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?

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