June 18, 2005

What Makes Back Bay Work?

I've just returned from a two-day business meeting in Boston's Back Bay, one of the most walker-friendly areas of Boston, and it made me examine again what makes Newbury Street and Commonwealth Avenue such fabulous places for pedestrians.

There are lots of other streets with nice shops, pretty homes and good sidewalks, but those two offer a truly special experience.

Here are some thoughts about the things beyond sidewalks that make those two boulevards such wonderful streetscapes:

1) The "sense of enclosure" that authors of Suburban Nation talk about. You don't feel lost in an endless sea of structures and asphalt - there's creation of an "outdoor room" they talk about, thanks to buildings that are close enough to the sidewalk (but not too close) and tall enough to create a sense of enclosure without being so tall that they're not human-scaled. On Comm Ave., there are rows of trees that create an additional natural enclosure to compensate for the wide street.

2) The shapes and designs of the buildings. Pedestrians naturally crave walking by windows and dislike walking by large, blank walls. The bay-window shapes and designs of most buildings on those streets offer maximum instinctive appeal, because you don't feel like you're walking by one long wall; and the windows jut out attractively, creating what feels like a safe and welcoming space. This becomes very apparent when you go from one of the blocks with lovely bay windows to one of the blocks like the New England Life building with just a flat wall of windows. It doesn't feel nearly as enjoyable to walk down.

3) Screening between pedestrians and traffic, whether parked cars and/or greenery and trees. This makes a difference that you don't feel you're within inches of cars whizzing by.

4) On Newbury Street, of course, there are also the outdoor cafes in nice weather, which add to the strolling ambiance; as well as the fact that only two relatively narrow lanes of traffic are moving fairly slowly. On Comm Ave., there's the fabulous park down the center of the boulevard that balances and gives human scale to the fact that the street actually has multiple of lanes of traffic each way. Because of the scale of the center divider, which is not merely a narrow strip to balance upon while dashing between speeding vehicles, but a full-fledged and beautiful park for pedestrians to enjoy, moving traffic and attractive pedestrian ambiance happily co-exist.

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