulations, arguing that "such changes add cost and alter vehicle appearance in ways consumers might not like -- rounding off hoods and shortening front ends to lessen the danger to the human body," according to the Washington Post (thanks to Timothy Lee for this link as well).

Yes, a sleeker look is apparently worth killing more people.

Outraged? Sadly, in a society where so many people lust after SUVs -- not caring how dangerous those oversized vehicles are to both pedestrians and conventional passenger cars -- it's no wonder that we end up in a place where manufacturers think it's more important for their products to look good than save lives. About 5,000 pedestrians die each year in America after being hit by motorized vehicles.

Yes, People Get More Exercise In Walkable Communities

A study has proven what we've known intuitively for some time: People do a lot more "incidental walking" when their living environment is pedestrian-friendly.

"Metro Atlanta residents in dense residential areas with many connected streets and a mixture of shops were 'more likely to meet the Surgeon General's recommendations' on physical activity than those outside Atlanta's Interstate 285 perimeter, said Larry Frank, a former Georgia Institute of Technology researcher who now is an associate professor of community and regional planning at the University of British Columbia," Associated Press reports.

The study looked at physical activity of 357 adults in and around Atlanta, and found that "those who lived in neighborhoods with nearby shops and services were 2.4 times more likely than suburbanites" to get 30 or more minutes of physical activity each day.

And it wasn't because they were more likely to go to the gym or go out exercise walking/running; it was "mainly because many of their daily chores - such as going to the grocery store, dropping of dry cleaning or dining - involve walking to places closest to them," AP notes.

Thanks to Timothy Lee for passing along the link!

February 8, 2005

How Big Is Too Big?

There's an interesting graphic showing the relative sizes of a typical downtown retail business, chain drugstore, large supermarket, football field and big box retailers, on the New Rules Project Institute for Local Self-Reliance Web site.

The graphic accompanies a story explaining Bennington, Vt.'s new ordinance banning stores larger than 75,000 square feet, and requiring a review of impact on the community for any store larger than 30,000 square feet.

"Under the ordinance, city officials may approve stores only if the review determines that they will not have an undue adverse impact on local wages, housing costs, or the ability of the city to provide services," the story notes. That means looking at things like jobs created vs. likely jobs lost at existing business, likely loss of tax revenues if other commercial areas are hurt, and how much revenue is likely to stay in the local economy.

February 6, 2005

The Outrage Of Unplowed Sidewalks

Here's an idea that will save your town money: Instead of having the DPW plow the streets, require each property owner to dig out the section of road that they front.

What's that you say? That's a ridiculous plan? What about people who were away or sick during a storm? We'd never ensure roads are clear that way?

Of course. Yet that's the "plan" most communities follow for making sidewalks safe after a snowstorm.

That's the start of my column in today's MetroWest Daily News, which argues that plowing sidewalks is an important safety issue.

We don't let snow mounds block the middle of a street and expect cars to veer off the roads around them. Why is it acceptable for pedestrians, who are most at risk when roads are slippery and narrower than usual, to be forced off a public way?

We might as well write it into our community charters: "Residents may only expect public safety services when traveling by motorized vehicle."

February 5, 2005

Survey: Vast Majority Of Americans Favor Walkable Neighorhoods More Than Large Houses

Almost 9 in 10 people say "a neighborhood that's walkable is important to them -- more so, in fact, than spacious rooms or acreage," according to 60,000 people who responded to a Better Homes & Gardens magazine survey.

Fully 88% said a walkable community was important to them, when answering questions about their home "wish lists."

February 4, 2005

Study: Michigan Gov’t Spending Encourages Sprawl

Michigan suffers from "a pervasive pattern of public investments for roads, jobs, government offices, and business development that encourages runaway sprawl," according to a study conducted by the Michigan Land Use Institute and United Cerebral Palsy of Michigan.

"In almost every category of state economic development spending, cities and older suburbs lose and new suburbs win. And while it is the residents of older cities and suburbs who must dig deep into their own pockets to keep their communities afloat as needed state money flows elsewhere, every Michigan citizen ultimately pays."

The study confirms what smart-growth advocates have long suspected: We're not suffering from massive suburban sprawl solely because "that's what Americans want." Government spending patterns encourage it, through policies such as spending billions for the "Big Dig" to help suburbanites drive into Boston but balking at similar scale investments for public transit.

In fact, some Americans do want sprawl (although probably not quite looking like Rte. 9 in the Golden Triangle). But MANY other Americans want communities where walking is an encouraged option. Even in suburbs, where many residents remain wedded to the private car, people would like the option to park once and then walk to multiple destinations, instead of having to drive their cars just half a mile away because the walking environment is unattractive and/or unsafe.

February 2, 2005

Another Suburb (Not Framingham) Seeks To Design For Pedestrians, Not Just Cars

"Batavia's comprehensive plan has called for a safer downtown that accommodates pedestrians - not just cars," reports the Daily Herald in suburban Chicago.

A city engineer presented designs that would increase the sidewalk area at a dangerous intersection, which "would give walkers and bikers more room to cross the street and vehicles better visibility when approaching the intersection."

Meanwhile, here in MetroWest, my lunchtime walking buddy and I threw in the towel and drove to Shoppers World today, instead of taking what should be a 10-minute walk. Two weeks after the snowstorm, sidewalks in the area remain uncleared and trying to actually get anywhere in the area by foot is extremely dangerous.

Designing For People, Not Cars

What does a place look like when it's designed for people, and not vehicles? CoolTown Studios posts a photo of a pedestrian-scale street with outdoor dining, noting how different such a scene would look in a typical American city: First of all, a line of cars would be parked at the curb, "which would immediately block any view more than 10' in front of you. " And, you wouldn't be able to see the building across the street, since it would be pushed back thanks to a street with multiple lanes of traffic each way.

Usually the only way we get nice, pedestrian-friendly views when sitting at an outdoor restaurant or cafe -- and not blocked by multiple lanes of parked and driving cars -- is either when overlooking a water view, or in a self-contained manufactured tourist environment like Quincy Market. Look at that photo from Paris at CoolTown Studios, and you realize that even on Boston's Newbury Street, parked and driving cars are still a big part of the streetscape. And at Downtown Crossing, one of the few pedestrian-only spots in the city, outdoor seating is penned off to the side between two anchor stores, not integrated into the main part of the streetscape.

February 1, 2005

Why Clearing Sidewalks Is Imporant For Safety

"A baby was knocked from her stroller into the middle of the road and her mother was struck twice by an unidentified hit-and-run driver," the MetroWest Daily News reports. The women was forced to leave the sidewalk and go into the road, because she was pushing the stroller and encountered a large pile of snow on the sidewalk.

HELLO PEOPLE! Is the only public safety that matters for people who drive? Are we going to put into our town charters that residents are only entitled to public safety services while inside motorized vehicles? Why can't town officials understand that clearing sidewalks and making safe places to walk is just as imporant as clearing streets and making safe places to drive?

I walked with several colleagues at lunchtime again today on Rte. 30. The sidewalks are not cleared, and pedestrians must either try to climb up, over and down treacherous snow piles, or walk in the street with heavy traffic. Or, of course, stay in their cars.

Shame on us.