September 30, 2005

Update: Road Maintenance Cont.

More on the saga of no-pavement roadways: I received a call back from someone at the Highway Department this afternoon, who was quite courteous and helpful. (The person who answered the phone initially at DPW never took my information or did anything beyond telling me it was a Town Meeting budget decision and if I had a problem, I should complain to my Town Meeting members and the Board of Selectmen).

The executive summary of what he told me is that this particular process, called something like chip and seal, is many times cheaper than blacktop, it is considered "proven," that it will settle into an acceptable surface, and that they have been working very hard to deal with the dust and gravel and will try to do more.

The dust was indeed somewhat better this morning after the rain, and there is somewhat less loose gravel being kicked up when cars drive by than there was last weekend. But it's still a problem (which I'm told will continue to improve); and it's still an unpleasant surface to walk on unless you've got thick-soled hiking boots, now that the odd-shaped, pointy, sharp stones are settling in and sticking to/up from the surface.

My frustration is that I truly don't believe consideration was given to the fact that in a residential neighborhood without sidewalks, this surface serves pedestrians as well as cars. I'm not asking that sidewalks be installed this year (although I wouldn't mind if they were). I'm asking that people who make decisions on roadways think about when pedestrians and bicyclists must share the same streets as cars, trucks and SUVs. What's an acceptable temporary surface for a motorized vehicle over a couple of months is not necessarily acceptable for kids walking to school.

Pedestrian-Hostile Road Maintenance

Silly, naive me! I thought that since I live on a town-maintained, paved, public way, when it came time for the road surface to be redone (which was about 5 years ago), the town would, um, re-pave it.

But no.

Instead, what appears to have happened is that the old crumbling surface was indeed removed; but then a bunch of crushed gravel/rock/stone was dumped on top of the dirt surface, flattened into it, and left there! And that's it! This is Framingham's money-saving solution to the expense of real road maintenance: Use gravel pushed into dirt instead of spending all that money for actual blacktop.

Indeed, town officials have confirmed that this is how they're leaving roads now in the Pinefield neighborhood. I'm assured that after a few months, it will all "settle" and become an acceptable road surface. Meanwhile, though, too bad for everyone out walking or cycling, as we are pelted with flying gravel and consumed by clouds of dirt and dust every time a car drives by.

It's clear that our government decision-makers didn't give a microsecond of thought to the fact that THIS IS A NEIGHBORHOOD WITHOUT SIDEWALKS WHERE A LOT OF PEOPLE WALK AND BICYCLE FOR TRANSPORTATION AND RECREATION.

Parents of kids who walk to school (or their friends' houses, or wait for a school bus in these conditions) are understandably livid. So am I. I tried to walk the 4 blocks to the hardware store the other day, and it was horrendous. Besides being hit by painful flying gravel, it was difficult to breathe with all the dust being kicked up.

My usually walkable neighborhood has become pedestrian-hostile, and will be for weeks if not months. Yet another example of town officials who think only about automobiles and not about pedestrians and bicyclists.

September 28, 2005

What Makes A Great Suburb?

Beyond core issues like good schools, low crime and well-maintained property that you see in real estate ads, it's the balance of private and public space that makes a great suburb.

In hot urban areas like Manhattan, all but the extremely wealthy expect to trade private space (who can afford anything beyond a tiny condo?) for incredible public space right outside their doorways. In rural areas, private space is more affordable. In the best suburbs, there's thought given to creating both nice private space - attractive homes and yards with more room than you could afford in a city - AND surrounding public space.

Where suburbs have been deservedly slammed is when little thought, planning and resources goes into the design and creation of public space. And I don't simply mean "leaving enough open space." I mean creating appealing front yards, streetscapes, shopping areas and parks. Walkable communities will naturally emerge if attention is paid to these things. If you design solely for the automobile, to move traffic at optimal speeds and create maximum acres of parking without thought to sharing space with pedestrians or whether there's a sense of place to these areas, you end up with the hideous aesthetics of Rte. 9.

It's no accident that some of our most appealing suburban centers, such as Concord, were designed well before the automobile - and then NOT redesigned solely to improve auto access. It's still quite possible to drive to and park in Concord if you want to (I worked in that town for awhile, so I know). But the Concord Center streetscape is very appealing to walkers.

Great suburban design is not an oxymoron. Suburbs don't HAVE to look like the Framingham/Natick Golden Triangle.

September 27, 2005

Smart Growth Pitch: Author Randall Arendt

What's true for good photography is also true for good community development: If you have no focus point, your creation isn't compelling, whether it's a picture or a town. That's one of many reasons suburban sprawl has so little sense of place, and is so aesthetically unsatisfying.

Author Randall Arendt recently "showed slide after slide of subdivisions all over the eastern half of the United States. He clicked to one picture of homes scattered over dozens of acres, with no sense of community, because of a large minimum lot size," reports the Lynchburg, Va. News & Advance. Instead, he "extolled the benefits of having smaller lot sizes in exchange for more shared open space in a subdivision. The shared space could be used for an old-fashioned village green, walking trails or picnic areas, he said,"

Urban-sized tiny lots are necessary to create a sense of community. Some of it has to do with good design of the lots, buildings on the lots, streets and community space. But Arendt isn't talking about postage-stamp-sized lots, but a scale where you have 20 homes on 30 acres and keep 70 acres for community use and open space, instead of 20 homes on five-acre parcels.

He also urged narrower tree-lined streets in residential areas, to discourage speeding traffic. Such streets are much more likely to be used by pedestrians.

Arendt wrote the book, Rural by Design: Maintaining Small Town Character.

September 24, 2005

No-Auto Developments

CoolTown Studios is touting a new development with "miles of pedestrian-only streets" as a way to "have our cake and eat it too" - create neighborhoods where you don't need to have vehicular traffic because entrepreneurs are working at or near home. But I think it's a mistake to consider miles of pedestrian-only streets as how we want to create pedestrian-appealing urban environments.

Yes, having residential garages in alleys out back instead of facing the street is a great idea. And I'm all in favor of creating neighborhoods where people don't have to drive everywhere! But truly vibrant pedestrian-appealing environments can have motorized vehicles as well. The key is proper design.

You want to make sure that there's good screening between sidewalk and street. You shouldn't have TOO many lanes of traffic - and if there are multiple lanes, you need an attractive median to create an attractive, boulevard ambiance. Of course you need good crossing areas that feel appealing and safe. And, no, you don't want to have traffic whizzing by too quickly.

But take a look at places like Newbury Street or Commonwealth Avenue in Boston's Back Bay neighborhood (and in parts of Brookline). Those are outstanding examples of how vehicular traffic coexists with thriving, vibrant pedestrian activity. You don't need to create no-auto environments to do that. "Pedestrian-friendly development" does NOT mean "auto-hostile development."

$340M Downtown Redevelopment Plan For Kansas City

"An ambitious proposal to transform a dreary 12-block section of downtown’s east side into a cozy neighborhood anchored by corporate offices is expected to begin in earnest today," the Kansas City Star reported yesterday. "If successful, an underused swath of surface parking lots and scattered buildings northeast of City Hall will be redeveloped into a project with 1,183 housing units, 87,200 square feet of retail and 213,000 square feet of office space that backers hope will house a new headquarters for J.E. Dunn Construction Co."

The East Village redevelopment plan would keep "the more historic and commercially viable buildings in the area," the paper notes.

There are some extremely nice pedestrian-friendly touches in a drawing of a street in the plan.

Buildings are up at the sidewalk but not crowding the sidewalk - they're human-scale, leaving enough room for walkers but not too much (massive open swathes of concrete don't do much for pedestrian life, as Boston's City Hall Plaza demonstrates). And the building fronts are architecturally interesting - it's not all just one long flat wall, but broken up by bay windows and such. That variety of building shape helps make a place pedestrian appealing, such as Boston's Newbury Street and parts of Beacon Street in both Boston and Brookline.

September 23, 2005

The Hundred-Mile-Long Traffic Jam

"Heeding days of dire warnings about Hurricane Rita, as many as 2.5 million people jammed evacuation routes on Thursday, creating colossal 100-mile-long traffic jams that left many people stranded and out of gas as the huge storm bore down on the Texas coast," says the New York Times report of the desperate attempt to flee in adavnce of the hurricane. "Acknowledging that 'being on the highway is a deathtrap,' Mayor Bill White asked for military help in rushing scarce fuel to stranded drivers."

Even with days of advance warning, it has still proven all but impossible to evacuate major metropolitan areas relying largely on private vehicles. After the crisis eases, this is something officials will have to think long and hard about. Do we try to come up with plans that will allow for reasonable evacuations, that somehow better augment the private automobile/SUV? Do we acknowledge that our current development patterns are dangerous, and work in the long term to make them safer? Or do we basically acknowledge that such widescale emergency evacuation needs are rare and thus accept this inability to get people out in a reasonable manner? Because doing nothing is actually dong the last choice - admitting that we simply can't evacuate a major metro area in any sort of timely fashion.

September 21, 2005

Now That’s Screening

Take a look at this entrance to the Marginal Way, a spectacular cliff/oceanside walking path in Ogunquit, Maine:

Flowers and fence along the Marginal Way

You'd never guess that the flower border, grass buffer and line of trees (to the right, out of the photo) are actually screening part of a parking lot at a nearby hotel. In fact, I walked by there a number of times before even realizing there were cars parked just a few feet away.

It IS possible to create a pedestrian-appealing walking environment not far from parking. But you have to try. Waist-high shrubs don't do it.

September 20, 2005

South Weymouth Base Redevelopment

Planners say the shuttered naval base could be "the future of Massachusetts development -- a vibrant, updated version of an old classic, the New England town center," the Boston Globe observes. "Within a dozen years, this spot will be transformed into a neighborhood for roughly 7,000 residents who can work at a nearby office campus, eat lunch at cafes, do their shopping along Main Street, exercise at playing fields, and never need to drive."

That's the idea of smart growth - create neighborhoods where it's possible to survive without a car. Many Americans outside of New York City - the only major U.S. urban area where more than half of residents take public transit to work - don't understand what non-car-dependent urban development patterns look like. It was interesting to hear my New York cousin's comments over Labor Day weekend when we visited the beautifully restored Charlestown neighborhood around the naval yard there. He looked around and quickly saw that there were no neighborhood stores within easy walking distance. Most suburbanites wouldn't have noticed.

But getting back to South Weymouth:

"The 'Village Center' development will be easy to navigate -- everything will be about a 5-minute walk from the commuter rail station -- and officials hope it will provide a model for the redevelopment of other military bases as New England faces another round of closures," according to the Globe. Officials in Abington, Rockland, and Weymouth "all embraced the plan this summer," the paper adds.

Drawings of the development were in the paper version of the Globe, but not on You can see some initial drawings from the Sept. 24, 2004 Patriot-Ledger, when the base plan was first announced.

It looks very promising; my only initial complaint is that it appears somewhat isolated from surrounding communities.

September 16, 2005

Assabet River Rail Trail Grand Opening

I have to admit I'm a bit jealous of this month's Assabet River Rail Trail grand opening (Sept. 24, 9 am to 3 pm, Hudson & Marlboro). How many years now have we heard that this would be the year at least a portion of the Cochituate Rail Trail would open to the public? (The's Framingham section helpfully advises that "the Town expects to open a short section of trail sometime in 2004." Sigh.)

At the Framingham Bicycle & Pedestrian Advisory Committee this week, I heard comments that the Assabet trail is quite nice, including a beautiful tunnel under the I-290 connector. Committee members also expressed confidence that the Cochituate trail will be even nicer; but at this point, I'd happily settle for usable, safe, reasonably appealing and open sometime this decade. This is NOT meant a criticism of the people working on the Cochituate trail, by the way - a group of very dedicated and hard-working individuals.

But I'm a bit baffled as to why it seems to take just a few months from concept to construction for, say, a new Lowe's store on Rte. 30 in Framingham (I haven't seen the final plans, but I fear it will significantly more pedestrian-hostile to the streetscape than the NE Telephone building that was there before it); yet plans for a trail for walkers and bicyclists in Framingham and Natick are going on half a decade. Sure, Lowe's will be paying property taxes. But so do the walking and bicycling citizens around here.

September 13, 2005

Neighbors Applaud Planned Memphis ‘Smart Growth’ Project

"As city and county leaders look for ways to tame the monster that is sprawl, neighbors of the planned development in the rapidly growing area near Walnut Grove and Forest Hill Irene are citing the project as a model for others to follow," the Memphis Commercial Appeal reports.

The Gardens of Gray's Hollow development, to be built in phases, may ultimately include more than 1,100 residetial units on about 380 acres. Lot sizes will vary from 5,000 to 20,000 square feet. About 38% of the site will be used for open space, the newspaper notes, but not simply empty unusable space as a buffer between it and neraby developments. Instead, some homes will look out on small town "greens;" there will also be a "greenbelt system" including walking paths as well as conventional sidewalks. "Five areas of the greenbelt system where the developer plans to remove dirt for construction will be turned into lakes. "

Carson Looney, who lives in the Grays Creek area, said that while the original plan had some serious flaws, Bronze was willing to work with his potential new neighbors to maintain the integrity of bordering properties and streetscapes while creating a neighborhood that can be sustained over a long period of time.

Of course, you have to have some forward-thinking zoning to get developments like that, instead of knee-jerk reactions that require cookie-cutter suburban lot sizes.

It's unclear from the article whether there will be commercial and office space in the development as well; and if so, what kind. "Smart growth" typically includes the ability for residents to walk to destinations besides someone else's home, such as shopping and even work.

September 11, 2005

Malls Are No Substitute For Community Public Space

The Boston Globe story today about malls checking IDs to make sure teenagers are chaperoned by adults when shopping at certain times, points out yet again that while they may look like "public" space, malls are privately owned businesses and can't substitute for shared community public space.

September 8, 2005

Where Are People Using Public Transit?

The five U.S. counties with the highest percentage of workers taking public transit to their jobs are in the New York City area, according to U.S. Census Bureau data, with the Bronx and Brooklyn tied at 57.9 percent. Boston's Suffolk County, Mass., comes in at a highly respectable #8, with 29.4% of employed residents using public transportation to get to work, just a shade behind San Francisco County.

Middlesex County, Mass., comes in at #25, with 10.5% public transit usage - a decent figure considering so many people here work in places where public transportation is either unavailable or painfully inadequate.

When measured strictly by city, New York is far and away the leader, and the only American city where more than half -- 53% - use public transportation to get to work. Washington, D.C. at #2 is well behind, with one-third of its residents using the transit system. Boston is third, at 31.8%.

September 5, 2005

Medford, Ore. Eyes Largest Redevelopment In Its History

" Twelve years after the leveling of the Medco lumber mill complex, a large commercial-industrial development will rise out of the ashes in northwest Medford," the Mail Tribune reports. "Plans for Northgate Centre, an 84-acre development with shopping, office space and manufacturing, will be presented to the city planners in the next couple of months."

The $220 project would be the largest redevelopment project in Medford's history, Mike Montero, urban development consultant and chairman of the Rogue Valley Area Commission on Transportation, told the paper.

Interestingly, while it is sited at the intersection of three highways and one major local thoroughfare, plans for the first phase of the project call for small and mid-sized stores, along with pedestrian-friendly plazas. "The clients’ position is that the site is not planned for big box," Montero told the Mail Tribune - and developers are seeking local and regional retailers, not national chains you can find in a mall. In other words, developers are looking to create a unique sense of place, not another strip mall. Planners want to create a place where people can come, stroll and shop, finding things they couldn't find in any other mall in America; not to mention a place where people could live, shop AND work.

Update: State corrected to Oregon.

September 1, 2005

Suburban Office Building, Street Done Right

Not everyone wants buildings up at the sidewalk everywhere in the suburbs, and I understand that. Sometimes people want to keep a feeling of calmness, openness and spaciousness, instead of the more lively, energetic feel that a traditional town/city centers can produce.

Unfortunately, lack of imagination and good planning often end up giving us the look and feel of Rte. 9 or Speen Street - hideously pedestrian-hostile throughout most of Framingham (despite the presence of sidewalks, no one wants to use them unless they have to). However, it IS possible to create a suburban-style stretch of road with offices set back from the street, that is just as accommodating to cars as the soulless strip-mall version, yet is pleasing to pedestrians as well.

I was walking on the Leggatt-McCall Connector this afternoon, and struck again by how well planned it is for the coexistance of foot and vehicular traffic. Kudos to whoever designed the office building where Medetech is currently located - although there's parking between the building and sidewalk, it's so well buffered that it doesn't negatively impact walkers. And by buffered, I don't mean a few shrubs. I mean not only rows of tall trees, but much of the parking is downhill from pedestrian-level, so you don't feel like you're walking by that typical suburban sea of asphalt. And there's a nice, grassy divider between lanes of traffic, giving the street a human scale.

Here's a view walking on the Connector:

Legatt-McCall Connector view

The crosswalk at the driveway in and out of the Medetech building is extremely well marked

Legatt-McCall Connector crosswalk

and the path from the road into the building was clearly designed with thought to be friendly to pedestrians as well as cars

Legatt-McCall Connector view   Medetech building entryway

It's a great walking environment for the many workers in nearby office buildings. And it's just a short walk to lots more retail and services across Rte. 30 - Shoppers World and the new Fidelity building with a major Bank of America branch, among other destinations. Unfortunately, the pedestrian-friendly environment ends abruptly just before Rte. 30. Would you want to try to brave this intersection on foot to get to Shoppers World?

Ret. 30 intersection   Rte. 30 intersection

I didn't think so. No pedestrian crossing signal, no crosswalks, multiple lanes of traffic, and no sidewalk on the other side to walk up to the bank or to get to Shoppers World. What a disgrace. Much better that we all get in our SUVs, tanked up with $3+-a-gallon gas, to drive the half mile to the mall since it's too dangerous to walk. Argh.

Soaring Gas Prices And Our Auto-Dependent Society

We may be about to pay a heavy price for decade of development that foolishly assumed an endless supply of cheap gasoline.

Gas prices soared past $3 a gallon in many places this week, and the issue for American consumers may go beyond expense. "Concerns are now mounting over limited supplies of gasoline, including the possible return of long lines and scarcity reminiscent of the 1970s gas crisis," Associated Press reports. "In Georgia, a few gas stations were charging as much as $6 per gallon Wednesday after other retailers had run out of gas and long lines were reported across the state."

What, exactly, are our options if we face a long stretch of time with shortages of gasoline, and prices at $5, $6 or more per gallon? Few people outside of major urban centers have the option to walk or take public transit to do anything - even to get to the store, let alone to work.

A colleague of mine returned from England recently marveling at the lack of sprawl - towns were compact and easily reachable by train. It's the same feeling I get whenever I come back from Europe - astonished at how easy it is to get around without a car. It's not simply that you can take public transit within major cities or between them; but that once you take a train from a city to a smaller town, you often don't need a car to get where you want to go within the town.

Yes, cheap gas gave many Americans the "freedom" to live in the exurbs, with daily 40-mile commutes in single-passenger gas-guzzlers. It allowed and encouraged sprawl. But it ended up taking away our freedom of choice when most of us living outside of densely packed urban centers CAN'T realistically walk or take public transportation anywhere.

I'm not trying to take away people's private cars. I'm not hostile to the automobile (although I've always been against monster-size gas-guzzling behemoths driven in urban and suburban settings by single commuters). What I object to is the extreme auto-obsession here that builds everything exclusively around the needs of the single-passenger automobile, to the expense of every other kind of transportation - walking, cycling and public transit.

In a number of smaller communities outside more densely packed European cities, you'll see development patterns where cars, pedestrians, cyclists and trains &/or buses pleasantly co-exist. It's a much rarer site in the U.S. Perhaps prices like $7/gallon in Amsterdam and $6/gallon in the U.K. have something to do with this?

Update: Planner Wally Siembab argues at that it's possible to retrofit suburbs so residents can shop, get services and work within a mile or two of their homes. See The Smart Sprawl Strategy.