November 30, 2005

Daytime Populations Changes in Massachusetts

OK, I've done some more testing and all appears to be working now: I've posted a sortable chart of data about daytime (i.e. commuting and living/working) population trends in Mass. cities and towns, based on U.S. Census data.

The chart is at

Some tidbits:

Almost one-third of employed Framingham residents also work in town. Marlboro is very close to that. Maynard, once the home of Digital Equipment. Corp., is now at 17%. And Bellingham is just 8.3%.

Framingham's daytime population rises 14% compared to its full-time residential population, while Marlboro's is up 37%. Bellingham's slips 2.1%, while Northboro's drops 10%.

Cars, Pedestrians Co-existing: Beacon St, Brookline vs. Rte 30, Framingham

As I was walking and driving on Beacon Street in Brookline today, I again marvelled how a street with 3 and 4 lanes of traffic in each direction - a pretty major east-west thoroughfare in that area, in fact - manages to be so pedestrian friendly. Especially when later in the afternoon, I was both walking and driving on Rte. 30 in Framingham, disheartened that on a stretch of roadway with fewer lanes than Beacon Street, it was unpleasant to walk and much more difficult to cross.

Here's why.

Center City Sensibilities

Warrenton, Va. resident describes describes going for coffee at a local (not chain) shop, going to the bank, returning a library book, mailing some letters, getting a haircut, and generally "wandering around" town where he can "can window shop to my heart's content and admire the classic architecture of Old Town. Not once did I get into my car.

"It is this very mix of private and public uses I encountered that are, by definition, center city sensibilities. They are what make Warrenton as authentic a place -- dare I say 'rural urban village' -- as one will find anywhere."

Alas, he points out in the Fauquier Times-Democrat, most suburban communities around Washington, D.C., "are built around the calculated separation of venues and complete reliance on the automobile. "

Sound familiar? There are pockets of walkability in Boston's western suburbs as well, but we've got way too much housing where residents can't walk to destinations; and retail centers that no one can walk to from anywhere except a parking lot. And the newer the development, the more likely it is to skew auto-only, unless a conscious decision is made by planners to encourage mixed-use neighborhoods and walkability. Mixed-use doesn't always have to mean apartments over stores, but it does mean blocks where stores and homes are well integrated, as opposed to having strip malls surrounded by asphalt oceans.

November 27, 2005

The Key To Successful Lifestyle Centers

"In 20 years, lifestyle centers will be the failed malls," predicts Eric Fredericks at Walkable Neighborhoods. Why? He believes "they are no different from regular malls. The key to successful lifestyle centers is to integrate with the existing neighborhoods, or to incorporate the right balance of housing and activities for residents to make it sustainable."

I couldn't agree more about the importance of integrating "lifestyle centers" into the surrounding neighborhood, so nearby office workers as well as residents can walk there. That's the crucial component in creating a community with sense of place instead of soul-less suburban sprawl.

Outdoor malls are nothing new. In fact, we had outdoor malls before the indoor enclosed ones - locally, open-air Shoppers World was built before the enclosed Natick Mall. The key to "lifestyle centers" is that there's supposed to be attention paid to making an attractive pedestrian streetscape and ambiance, instead of simply having open-air space for getting from one indoor location to another.

By definition, a walkable streetscape should include a way to walk to and from various destinations - the "park once, walk-to-multiple locations" ambiance I believe suburbs should be striving for. It's an admirable but long-range project to get more suburbanites out of their cars altogether so they go from home to work & shopping by foot, bike or public transit. But it's a much easier task to have them park at one mall and let them then walk to nearby stores, hotels and restaurants. You don't have to change density patterns much, but rather re-think how buildings and parking are designed and sited.

I'd add that it's equally important to integrate enclosed malls with the surrounding neighborhood. That's been done successfully in malls like CambridgeSide Galleria, on a city block, where the food court includes both indoor and outdoor sitting, and the outdoor seats are along a very nice walkway with waterview; as well as Copley Place in Boston, where it's at least reasonably possible and appealing to walk between the mall and neighboring Back Bay retail district. It's how malls and local business districts can not only co-exist, but enhance each other; and it's how you make a livable, pleasant streetscape. And it's why I'm so disappointed with current plans for the Natick Mall expansion, where new condos may be well integrated with enclosed shops, but residents will be effectively cut off from the surrounding community unless they get in their cars. They won't be able to walk to nearby office buildings and other destinations such as the cinema. What a missed opportunity to improve the Golden Triangle.

November 24, 2005

Beta: Sortable Database of Daytime Population Changes for Communities in Massachusetts

Which communities have an influx of people during the day? Which "bedroom communities" empty out during working hours? In between cooking side dishes for Thanksgiving, I've been working on posting a sortable database of the numbers from Massachusetts. I haven't finished testing and checking it yet, but if you want to take a look at the beta, it's at Daytime Population Data for Massachusetts Communities. Click on a column heading to sort by that stat.

Data is from the U.S. Census Bureau's recently released Daytime Population Analysis for communities throughout the country. A number of local media outlets reported on the results (see for example Globe West's Some Towns Empty Out During Day and MetroWest Daily News's Many Area Communities Serve as Daytime 'Home' to Workers). But what fun are Census numbers online if they're not sortable and interactive?

November 23, 2005

I’m Thankful For…

...many things this holiday eve, including health, family, friends, my home and so much more. But specifically in the Livable Communities arena, I'm thankful for:

* The express bus from Newton Corner to Boston. Less than 15 minutes and, traffic permitting, you zip from an inner suburb to Copley Square - a rare case where local public transportation is indeed faster and more convenient than driving. Ah, if only such a bus could run to downtown Boston from Framingham, similar to the Logan Express.

* The new Amazing Things arts center in Framingham. For the first time, Saxonville residents can actually walk to good live entertainment.

* Garden in the Woods. A jewel in our community, the botanical garden is a beautiful place to stroll away an afternoon.

* Newbury Street, the North End, Public Garden and other highly walkable neighborhoods of Boston, proving that a city can have a strong economy (if real estate prices are any indication) AND pedestrian appeal.

* Coolidge Corner, Brookline. Where major auto roadways, trolley line and pedestrians manage to co-exist in harmony.

* Concord Center and the nearby Old North Bridge. Proof that a "suburb" doesn't need to be high-density urban in order to have a soul -- and a walker-friendly downtown.

* The Stapleton elementary school, Saxonville. Saved from closing by an override vote a couple of years ago, it's the North Side school that's best integrated into a surrounding neighborhood business district.

* MWRA aqueduct trails. Well, I'm not so thankful when inconsiderate dirt-bikers roar through them, ruining things for everyone else who wants to enjoy them (not to mention all the abutters); but otherwise, these peaceful places where residents can walk, jog, ski and snow shoe without vehicular interference (even if technically there are no trespassing signs up).

* Sichuan Gourmet, Oga's, Gianni's and other top-notch ethnic eateries. What fun is a neighborhood without great food?

* The Framingham Premium Cinema. Well, from the outside it's a pedestrian-hostile nightmare -- how I wish it was located in the midst of a neighborhood business district so you could walk to it, like the cinema in Waltham! But while pretty pricey, once you're inside, it's such a civilized way to watch a movie -- leather seats, loads of legroom, stadium seating so you can see the whole screen even if a Boston Celtic is sitting in front of you. And once you factor in the free soda and popcorn, it's not really alarmingly more than regular full-price admisison.

Happy Thanksgiving!


November 19, 2005

Metro Detroit Leaders Eye More Mass Transit

"Late last month, to everybody’s surprise, the Oakland County [Mich.] Board of Commissioners, by a near-unanimous vote, approved a resolution urging the county to much more seriously consider spending at a similar magnitude on a regional public transit system [as on road contruction and widening]," writes Keith Schneider at the Michigan Land Use Institute in Metro Times Detroit, a weekly "alternative" newspaper, reports.

It's hard to miss the symbolism of government officials in the heart of America's auto industry concluding that the region needs public transportation as much as it needs ever more and wider highways. After all, it was the 20th century lobbying of that same auto industry that was one factor in generating enormous public funding of road infrastructure compared to funds for mass transit. (Did you know that in the early 20th century, there was a trolley line running through Framingham from Worcester to Boston? In 1931, the B&W trolley line was replaced by Route 9.)

Kami Pothukuchi, who teaches urban planning at Wayne State, sees "geography and the economy in confrontation" in the Detroit area, Schneider says. "The very same conditions that fostered Detroit’s decline and the rise of suburban sprawl — cheap energy, inexpensive land, rising incomes and massive government spending for roads and water systems — have all been transformed. Gasoline prices are rising fast. Road construction costs have gone out of sight. Incomes of working people have fallen for five straight years. Government deficits drain public spending on infrastructure.

"The urgent issue facing everybody in southeast Michigan is whether these are temporary trends. If not, Pothukuchi says, it might be time to ask whether metro Detroit should follow the lead of a number of competing regions and embrace a new economic development strategy," he notesAt the top of Pothukuchi's list: creating convenient, efficient and safe public transit networks - which, ironically, existed in the Detroit area a century ago.

"Is a policy designed more than 60 years ago — one that gives short shrift to alternatives — flexible and creative enough to keep the state’s economy and quality of life competitive in this century?" Schneider asks. It's the same question we need to be asking in eastern Massachusetts. Encouraging better development patterns around existing mass transit stations is one way to better use the transportation resources we already have, but we need to be doing a lot more to better balance public funding between roadways for private vehicles and mass transportation.

November 17, 2005

Mixed-use Multi-Family Housing in Lincoln?

Lincoln, Mass. - the upscale town where residents sometimes asked that potholes be kept in their roads to discourage added traffic - may be getting condos along with an expansion of the Mall at Lincoln Station, the Boston Globe's West Weekly reports. The mall's owner is considering adding 16 to 24 units to plans for phase 2 of the expansion (the 10,000-square-foot phase 1 would be commercial/retail only). Such a plan would require Town Meeting approval.

Wow, you'll know walkable "mixed-use" housing/retail developments are becoming a formidable high-end trend if one comes to Lincoln. I briefly covered Lincoln as a reporter for the then-Middlesex News (now MetroWest Daily News) in the early '80s, and to say that the town wasn't interested in adding a lot of commercial activity or high-density development is somewhat of an understatement. Lincoln is a gorgeous town, and residents tend to be fiercely protective of its rural character (although at the same time, Lincoln is substantially farther along in offering "affordable" housing than most nearby wealthy communities, reasonably close to the state-desired 10% level).

Some suburban planners still dislike mixed-use, believing it somehow impinges on the 50-year-old vision of the American Dream -- which somehow morphed from "owning your own home" to "owning a house in a suburban housing tract where there's no possible way to walk anywhere except to other houses - and even then you wouldn't want to because the neighborhoods are so car-centric and pedestrian hostile."

However, others view mixed-use as a return to more traditional neighborhood development along the lines of historic New England village patterns, where it was indeed possible for some residents to walk to local stores. It will be interesting to see how this project proceeds in Lincoln.

November 13, 2005

San Bernardino Plans Walker-Friendly, New Urbanist Development

"Between sprawling subdivisions, packed freeways and shops crowded into malls, the City of San Bernardino (Calif.) is planning a development that will combine homes, offices, shops and artists' studios in the same neighborhood, emphasizing walking instead of driving,"according to the Press-Enterprise.

"Times have changed," James Funk, the city's director of development services told the paper. "People want work flexibility. They want to work at home. They want to live near their work. They want to walk to shops."

Times have indeed changed, and an increasing number of people value walkable neighborhoods with a sense of place, instead of car-centric strip-mall corridors like Rte. 9. It's also why almost 9 in 10 people said pedestrian-friendly neighborhoods were very important to them, according to a Better Homes & Gardens survey -- more than said large rooms or a big yard. Alas, such changes haven't seemed to make their way to many local officials overseeing the Golden Triangle. But I digress....The San Bernardino mixed-use developments still need city approval. " Elsewhere in Southern California, whole cities have been organized around new-urbanist architectural ideas, including dense development, a mix of residential, commercial and office uses and walkable street plans that discourage driving within the community," the Press-Enterprise notes.

November 12, 2005

Another Pitch For Narrower Streets to Breathe Life Into a Downtown

"When is a downtown not quite a downtown?" asks Jason Hardin at the Greensboro (N.C.) News-Record. "Maybe when some of its roads look more like highways than main streets."


"Many streets are wide, multilane routes with one-way traffic. This tends to encourage higher speeds. And that, in turn, helps to make roads such as Market, Eugene and Edgeworth streets and Friendly Avenue unpleasant to walk along," Hardin notes.

He points out that streets with one lane of traffic each way and on-street parking gave cakner traffic, making a more pleasant walking environment. For some reason, that's a concept many planners today haven't yet grasped. Either that, or they're purposely designing traffic sewers and think it's fine to make a pedestrian-hostile atmosphere.

It takes great care to make a good walking environment when you've got multiple lanes of traffic each way going along at a fast clip. It's not impossible, mind you - Commonwealth Avenue in Boston's Back Bay comes to mind. But look at all the walker friendly design that's gone into that boulevard: most notably, the gorgeous, linear park along the median; but also plenty of buffer (including trees) between pedestrians and cars, and street-scape friendly architecture with varied building facades (instead of one long wall) and plenty of bay windows looking out onto the street.

In fact, unlike Framingham (where the goal seems to be to make our major shopping thoroughfares ever wider for increasing lanes of cars, graduating from simply unpleasant-to-cross to downright life-threatening), Greensboro has already done a "major makeover" on one street, East Market, "that converted it from a six-lane artery to a much more pedestrian-friendly street," Hardin says. "A similar project is under way on Greene Street, which will go from four lanes of one-way traffic in parts to a lane in each direction."

If you want a business district with strolling shoppers and a sense of place, you can't have highways running through them.

November 9, 2005

Montgomery May Revamp Zoning To Allow For Traditional Neighborhoods

Livable-community advocates have long complained that "modern" zoning codes usually outlaw the kind of building patterns that create some of the nation's most popular neighborhoods. Places like Boston's Back Bay, with their emphasis on pedestrian-friendly streetscapes, would be illegal under zoning codes that require large building setbacks, minimum off-street parking lots and separate uses (i.e. no condos above the trendy shops).

But some cities and towns are re-examining their zoning regulations, trying to allow the return of traditional neighborhood patterns instead of car-centric, soul-less suburbs. Mongomery, Alabama, is the latest:

"Some aspects of popular and aesthetic Montgomery communities -- such as Cloverdale and the Garden District -- would be illegal under city zoning drafted decades ago, but there is a movement to update those and adopt smart code," the Montgomery Advertiser reports.

" 'It will allow for newer neighborhoods to be created in the mold of old neighborhoods such as Cloverdale and the Garden District and provide another option to cookie-cutter subdivisions that are primarily automobile-oriented,' said Chad Emerson, professor at Faulkner University's Jones School of Law.

"Emerson helped draft the code for the city. The code promotes walkable communities with more public green space and a variety of houses and businesses located close to one another."

November 8, 2005

Walk ‘n Mass Volkssport Club Sponsors Framingham Walking Tour

Tourists walking around Framingham to see the sites? That's not simply a "someday dream" of mine; it's on the schedule this weekend as the Walk 'n Mass Volkssport Club sponsors 6- and 10-km self-guided walking tours this Saturday, Nov. 12. How cool is that?!

If you want company, meet at 9:30 am at the Dunkin' Donuts on Franklin Street and Mt. Wayte Avenue. If you want to do it yourself, details are posted on the club Web site.

Prior events have included walks in Duxbury and on Cape Cod.

What's Volkssport you ask? "A volksmarch is a non-competitive 6 mile (10 kilometer) walk," according to the American Volkssport Association. "It's not a pledge walk, it's not a race, it is a fun activity you do with a club, with your family, with your pet, or all by yourself. Volksmarching got its name from its origins in Europe. Today there are thousands of volkssport clubs around the world, allied in the International Volkssport Federation, the IVV."

Happy walking!

Mass. Smart Growth Grants

The state last week doled out around $1.5 million in grants to help communities with smart-growth and other planning issues. Alas, Framingham didn't make the list (I don't know if the town even applied), but a number of other Boston-area communities did:

* Brookline received $30,000 to create redevelopment plans for three sites in walker-friendly Coolidge Corner.
* Needham also got $30,000 to plan a downtown mixed-use district; Quincy also received $30,000 for a downtown "vision plan" and "design guidelines."
* Somerville received $27,850 to help it prepare a District Improvement Financing application for Union Square.
* The MAPC got $60,000 to assist Hopkinton, Ashland and Southborough in planning for land that Weston Nurseries is selling, including a "community planning process" and suggested zoning changes.

You can see the complete listing of this year's Smart Growth Technical Assistance Grant awards here.

November 5, 2005

Another Outdoor ‘Lifestyle Center’: Lehi, Utah

Although you'd never know it from the conventional, pedestrian-hostile expansion now underway at the Natick Mall, outdoor walker-appealing shopping centers are the current trend in retailing, as consumers increasingly seek the experience of strolling somewhere with a sense of place. This is especially true among retailers hoping to cater to more upscale shoppers (such as the Natick Mall will be doing in its half-century-old format of enclosed mall surrounded by a sea of asphalt).

The latest incarnation of that trend is in Lehi Utah, where "developers plan to build a pedestrian friendly mall twice the size of Salt Lake City's Gateway shopping center and bordered by 8,000 houses," KUTV in Salt Lake City reports. "The 150-acre development, dubbed Terrace at Traverse Mountain, will be an 'outdoor lifestyle center' with up to 150 upscale shops, restaurants and entertainment venues, the partners said." Average annual household income within a 15-mile radius of the planned center was about $87,000 last year, KUTV notes.

November 3, 2005

500 Atlantic Avenue Solution

I'm not sure why there's a brouhaha over the sidewalk in front of the planned new hotel at 500 Atlantic Avenue. Developers want to divert the sidewalk so there's pull-up valet parking, while walking advocates want an unbroken sidewalk as part of the Rose Kennedy greenway. But there's an easy solution - do both.

As I mentioned in an earlier post, the Hilton in midtown Manhattan does just that, using parallel sidewalks with a drive-up between them. Here's what it looks like:

Sidewalk in front of New York Hilton

The shot on the left shows that there's plenty of room for taxis or private cars to pull up and drop off passengers, and there's a sidewalk in front of the door. The shot on the right shows that there's also a continuous sidewalk, interrupted only by the driveway (which isn't as massive as it appears on the photo).

Pedestrian-appealing non-diverted sidewalks CAN co-exist with pull-up valet parking. It just has to be designed properly. It's already been done.

November 2, 2005

You’re More Important Than My Car

My parents' neighborhood doesn't have brick sidewalks, faux gas lamps or sidewalk cafes. But their neighborhood in an inner suburb of New York is extremely walkable nonetheless, and that's due to more than the presence of sidewalks, fairly dense development/small lot sizes and actual destinations you can walk to (local stores).

Those all help, of course. But the design of the homes and blocks also goes a long way toward making a walker-friendly streetscape.

Streets are relatively narrow - when cars are parked, traffic has to slow down. The nearby artery road has one lane of traffic each way and a wide buffer between sidewalk and cars.

Homes are fairly close to the street, and windows face invitingly to the sidewalk. Many have front porches where people can (and do) sit to watch the neighbors walk by. You feel like you're walking in a neighborhood, and there could be friendly eyes on the street watching.

And, in design from a bygone era, most garages are not attached to the houses presenting huge car entryways to the street, but are tucked farther away in back of the homes. Even two-car garages in such designs don't negatively impact the ambiance, because often the driveway is one vehicle-width-wide at the sidewalk, and then opens up to be wider behind the house.

It's hard to overstate what this does to improve the appeal of a streetscape to a pedestrian. It all but shouts: Your presence walking by my home is welcome! Your sensory enjoyment is more important to me than where I park my vehicle!

Huge 2- and 3-car garages built up at street levels, with doorways in some cases even closer to the sidewalk than the house itself, usually give quite a different - if unintentional - message: This neighborhood is built for the drive-up convenience of my vehicles, not for you.

November 1, 2005

Last Night’s Walkable Neighborhood Test

Are there a lot of kids in your area? Were there a lot of trick-or-treaters at your door last night? That's a great test of how walkable your neighborhood is.

To be fair, it's probably best to average out over a few years - in the same spot, some years there can be a horde of kids and other years not so many. Weather can make a difference; so too can competing events (like a big school Halloween party) or local customs. But if there are kids around and they generally do want to go trick or treating, whether or not they come to your block is a good test of how walkable your neighborhood is.

As the New York Times noted in an article about some blocks in Cold Spring, N.Y. that traditionally attract hundreds of kids throughout the community:

With new housing sprawling across the Hudson Valley, parents and children want a neighborhood where you can actually walk around, rather than hiking from two-acre lot to two-acre lot. No one can claim McMansion neighborhoods were designed for trick-or-treating. And with safety an issue for parents in a way it was not for their own parents, having one street, section of town, condo project or whatever become Halloween Central has a definite comfort-zone appeal.

Yet another way that McMansion neighborhoods are affecting traditional neighborhoods - now those living in traditional areas have to buy extra candy for the McMansionites. (That's along with suffering the traffic those neighborhoods dump onto our roads because residents of non-walkable neighborhoods have to drive everywhere. And when there's more residential housing going up without nearby commercial services to support it, or any kind of jobs nearby for residents, that means those people are always driving through other communities to get to work, etc.)

If it doesn't feel comfortable trick or treating, it probably doesn't feel comfortable walking anywhere.