December 28, 2006

A Visit to Boston’s New Institute for Contemporary Art

Considering that I often don't enjoy "modern art" much, I was pleasantly surprised at how much I enjoyed a visit today to the new Institute for Contemporary Art. Honestly, I went mostly to see the new building, an architecturally intriguing addition to the waterfront; but the art was worth experiencing as well.

Kudos to the ICA for including downloadable MP3 files on their Web site that you can put on your own iPod or other MP3 player and bring to the museum for your own audio tour. It's definitely something other museums should consider. While it's certainly possible to read the short descriptions of the artwork and get more info to enhance the viewing experience; in the case of contemporary art, being able to hear audio files from some of the artists themselves explaining their work added to my enjoyment.

It was especially interesting to hear local artist Josiah McElheny talk about the very cool work, Czech Modernism Mirrored and Reflected Infinitely - one of my favorites for the beauty of the glass objects and the additional fascination of the endless reflections; as well as photographer Nan Goldin talk about some of her works. There were some great photos on display, including a well-known shot by WHO of a bullet piercing an apple.

As for the architecture, with all that's been written about the building, I was expecting something with much more of a grand impact. Unfortunately, it's hard for a building that's not particularly large and is surrounded by acres of parking lots to have much of an effect as you walk up to it. Right now the major drawback to the new ICA is its surroundings. There's no urban streetscape or feel at all, and no urge at all to go by foot anywhere but back to your car. A few blocks in the area are starting to shape up with a neighborhood feel; but right now, there are too many warehouses and parking lots at the sidewalk to expect that, say, conventioneers are going to feel like they're in the heart of a city as opposed to a warehouse district on its outskirts.

That aside, though, the building is a nice piece of work, making the most of its location with some stunning views from both inside and out. Here's a panorama I shot from inside the building (you can see some reflections off the glass):

December 27, 2006

Building More Roads is One of the Worst Solutions for Congestion, Not an Answer

Sam Stanley bemoans Boston traffic gridlock, notes the soaring amount of urban vehicle miles travelled, and then trots out a tired solution that's never worked: Build more highway capacity (Making Gridlock a Priortity, today's Boston Globe op-ed page). But guess what? There's simply not enough land to keep boosting highway capacity in urban environments - not unless you want to completely destroy streetscapes, wreck neighborhoods, or spend billions of dollars per mile to build underground roadways like the Big Dig.

But even if you did that, all you'd do is escalate traffic volumes even further. "A recent University of California at Berkeley study covering thirty California counties between 1973 and 1990 found that, for every 10 percent increase in roadway capacity, traffic increased 9 percent within four years' time," note Andres Duany, Elizabeth Platter-Zyberk and Jeff Speck in the book Suburban Nation.

I agree with Stanley that we need to look at "other cost-effective ways to combat traffic," such as better traffic signal optimization and using traffic cameras to improve accident response times. Variable-priced toll lanes are also an interesting idea, making people pay premium rates to travel at premium times on congested roadways.

But keep building ever more highway capacity to encourage people to keep driving more - at a rate of increase that already far outstrips the rate of population growth? No, that's not a public policy I endorse. There's a fundamental problem question here that he's ignored: Why has there been such a huge increase in private-vehicle travel? He tosses out a statistic that urban driving miles increased more than 168% in the past 30 years, without ever questioning why that is or if there's some way to ease demand instead of stoking it. There are several reasons for this spike in passenger vehicle miles:

* Lack of affordable housing, which forces people to live ever farther away from jobs (as well as other urban attractions such as cultural sites, sporting events, commercial and retail centers, etc.)

* Patterns of development that make any other kind of travel impractical. In older town centers, people can still walk to train stations and bus stops; in urban centers, people take the subway or buses or even walk to their jobs. In some older communities, people can walk to the grocery store and kids can walk to school. In newer suburbs and exurbs, it's impossible to walk anywhere, and the McMansions went up without thought of how those people would get to jobs or shopping, simply assuming the private car for 100% of travel was viable. Build more roads without changing that kind of development, and you just have the same problem with higher traffic levels.

* People in private cars do not pay their full fair share of expenses for the roads they use. If you don't pay more for road repair, snow removal, highway construction and so on, depending on how much you drive and use those roads, then you're going to drive more - and make decisions on where to live and work that involve more driving - than you otherwise would if you had to pay the full cost per mile. If we all paid half the cost of heating oil, and tax revenues made up the difference, many of us would be cranking up our thermostats in the winter. Same with private automobile use. Fund all road construction and maintenance via the gasoline tax, and you might see some changes in private vehicle usage patterns.

* Mass transit service is deteriorating. It's bad enough that service is so sparse and infrequent that in many cases, it's not practical to use. But even when the service allegedly is there, buses and trains are late, service is painfully slow and sometimes your bus or train simply doesn't show up at all. It doesn't have to be that way. When I was in Geneva last year, every single bus, train and commuter boat I took arrived on schedule to the minute. Every one! Even buses travelling through crowded city streets at rush hour. I'd suggest some of our public officials head to Switzerland and find out how they manage this, because clearly it's possible if there's a commitment to such service.

But let me repeat the basic flaw in Stanley's argument: You'll never be able to build enough highway capacity to meet demand. Never. Spanking new uncongested highways simply encourage development patterns that rely on those highways, eventually clogging them. I remember when Rte. 495 was mostly empty, and now thanks to housing patterns which rely heavily on private vehicle travel on that highway, it's often congested. How do we fix that, then? Build another ring highway? Widen it to eight lanes each way? Where does it end?

"Building more highways and widening existing roads, almost always motivated by concern over traffic, does nothing to reduce traffic. In the long run, it actually increases traffic. This revelation is so counterintuitive that it bears repeating: adding lanes makes traffic worse," Suburban Nation points out.

"This paradox was suspected as early as 1942 by Robert Moses, who noticed that the highways he had built around New York City in 1939 were somehow generating greater traffic problems than had existed previously. Since then, the phenomenon has been well documented, most notably in 1989, when the Southern Califronia Association of Governments concluded that traffic-assistance measures, be they adding lanes, or even double-decking the roadways, would have no more than a cosmetic effect on Los Angeles' traffic problems. ...

"Across the Atlantic, the British government reached a similar conclusion. Its studies showed that increased traffic capacity causes people to drive more -- a lot more -- such that half of any driving-time savings generated by new roadways are lost in the short run. In the long run, potentially all savings are expected to be lost. In the words of the Transport Minister, 'The fact of the matter is that we cannot tackle our traffic problems by building more roads.' ...

"Increased traffic capacity makes longer commutes less burdensome, and as a result, people are willing to live farther and farther from their workplace. As increasing numbers of people make similar decisions, the long-distance commute grows as crowded as the inner city, commuters clamor for additional lanes, and the cycle repeats itself. ...

"The phenomenon of induced trafic works in reverse as well. When New York's West Side Highway collapsed in 1973, a NYDOT study showed that 93 percent of the car trips lost did not reappear elsewhere; people simply stopped driving. A similar result accompanied the destruction of San Francisco's Embarcadero Freeway in the 1989 earthquake. Citizens voted to remove the freeway entirely despite the apocalyptic warnings of traffic engineers. Surprisingly, a recent British study found that downtown road removals tend to boost local economies, while new roads lead to higher urban unemployment. ...

"The question is not how many lanes must be built to ease congestion but how many lanes of congestion you want. Do you favor four lanes of bumper-to-bumper traffic at rush hour, or sixteen? This condition is best explained by what specialists call latent demand. Since the real constraint on driving is traffic, not cost, people are always ready to make more trips when the traffic goes away. The number of latent trips is huge -- perhaps 30 percent of existing traffic. Because of latent demand, adding lanes is futile, since drivers are already poised to use them up."

December 26, 2006

Plans For A More Walkable Chicago

Chicago Mayor Daley "has big plans to make things safer for those who prefer strolling to motoring," the Chicago Tribune noted in an editorial today. "A redesign of many curbs and intersections is under way to make them more pedestrian-friendly and render the act of crossing the street less risky. Also on the drawing board: more cameras to catch drivers who run red lights, and more pedestrian-countdown signals to alert street-crossers to either step it up or stay put."

The paper supports those plans, although it goes on to complain about planned "sting operations at high-accident intersections" this spring, when town officials "will go undercover and pose as average passersby--although to do any good they'll have to loiter around particular street corners. That might scare away the real pedestrians."

Apparently, the problem is "a creeping California-ism that would alter the equilibrium of Chicago's more competitive car-versus-pedestrian culture." Even though the paper says that more than one pedestrian a week is killed in Chicago traffic.

Whatever. But the curb and intersection redesign sounds like a wonderful idea.

If our Framingham town officials had to regularly walk to multiple destinations on both sides of Rte. 30, for example, I bet we'd see some different intersection designs here before too long. Just today, I'd planned to walk from my office across Rte. 30 to the Fidelity/Bank of America building. But traffic was heavy, and without a sidewalk around the bank, the thought of dashing across the intersection and then sloshing across the muddy, sloping grass was extraordinarily unappealing. I'd still like to know who allowed that building to be constructed without a sidewalk in front of it, since there already is a walkway in front of the other buildings on the block, and without any kind of reasonable pedestrian crossing.

December 24, 2006

Walking for Dinner

As I was driving home from work in massive amounts of traffic, the thought of heading anywhere else in my car was rather uninspiring. And one look at the Super Stop & Shop parking lot told me that pretty much everyone was stopping to pick up some groceries on their way home. Ah, if only there was some way to walk to a smaller, neighborhood grocery store like I used to do when Purity Supreme was in Saxonville!

Fortunately, Gerard Farms is still open (alas, they're closing for vacation til March after today). So, I was able to take a walk there and pick up a few things for dinner (some sliced deli meats, a few vegetable salads, done). But oh how it would improve my quality of life to be able to walk to a local market several times a week and pick up fresh meat and produce for dinner.

I think one of the reasons we eat so much processed (and unhealthy) food in this country is because local markets have all but disappeared. Who wants to drive to and shop at a huge big-box regional grocer multiple times a week? Instead, we stock up on foods with chemicals we can't pronounce, let alone identify - overly processed and packaged goods that will have a shelf life of weeks or months. The shelf life is usually inversely proportional to the taste, and we get less sensory satisfaction from our meals, so we eat greater quantities to make up for lower quality. And so it goes -- along with living our lives sitting at desks or in our cars, we end up out of shape and overweight.

I'm reading Mireille Guiliano's sequel to French Women Don't Get Fat, called Frech Women For All Seasons, and she points out that the French spend a higher percentage of their income on food. They'll pay more for locally produced items, and for quality. I suspect they're also willing to pay a little more to shop at a local market. The result? Along with the way they cook (using fresh, natural ingredients) and eat (mindfully, slowly, and paying attention to what they're consuming instead of watching TV, reading or typing at a computer), the way they shop helps them enjoy eating while not getting fat.

Many of us also pay less attention to what's in season, instead expecting to buy everything all the time, regardless of how long it's been stored or shipped. That, too, ends up reducing the satisfaction of what we consume.

I hope someday the trend toward local neighborhood grocers returns. Let the super stores have the business of long shelf-life packaged goods -- they'll be able to offer lower prices, and people can stop occasionally and stock up, as I'd do as well. But give us some more local options for fresh fruit, vegetables, dairy and meat!

December 20, 2006

Adventures in Walking Along Rte. 30

With the seasonal traffic particularly awful this time of year, I tried parking once and walking to several destinations along Rte. 30 last week. It was an, um, interesting experience.

First, some good news. The walk from Stop & Shop to the new Lowe's is drastically improved, thanks to the new walkway along the side of Lowe's between it and Target. If you're on foot and want to actually cross over between Lowe's and Target, it's not TOO difficult around the stores -- the main problem is that cars are whizzing through there and not expecting pedestrians. I'm not sure I'd try it after dark. At the sidewalk, however, where 5 lanes of traffic are spilling out, it's scary. There needs to be a pedestrian median there.

The walk along the sidewalk in front of Lowe's to the post office was decent. The extra curb cut for Lowe's rooftop parking doesn't help, although right now with the store still new and not at full capacity, there wasn't too much traffic in and out of there while I was walking. As for the post office, it still needs a marked walkway between the sidewalk and the building. While the front parking isn't that large, when it's crowded there are cars pulling in and out of there all the time, and there definitely ought to be a visually pleasing, safe-feeling path from sidewalk to entrance.

Crossing Rte. 30 to get to the businesses on the other side is a truly frightening experience. Whether I'm crossing near Leggat-McCall Way to get to the Bank of America, or further down to get to the strip malls, it's always scary. There is absolutely no good place in the retail area of Rte. 30 to cross from one side to the other on foot, and that's crazy.

Besides well-marked crosswalks and adequate crossing light cycles, you need an attractive median where pedestrians can rest while walking across a lot of lanes of traffic, which makes it feel much safer. Plus, attention needs to be paid to the angle of curb cuts, which can make a corner feel more or less threatening.

Try crossing at Rte. 126 and 30 on foot sometime, and you'll see how unsafe it feels even if you've got a signal. No matter which way you're trying to go -- even just across 126 on the same side of 30, to get, say, from the Aegean Restaurant to the B&R Artisan Bread shop a couple of blocks down, feels downright frightening. It shouldn't. People ought to be able to park once and walk safely between retail establishments within a quarter or half mile of each other, without having to drive from place to place.

December 18, 2006

Globe Op-Ed Contributor Responds on North End Pedestrian Plan

Back in September, David Kruh (who's written two books about Boston's Scollay Square, razed for the hideous City Hall Plaza development) wrote a column on Boston's "love/hate relationship" with the automobile, criticizing the concept of a pedestrian-only zone for Hanover Street. I posted a response, arguing that the North End is quite different from the plaza, and creating more space for pedestrians in what's already a pedestrian-appealing streetscape makes a lot more sense than creating a barren wasteland and thinking people on foot will fill it up.

Anyway, today Kruh sent some comments responding to my Planning Livable Communities post. You can see his comments at the bottom of my original post.

December 16, 2006

More Pedestrian-Friendly Rte. 9 Frontage for New Natick Mall?

Natick Mall owners will be seeking another 65,000 square feet of retail space along Rte. 9, the MetroWest Daily News reported last week. "The new section, which would be built in the Rte. 9 parking lot between Macy's and the Lord & Taylor, would look like a row of storefronts along
a street, said Jim Grant, General Growth's vice president for development," the paper says. The plan comes before the Natick Planning Board Wednesday.

"By proposing the Rte. 9 side shops, the enclosed mall also wants to take part in the trend of what is called lifestyle centers, which are outdoor shopping areas designed to resemble upscale main streets or shopping districts. Grant said the new varied design would be a big improvement
in how the mall looks from Rte. 9."

Sounds intriguing, I hope to find out more. For example, will there be a pedestrian-appealing public sidewalk, and walkway from that sidewalk to the shopping area? Or will it just be designed to look nicer to cars driving by? Are there any plans to make the Speen Street side at all even moderately appealing for people to arrive by foot from the nearby hotels?

December 13, 2006

Mixed Reaction to Mayor Manino’s Plan For New Waterfront City Hall

Few love Boston's current city hall, an ugly structure easily mistaken for a massive parking garage surrounded by a "public plaza" so offputting that it often remains nearly empty even on beautiful summer days when nearby destinations like Quincy Market are bustling. However, I question Mayor Manino's solution: selling off the existing site and building a new one along the South Boston waterfront.

City Hall isn't just another building open to the public, like a museum or concert hall. As the seat of city government, it needs to be accessible to as many people as possible; and the available "silver line" bus service is vastly inferior to the network of trains around the current site. Without new light rail or trolley service connecting to existing lines, this will make it much more difficult for most workers and citizens to get there.

And while I understand the mayor's enthusiasm for remaking the South Boston waterfront, City Hall shouldn't be a neighborhood pioneer like, more appropriately, the new Institute of Contemporary Art. City Hall should be at a community's heart, not trying to help create a new one. Why not open up the existing site to some sort of public/private partnership competition to build a better, new City Hall along with other, private square footage to help foot the bill?

December 9, 2006

Pinefield Bustling on ‘Jingle Bell Day’

Saxonville's Pinefield Shopping Center was filled with shoppers and holiday celebrants today, drawn to day-long events that included free horse-drawn hayrides, music, pictures with Santa, wine/beer/liquor tastings for the adults and more. It was wonderful to see the place bustling with people from the neighborhood and beyond, both inside various stores and outside walking from store to store. It's things like this that help neighborhood businesses compete with big-box retailers.
I tried not to think too long about how much greater this thriving neighborhood center could have been with a rebuilt branch library as its anchor overlooking the Sudbury River. Sigh. On the brighter side, the days of worrying about the loss of Lincoln Drugs and the fate of the Pinefield Shopping Center seemed a long time ago, as a steady stream of shoppers was attracted to Ace Hardware's "bucket sale." Although most people arrived at the event by auto, you could even see the occasional locals walking on the streets nearby.

The shopping center certainly has its aesthetic faults (acres of asphalt parking and no obviously welcoming walkway from sidewalk to stores; too-narrow sidewalk in front of some stores, often blocked in front of the hardware store, to name a couple). And I still miss having a grocery store there - ah, to have a small specialty grocer, a bakery/bread place, and some more healthy eating options. Nevertheless, Pinefield joins other businesses in Saxonville Center to serve as a good commercial anchor to the neighborhood - much better than would a single big-box.

December 7, 2006

$1M for 3 Square Miles of WiFi?

I'm a big fan of wireless Internet access, but not big enough to support spending a million dollars in public money to offer town employees WiFi in a 3-square-mile section of downtown Framingham.

According to the Globe, "Kathleen McCarthy, Framingham technology services director, last week briefed selectmen on a plan to provide Internet access for town employees in a 3-square-mile downtown area at a cost of about $1 million. It would cost a total of $2.7 million to $4 million to expand wireless service to the entire town, she said.

"McCarthy said the primary goal of the proposal is to 'extend municipal services out to the field.' "

OK, so we can't afford to replace the terribly inadequate branch library in Saxonville, but we have a million dollars to spend so "Police, fire, public works, and health inspection services personnel all could work away from the office more efficiently with laptops and wireless Internet access"? Um, I don't think so.

And by the way, Framingham is 26 square miles, not just 3. If the service is for public employees, what possible rationale could there be to spend a million dollars to offer wireless very close to town offices, and not offer it in areas of the town more remote from town hall? If this is so useful to, say, more quickly map and fix a water main break, why give the service only to downtown?

If we're going to be investing money in downtown infrastructure, how about first improving the streetscape? Make it a compelling pedestrian environment, and you'd help attract new business activity, boost property values and improve quality of life. Wifi needs to come after that, not before.

I would, however, like to see public WiFi access at both town library buildings.

November 30, 2006

Mixed Reviews for Walgreen’s Hamilton Street Plaza Expansion Plans

I'm just back from a public hearing on the proposed renovation of the Walgreen's plaza in Saxonville (north Framingham), which call for a pharmacy drive-through of all things, as well as spiffing up the exterior of the building, a slight expansion of the building (around 5' x 12' if I can read my writing correctly) and a significant expansion of Walgreen's into some space now occupied from other tenants (likely to include the florist and Sovereign Bank ATM).

That's the wrong place for a drive-through, period. And I said so during the public comment period of the hearing. Despite some aesthetic issues for the streetscape and occasionally scary street crossings, that's one of the most walkable neighborhoods in town, with many buildings up at the sidewalk instead of set back in suburban-sprawl design. It's got a real village feel, and the last thing we should be encouraging there is drive-through. As I said at the hearing, people can get out of their cars.

The developer presentation of the project included a lot of discussion of traffic flow and not one word about pedestrians. Very disappointing if not surprising. Although happily, several Planning Board members brought it up and so did several members of the public (not just me!).

The plan currently includes no walking path from the sidewalk to the stores - it's clearly a design solely for cars, even though a lot of people walk there: school kids, churchgoers, nearby residents, nearby office workers. In fact, the proposed landscaping makes it harder to get to the stores from the sidewalk, since the only break in the landscaping I saw was for the vehicle driveways. In other words, it funnels the pedestrians in through the busy car driveways, for stores in the heart of a compact residential neighborhood. Argh!

The curb cut at the corner of Hamilton and School streets would be taken away, leaving only two ways to get in and out of the shopping center, on either end. The plan on Hamilton Street, next to the apartments, is for a three-lane driveway and 36-foot curb cut, allowing two lanes out and one turning in. I spoke strongly against that, complaining that it's a Rte. 9- or Rte. 30-style curb cut in a residential neighborhood, and would have a strong negative impact on the sidewalk and pedestrian activity there.

My final point: You currently can't even walk on a contiguous sidewalk from one side of the plaza (Walgreens) around the corner to the other (Pizza Wagon). The sidewalk is narrow and not contiguous, and even where there is a sliver of walkway, often cars park so the front ends are over the walkway and block the sidewalk. That really needs to be fixed.

I am happy about the planned investment in the neighborhood, and glad that Walgreens will be improved there. Town Meeting member Norma Shulman was sorry about some of the other businesses that may have to leave for the Walgreens expansion - she rightly pointed out that the area currently has a village center feel, and losing the variety of small businesses that offer residents many different services would indeed be a loss. I see the point, but on the other side, having a pharmacy there is a definite plus, and these days, it's tough to get such stores to stay in too small a space. Losing the anchor tenant wouldn't be a particularly great thing right now, with an anchor pennant spot already vacant in nearby Nobscot.

In any case, Planning Board Chair Ann Victoria Welles said she came away with two impressions from the public comment portion of the hearing: concern about the presence of children on the site and their safety, and issues surrounding pedestrians in general on the site. So that's a start. There will be outside consultants reviewing the project, and the next hearing is scheduled for Jan. 4.

November 28, 2006

‘Suburbs Don’t Have to be Boring’

Modern-era suburbs typically aren't praised for architecture, ambiance or excitement. But, says freelancer writer Lawrence Cheek in the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, they often are attractive places to live despite often-dull surroundings. But isn't it possible, he asks, "to create suburbs that are good places to live at the same time that they're interesting places to explore?"

Yes, he concludes, if you: Discourage repetition, encourage eccentricity, "rethink the whole idea of community" and learn from walkable cities like Seattle.

I've mentioned the public vs. private space debate before. Almost all but the super-wealthy who choose to live in Manhattan do so at a great sacrifice of private space - few can afford spacious living quarters. In return, though, people get some of the world's most amazing public spaces just steps from their doorways.

"American suburbs were founded on the exaltation of private property over communal resources. This was understandable in 1900, when most big cities were indisputably crowded, smelly, unpleasant places," Cheek notes. "But in the movement to reform and enhance those same urban environments, cities developed far better parks and communal gathering places than the suburbs, where the energy was concentrated on private homes."

Urban historian Joel Kotkin told Cheek that many "downshifting" Baby Boomers would like to stay in the suburbs, craving neighborhoods that are "funky, but safe."

"What this sounds like is that suburbanites want semi-urban places that offer the diversity and energy of city life without the real or imagined negatives," he concludes. In other words, someplace between the densely populated frenetic pace of a major urban center and the bland car-oriented lifestyle of a typical exurb. That's exactly the kind of environment that downtown Waltham created, and downtown Framingham could create - with the proper vision and leadership.

November 25, 2006

Metro Areas Fight to Attract 25- to 34-year-olds

Cities are trying to attract college-educated 25- to 34-year-olds, "a demographic group increasingly viewed as the key to an economic future," the New York Times says today.

"Mobile but not flighty, fresh but technologically savvy, 'the young and restless,' as demographers call them, are at their most desirable age, particularly because their chances of relocating drop precipitously when they turn 35. Cities that do not attract them now will be hurting in a decade. . . .

"They are people who, demographers say, are likely to choose a location before finding a job. They like downtown living, public transportation and plenty of entertainment options. They view diversity and tolerance as marks of sophistication."

As a 40-something, I typically greet such youth-obsessed marketing with an eye roll. TV, movies, retail ... they all battle for the young 'uns, even though in many cases, older consumers have significantly more money to spend on the actual products these companies are pitching. A lot of times this demographic snobbishness is self-defeating.

But in the case of cities, it makes a certain amount of sense. If people do tend to move around less at 35+, it's important to snare them just before they're ready to set down roots, if you want to replenish your workforce as Baby Boomers retire, and bring a new infusion of creativity, energy and entrepreneurship. By 2010, the Times story notes, "the work force will be losing more than two workers for every one it gains."

Locally, Framingham has a state college, and an urban-type downtown that, if rejuvenated, could appeal to college graduates not either interested or yet ready to settle down in a typical suburban setting. But I haven't seen much attempt to integrate Framingham State physically into the larger community, by offering an attractive and appealing streetscape from campus to downtown. Nor have I heard much discussion about downtown revitalization trying to attract this critical demographic - or what specific demographic the town is hoping to attract at all, other than the old refrains about tax-paying businesses, tamping down the expanion of tax-exempt social services, and immigration issues.

November 24, 2006

Another Pedestrian Killed While Crossing Old Connecticut Path

A very tragic story: 13-year-old John Martin was struck and killed while trying to cross Old Connecticut Path near Wayland High School early yesterday evening, the MetroWest Daily News reports. This marks the second pedestrian fatality on Old Connecticut Path in less than a year.

Last December, a woman was killed during afternoon rush hour while trying to cross the same road not far from there, near Hamilton Street in Framingham.

As I noted then, thanks to communities designed for vehicular traffic and not pedestrian safety, “walkers are far more likely to be killed in street accidents than are motorists, according to a report on pedestrian safety released yesterday,” the Washington Post reported.

That “Mean Streets” report looked at the most recent available data, from 2001, and discovered a 20.1 fatality rate per 100 million miles traveled for walkers, vs. 1.3 for those travelling by auto or truck.

Clearly something needs to be done about the situation on Old Connecticut Path. It's only going to get more dangerous - and deadly - for people walking in the area when traffic levels rise from the hundreds of new residences planned for the old New England Sand and Gravel site.

My deepest sympathies to John Martin's family and friends.

November 23, 2006

Should Route 30 Be More Pedestrian Friendly?

To me, the obvious answer is Yes! Of course! There are hundreds of office workers within walking distance of Rte. 30 retail, along with residences and even nearby hotels. It's insane that people need to take their cars for trips of less than half a mile because it's too unappealing or dangerous to walk. That's especially true considering all the foot traffic on nearby Leggat-McCall Way, which is an appealing pedestrian streetscape and entices lots of people working there to get out on foot.

Yet there's been a discussion on a local Framingham e-mail newsletter list, prompting comments from several people that vehicular traffic should always take precedence in such areas since that accounts for 90%+ of it. Yikes, talk about ignoring the obvious. Um, every single shopper in the area, regardless of how they get there, becomes someone on foot. Of course there's little walking around now because the entire area was designed solely for the automobile with no thought as to what would make an attractive and safe environment on foot. But a different design could have created a "park once, walk-to-many destinations" environment that would have generated a ton of pedestrian traffic between different retail destinations, in addition to people walking from nearby homes and offices.

November 22, 2006

The ‘Real’ America

Steven Johnson has a great blog post at this week talking about urban vs. rural America. In fact, it has long galled me that some of our more conservative politicians talk like rural America is the only "real" America, while urban America is some kind of decadent invader of America's true culture.

"It’s one thing to celebrate the values of the American farmer and small-town civility. It’s another thing for city dwellers to be lectured about urban depravity and the 'heartland' way of life, when cities are partially subsidizing that way of life," Johnson writes, noting that "Blue states consistently pay more in taxes than they receive in federal assistance; the opposite is true for the red states. Why? Because cities like New York or Los Angeles or San Francisco, despite their welfare queens, are tremendous engines of wealth creation."

Whether it's the Boston area for medical science; New York for fashion, media, entertainment and finance; or Silicon Valley for technology, densely populated areas can offer a critical mass of people, institutions and infrastructure that promote innovation and entrepreneurship. It's a fair question: Why do some politicians denigrate these vibrant national centers? But the political results at the ballot box are clear:

"Consider the breakdown of the past election: rural areas voted Republican by a small margin. The suburbs were evenly divided between the two parties. But 70 percent of Americans living in cities with more than 500,000 people voted for Democrats. . . . One of the reasons the Republicans have so thoroughly lost the urban vote is that they have spent the last 30 years demonizing the culture of big cities – from Reagan’s welfare queens to the recent scaremongering about San Franciscan Nancy Pelosi becoming speaker of the House. City dwellers, we’re told, are not part of 'real America.'"

I'd take that one step further, because "suburb" is a sweeping term that encompasses both upscale, wealthy, 2+-acre-zoning communities and more economically and ethnically diverse places. I'd bet that more densely populated "inner ring" suburbs were bluer than the newer, more spread-out exurbs.

In any case, only one in five Americans lives in a rural community. It's about time political leaders of both parties woke up to the fact that urban, coastal America is very much a key part of our country.

There are many wonderful things about small-town America. But there are lots of great things about urban America, too. We're all part of the fabric of the nation and our national heritage that we celebrate tomorrow.

Framingham’s Great Thanksgiving Tradition: Interfaith Service

I went to the Framingham Interfaith Thanksgiving service last night, and it really made me proud of this community. While the service was a wee bit too long (especially for those of us who needed to start cooking for the holiday meal afterwards!), it was so wonderful to see representatives of our diverse community get together to be thankful for our blessings, and to focus on the things we agree on instead of harping on the things we disagree on.

There were readings from the Muslim, Christian Science, Jewish, Christian and Baha'i faiths. Religious leaders talked about how members of their congregations are helping the greater community, through projects such as literacy tutoring in local schools and quilt-making for children going into foster care. Blessings were said in English, Portuguese and Hebrew. Songs/hymns were sung, including America the Beautiful. A collection was taken for the Newcomers and Neighbors Information Center. It was a lovely moment to reflect on lessons from the original Thanksgiving, which included people of different cultures getting together to be grateful for a season of plenty.

Happy Thanksgiving, everyone.

November 19, 2006

Good News: Possible Framingham Park Upgrade, Courtesy of Rotary Club

The Rotary Club may fund a major upgrade of Butterworth Park, in a project that could cost up to half a million dollars. "For now, plans include a covered pavilion with benches, a new playground, and a half-court basketball court to replace the full-court surface at the park today," the MetroWest Daily News reports. "Also included is a walking path, additional off-street parking and several improvements to the area’s appearance."

It's great to see that kind of partnership in town to spruce up public space. Kudos to the Rotary Club!

However, I can't help thinking it would also be nice if the town was able to fund more of such needed infrastructure improvements that boost quality of life for so many residents.

November 18, 2006

Does Everything Really Have to be Open All the Time?

So, "the Jewish Community Centers of Greater Boston have decided to open their health and fitness facilities during the hours traditionally reserved for prayer in observance of Shabbat, the Jewish Sabbath," the Boston Globe reported earlier this month. It's an interesting debate: Many members who work all week want to go work out on Saturdays, but doing so violates millenia of Jewish law and custom.

As a practical matter, a majority of 21st century American Jews don't observe a traditional sundown-to-sundown day of rest, and the JCCs are acknowledging current reality.

"The centers have gone in the direction of survival," a Reform rabbi told the Globe, asking that his/her name not be published. "They have to respond to the demands of secular Jewish families, or those families are going to go elsewhere."


But I find it sad that now even Jewish organizations can't seem to hold the line and promote observance of the Sabbath.

I'm NOT in favor of "blue laws" requiring stores to close on a certain day. The government has no business legislating observance of a particular religion's belief. But I think religious organizations should try to promote spiritual growth by making it easier, not more difficult, to follow some core beliefs. 

November 12, 2006

Video Tour & Critique: Measuring Lowe’s Framingham on Pedestrian-Friendly Design

Be kind here, please. This is my first attempt at a vblog entry, I was using a pocket digital still camera with low resolution, no image stabilization and no ability to change zoom while videoing; someone volunteered to compress the file for me and the sound is really flakey; finally, if I wait until I figure out my video editing software to get this in better shape, it'll never get posted.


If you still want to see it, here's a video tour of around 7 minutes pointing out what I see as the drawbacks and pluses of the new Lowe's design for pedestrians. View the video (Windows Media format).

November 8, 2006

Framingham Lowe’s a Mixed Bag for Pedestrian Friendliness

I did a walk-around of the yet-to-be-opened Framingham Lowe's over the weekend, including some photos and a video that turns out to be too big to post on YouTube. Sorry I haven't had time yet to do editing and posting of the visuals yet, but meanwhile to summarize briefly what I found:

Deval Patrick’s Resounding Victory: A Vote for Community

Voters in Massachusetts have given our overwhelming support to a governor-elect who stresses sense of community and the need to care about each other's dreams and aspirations as well as our own. It's a message we've clearly been hungering for after the bitter, negative, partisan politics that Karl Rove and the Bush administration have brought to the national arena these past six years.

Deval Patrick has shown that it's possible to succeed without, as he so eloquently puts it, building himself up by tearing others down.

He resisted negative-sound-bite campaigning. He refused to try to pump up one slice of support by demonizing another. He was gracious, inclusive and inspiring in his victory speech - as he's been throughout the campaign. He talked about nurturing the "grass roots," about the importance of listening to people, and about putting our cynicism aside. And he talked about the need for citizens to actually make an effort and do work in order to have good government. Before he even takes office, Deval Patrick has changed our political landscape for the better by the tone he's set and the way he's conducted himself.

Leadership is more than a checklist of issues. It's also how you use your position to frame issues and conduct debate. It's whether and how you inspire people. I'm proud to have volunteered for Deval Patrick before the primary and again for the general election, and thrilled that Massachusetts voters gave him such a clear mandate. I'm looking forward to Governor Deval Patrick in January!

November 6, 2006

Another Little Slice of Framingham Open Space To Disappear

I saw a "public notice" sign up on a tree this morning on a piece of open land on Elm Street, across the street and a bit north of the Cameron Middle School. It said that a subdivision plan will be before the Planning Board. Another little slice of non-built-up open space seems likely to disappear.

It used to be that there was more sense of place, more history, and more open space in the suburbs west of Boston than in many of the Long Island towns around where I grew up. When I moved here 20+ years ago, every little sliver of land wasn't built out to its maximum zoning-permitted suburban sprawl possibility; but instead, there were still a lot of areas left as they'd been built many years ago, or as open space. Sadly, this seems to be changing in most of the affordable and median-priced-home areas of town.

It's only the wealthier northwest part of Framingham, and nearby high-priced communities, that seem to be preserving open space. It's a pity. You may not be able to draw a one-to-one correlation line between a few more open acres gobbled up by a subdivision and your quality of life. But as this happens more and more, the character of a community subtly changes, offering fewer delightful neighborhood surprises of beauty and peacefulness. Instead, each neighborhood starts looking like every other neighborhood, as indistinguishable in their suburban sprawl as one generic strip mall from another.

November 5, 2006

Study: Appealing Shopping Streetscape More Important Than Traffic, Crime in Whether People Walk

The availability of pleasant, shopping-friendly locales is more likely to influence whether or not people walk regularly than factors such as traffic or crime, a new study finds.

Researchers at the University of Victoria in British Columbia, Canada, analyzed questionnaires filled out by 351 people. They were asked about their attitudes toward walking; how much they walked; whether there were paths, trails, parks or recreational facilities near their homes; and their thoughts about local neighborhoods and walking areas.

The team found that neighborhood aesthetics and the mix of retail stores were more important that local crime levels or traffic in terms of motivating people to walk.

So reports HealthDay News via The study was published in the current issue of the American Journal of Health Promotion.

Thanks to Timothy Lee for the link.

November 3, 2006

Who Let the Fidelity/BofA Building Not Have a Sidewalk?

It was an outrageously planning decision to allow that building, now housing Fidelity and Bank of America, among others, to build on Rte. 30 without requiring a sidewalk. There are offices within walking distance right across the street. Did it not occur to anyone that among hundreds of office workers within less than half a mile of a bank might want to do some banking there? Did the thought not cross anyone's minds that a few people might want to run an errand less than half a mile of their office without having to get into their car? Or that people parked at REI and FedEx/Kinko's next door might actually also want to go to the bank less than 100 feet away without either driving or having to trod across the grass?

November 2, 2006

What a Car-Free City Looks Like: Venice

Is it possible to have a modern First-World city completely free of automobiles? If you've ever been to the beautiful, historic city of Venice, you know it is. Granted, not every city has a network of canals so "taxis" can be boats. But it's still worth looking at what works well in Venice to create such appealing streetscapes. posted some photos of Venice streets -- ones that work well and others that aren't quite as appealing. If you're interested in what makes an attractive walking environment, it's worth taking a look. Relative scale between street and buildings is critical; in fact, many streets that are too wide are less appealing for pedestrians than the narrow walkways filled with residents and tourists. In addition, there are some pictures of street life on a separate page.

October 31, 2006

Halloween Neighborhood Walkability Test

This is one of the best days to easily see whether a neighborhood is walker-friendly.

Can kids easily spend an hour or more walking from home to home, or do parents have to drive them from place to place?

Can they easily cross the streets, or does it feel dangerous?

Does it feel pleasant and safe to be walking around?

Does it feel like there are "windows on the street," with people inside homes well knit into the fabric of the streetscape? Or are kids mostly see blank walls or big garage doors as they walk in the neighborhood?

If you run out of candy while it's still light out, could you send a middle-schooler out on foot to buy some more?

Could kids walk home from school in costume and trick or treat on the way?

If local stores were giving out candy, could kids easily walk from store to store?

October 29, 2006

Major Study Outlines How Toronto Can Be More Pedestrian and Bike Friendly

“Toronto is just starting to exchange its ‘car is king’ model for a more mixed mobility culture that includes pedestrianism,” the University of Toronto's Paul Hess, a geography professor, tells the school's news service. However, “So far, pedestrian issues have been left largely unaddressed by existing planning mechanisms.”

Hess co-authored a recently released study, Toronto Streets Report, investigating why road engineering "has such a powerful effect on how Toronto manages its streets while pedestrianism has so little." The conclusion, which I'm sure applies to many other communities as well:
"Toronto is talking about a new vision for its streets but the tools to achieve it are missing. The new vision wants more people out of their cars, on public transit, on foot and bikes. But almost all the institutional mechanisms for making and changing streets in light of those ideals are geared to an older vision, one primarily oriented toward moving cars, not to the new ones. There is little money to work with so creative solutions are needed."

Among the study's recommendations: The city needs a process to "work on the trade-off problem [between goals of moving as much vehicular traffic as possible and making streets more appealing for walkers, cyclists and public transit users] right away" and investigate how to work toward "equity" in designing and maintaining streets.

The study is worth a browse by any planning official who wants to work toward more bike- and pedestrian-friendly streets Until core design and maintenance processes change and planners take a hard look at competing goals, true pedestrian-appealing streetscapes will remain elusive.

October 25, 2006

Natick Visions of the Future Weekend

This Friday, October 27, 2006, Anthony Flint will speak at the Wilson Middle School in Natick, to kick off Natick's "Visions for the Future Weekend." Mr. Flint is author of "This Land: The Battle over Sprawl and the Future of America." Refreshments begin at 6:30 p.m., and Mr. Flint speaks at 7:30.

Those who live in Natick are invited to sign up for a workshop on Saturday or Sunday to provide their input on the future of Natick. The workshops are part of the process known as "Natick 360," which will develop a Long Range Strategic Plan for the Town of Natick. Get more information at:

October 23, 2006

Building Around a Transit Station: Lesson For Framingham in NorthPoint?

Yesterday's Globe story about the massive NorthPoint development in east Cambridge featured a gorgeous drawing of a new "glass-and-steel NorthPoint at Lechmere Green Line stop, the focal point of a transit-oriented development in East Cambridge." Alas, the drawing isn't posted online along with the story, but it's worth taking a look if you get the paper.

The point here is that developers are shelling out big bucks for "a sleek new $70 million MBTA station on NorthPoint property." The drawing shows an attractive, glass-enclosed station offering a great view while shielding commuters from the elements. From the picture, it certainly appears like a place that you wouldn't mind spending (too much) time in.

Truly successful "transit-oriented development" means more than building apartments or condos within a mile of a grungy train station, with unimproved, pedestrian-hostile streetscapes in between. If you want to attract people to this kind of living, it requires serious investments in an aesthetically pleasing, walker-enticing environment.

Along with new residential and commercial space and a 10-acre park, NorthPoint plans also call for "construction of a street grid for the area ... and a pedestrian-friendly reconfiguring of the adjacent O'Brien Highway," the Globe explains. "The new road network includes an extension of First Street from East Cambridge across O'Brien Highway and north through NorthPoint, passing by the location of the new T station. It will be NorthPoint's Main Street."

Too Busy to Sit Down For Lunch

One of the more depressing "American lifestyle" stories I read this week was the Globe's piece about workers who no longer stop to eat lunch during the day.

"One-third of employees skip lunch weekly, mostly to work, and when we do eat out, it's -- no surprise -- fast food, according to Mintel, a Chicago market research firm," writes Maggie Jackson in yesterday's BostonWorks section. "We also multitask like crazy at lunchtime: 46 percent of workers run errands, 43 percent work, and 47 percent read or watch TV while eating. ...[S]topping and pausing are not part of most people's noontime vocabulary."

Does anyone take things like this into account when we try to measure "standard of living," and talk about quality of life?

A well-prepared, well presented meal eaten with tranquility and full attention is one way to savor a civilized life.

I've become a firm believer that how we eat almost as important as what we eat, in terms of both health and weight control.

October 22, 2006

Rodeo Pedestrian Walkway, Beverly Hills?

A Beverly Hills official wants to consider banning cars from a portion of the famous upscale shopping street Rodeo Drive. "In addition to contemplating a pedestrian-only block, [Vice Mayor Jimmy] Delshad would like to see stylish food and beverage kiosks up and down Rodeo, where people could stop to enjoy cappuccino, gelato or finger sandwiches," the Los Angeles Times reports.

"Hmm, sounds a lot like the Grove, next to the Farmers Market at 3rd Street and Fairfax Avenue," the article continues. "In fact, the Grove, Century City and other high-tone retailing destinations have been siphoning customers from Beverly Hills, city officials have said. Seeking to spiff up their most opulent street, the city and merchants recently invested in a nearly $18-million, two-year makeover that included new and wider sidewalks."

Yes, even in that capital of car-oriented living, southern California, officials are starting to realize that people like pedestrian-appealing streetscapes.

Not surprisingly, not everyone likes the idea of banning vehicles altogether. In fact, some argue that high-priced cars are part of the appeal of the ultra-upscale street. However, even opponents of the pedestrian-only promenade note that without banning vehicles, other improvements to give the street "charm and warmth" would be worthwhile.

"The street has to be more fun to walk," Fred Hayman, who promotes Rodeo Drive, told the Times. "It must be more of a destination."

Framingham Democratic Caucus Endorses Pam Richardson in 6th Middlesex District

This blog normally doesn't cover politics, but because of the great interest in who will represent us after Deborah Blumer's death, I decided to post this here. I attended the caucus as an observer, since I am registered as an independent and not a Democrat, although am a registered voter in the district.

Pam Richardson has won the endorsement of the Framingham Democratic Town Committee's caucus today in the contest to replace Rep. Deborah Blumer in the 6th Middlesex District.

Richardson defeated four other candidates seeking the party's official nod: Audrey Hall, Katie Murphy, Wes Ritchie and Tom Hanson.

"I have a campaign ready to go," she said after winning the nod on the caucus's third ballot. She plans a mailing next Friday, she has fundraisers in the works and newspaper ads ready to go.

The endorsement came after five candidates made their pitch to the 182 registered Democrats who attended the hastily put together Sunday caucus at the Cameron Middle School. The caucus was called after Blumer's unexpected death last week.

Despite the endorsement, only Rep. Blumer's name will appear on the ballot since she had been running unopposed, and Secretary of State William Galvin ruled that there wasn't enough time to print up new ballots. The Democratic Town Committee pledged to back the winner of today's caucus in a write-in effort, including paying for a district-wide mailing. A vote for Rep. Blumer on Nov. 7 will not be counted. (more below the fold...)

Planning for Pedestrian & Auto Co-Existence: The Three-Sided Strip Mall

The landscaping in this particular example could stand much improvement, but I like the basic idea in this Key Food strip mall. Instead of simply having one single strip of stores parallel to - but far back from - the road, the mall has three sides -- sort of like a square cut in half. This offers the convenient in-front-of-store parking lot that many suburban retailers want (although people will in fact drive behind stores to park, as long as the parking lot and walking ambiance from car to store is pleasant). But it also gives a continuous walking environment from the sidewalk to the stores, because when a pedestrian comes to the place where the mall starts, they don't have to cross an acre of parking lot to get to the stores; the sidewalk makes a right-hand turn and continues in front of the first strip of stores that's perpendicular to the road. Maybe the photo below will help show what I'm trying to explain:

October 19, 2006

Mass. Smart Growth Conference Dec. 1 in Worcester

The official conference announcement:

The Commonwealth of Massachusetts and the Massachusetts Chapter of the American Planning Association will co-host the 2006 Massachusetts Smart Growth Conference on December 1st at the DCU Center in Worcester. Directions to DCU Center.

The public is invited to attend this event which is unique because of its size, direct focus on growth and development issues, and appeal to both developers and local officials. The Massachusetts Smart Growth Toolkit was released at last year's conference that attracted 715 people from the private, public, and non-profit sectors. The goal of the conference, presented in partnership with the Urban Land Institute-Boston and MassDevelopment, is to provide those concerned about growth and development with practical information they can utilize to implement smart growth measures in their communities. Land and natural resource protection, housing, energy, transportation, and many other sustainable development issues will be covered in 18 breakout sessions.

This year's conference will feature Ed McMahon as the keynote speaker. Mr. McMahon, a fellow at the Urban Land Institute (a non-profit education and research institute dedicated to providing responsible leadership in land use), is responsible for research and educational efforts related to green and sustainable development practices. He has also been the director of land use programs at the Conservation Fund and was the co-founder and president of Scenic America. There will also be an opening address from Julie Campoli and Alex MacLean, a landscape architect and aerial photographer respectively, whose book Above and Beyond: Visualizing Change in Small Towns and Rural Areas, utilizes aerial pictures to illustrate how growth and development takes place.

The recipients of the 2006 Massachusetts Smart Growth Awards will also be recognized at the Conference. Click here for the 2006 Smart Growth Award application.

October 15, 2006

Union Square, Somerville Makeover Plans

Somerville Mayor Joseph Curtatone "envisions a pedestrian-friendly neighborhood with 12-story condo buildings with city skyline views, boutique hotels, and great cafes and restaurants. And he's got the development community interested," the Boston Globe real estate section writes about the Union Square. The plan "involves allowing much denser development in the square and rerouting traffic."

Redevelopment would include mixed-use residential with ground-floor retail, and rezoning to allow densities "about the same as Harvard Square."

And, the city is mulling "district improvement financing" that would use part of increased tax revenues from higher property values for "maintaining the streetscape in union Square," the Globe reports. Union Square's effort to, as the Globe put it, "break into the big time of hip, urban centers," will require a pedestrian-appealing streetscape, as well as a critical mass of residents and retail without large, uninteresting gaps (such as the strip malls, garages, car lots and sidewalk-fronting parking lots downtown Framingham contends with, making an unenticing walking environment).

October 14, 2006

In Memoriam: Deborah Blumer

Deborah Blumer Physical space, which I write about often here, isn't the only ingredient needed for appealing, livable communities. People matter greatly. Leaders especially matter, not only for the concrete things they can accomplish but for the tone they set for political and civil discourse. That's why the death of state Rep. Debby Blumer is such a great loss for all of us in her Framingham district.

Warm, caring, passionate about progressive ideals and accessible to all, Rep. Blumer was held in high regard - respected for her intelligence and for doing her homework as well as liked for who she was. I remember her from back when she chaired the Framingham Finance Committee. Her well-prepared presentations were immensely useful to those of us serving in Town Meeting at a time of tough fiscal choices. It was her district's good fortune that she went on to represent us on Beacon Hill, and it was always comforting to know that Debby Blumer was working hard for our entire community, not only narrow special interests. At a time of increased bitterness and divisiveness at all levels of politics, Deborah Blumer managed to work for her ideals without being negative and tearing down others.

My deepest condolences to her family and friends at this most difficult time. She will be sorely missed.

October 13, 2006

Belmont’s Planner: The Overemphasis on Parking

From this week's Belmont Citizen-Herald:
Promoting the concept of smart downtown parking, Kent Robertson, professor of Community Development at St. Cloud State University in Minnesota, notes that planners and businesspeople put too much emphasis on parking, by elevating its importance over the functions that actually attract people in the first place. Nobody goes to town centers or squares just because there are ample places to park. They come to work, to shop, to socialize, and to partake of all the other activities that constitute a center. Smart parking complements and reinforces those elements that create a sense of place: compactness, walk-ability, interesting and diverse shops.

So Jay Szklut, planning and economic development manager in Belmont's Office of Community Development, wisely notes. Planning for the automobile instead of the person doesn't do much for a downtown business district.

"Utilizing minimum off-street parking requirements based on suburban parking generation rates reduces commercial density levels, spreads out destination points discouraging walking and, where parking is on-site, discourages sidewalk use, thereby making the area less pedestrian-friendly," he points out.

He concludes by calling for a parking garage as part of the revitalization of Belmont's Cushing Square. I don't know enough about the particular site to comment on that solution one way or the other. But I agree completely that, particularly for a town business district which can't compete with malls for massive amounts of parking but can compete for sense of place, "too much parking in the wrong places discourages people from walking, while adequate parking in a strategic location promotes a pedestrian atmosphere.

"One other smart parking principle is the use of on-street parking. On-street parking provides a buffer between moving traffic and the sidewalk, which makes people feel safer. Safety translates to pedestrian friendliness." So does an aesthetically appealing streetscape - without one, people won't want to walk around no matter what else you do.

October 12, 2006

Missing Neighborhood Groceries

One of the more unfortunate trends of the current retail era is the "big box" "super" grocery store. While I don't have anything against large grocers per se, I don't really need 93 choices of cereal or 89 types of deoderant ... and the overwhelming amount of merchandise, typically combined with bright lights and poor acoustics, can be stress-inducing instead of a relaxing shopping experience. (Which is one reason I believe the mellower Whole Foods chain is doing so well, earning more profits per square foot by far than a typical grocer.)

But what I really miss is our smaller neighborhood grocery stores, most of which have been forced out of business by the larger super stores. Many of them were chain stores, too, but they were integrated into the local neighborhoods: the Purity Supreme I could walk to in Saxonville, the Nobscot Star that was within long-walking distance on a really nice day when I wanted to spend a morning outside but was otherwise within a couple of minutes of easy-in, easy-out driving. Although Super Stop & Shop is much larger and still less than a 10-minute drive away, it doesn't have the feel of belonging to the neighborhood; it has the feel of a regional retail center (which it is, clustered together with Target, BJ's and soon Lowe's). And with the lengthy driveway into the parking lot, it has anything but a "quick in and quick out" feel.
That makes a different shopping experience from walking to the local, smaller grocery store to pick up ingredients for the evening's meal. The healthy "slow foods," fresh-ingredients traditional eating that's becoming trendy again in some circles, is a lot harder to do when you do your food shopping in an airplane-hanger-sized glorified warehouse. A massive superstore doesn't say "stop in each evening and pick out a few freshest, choicest ingredients for tonight's dinner." It says "load up here once a week, including lots of prepared foods."

October 11, 2006

Now That’s a Livable Community

It's just one-third of a square mile, home to maybe ten or twelve thousand people and countless small restaurants, cafes and shops catering to the neighborhood. I'm just back from a three-hour walking tour that just scratched the surface of this small yet appealing community. If you're a long-time resident, chances are you know your shopkeepers and they know you, as well as knowing the people you pass on the street or see in the cafes - the locals, that is, if you can spot them amidst all the tourists.

I'm talking about Boston's North End, after having enjoyed the fun and informative, although somewhat pricey ($48), North End Market Tour. Even though I've been to the North End dozens of times, wandered into a number of the shops and eaten at many restaurants, I still learned things about this most European of neighborhoods. I've shopped at Salumeria Italiana numerous times before, but Polcari's Coffee was a find (lots of herbs and spices, reasonably priced), as was Maria's Pastry Shop a bit off the beaten Hanover Street tourist track. The tour included a fair amount of samples, from high-quality balsamico to the All Souls' Day ossi dei morti seasonal specialty.

Our guide clearly knew not only all the shopkeepers, which you'd expect, but lots of locals we passed in the street as well. The streetscape was charming enough to be worth a schlepp in by public transit, but not so yuppified/tourist-afied to have become a Disneyland caricature of itself (as so many hot urban neighborhoods end up). If you want to know what "sense of place" is all about, there are few communities that offer a better example.

Learning the "secrets" of local food stores and special products made me think how great it would be if someone put together a similar market, grocer and restaurant walking tour of ethnic downtown Framingham. It's not quite as charming, it might not last 3 hours and certainly it wouldn't attract enough people to run six times/week, but an occasional tour in conjunction with other activities could do wonders in revealing the "mysteries" of ethnic stores for the rest of us. Patriots Day weekend, anyone?

October 9, 2006

Some Favorite Local Walks

When the sky is a brilliant blue, the air is crystal clear and the foliage is starting to turn, there are, happily, many great local places to enjoy autumn in New England (even if we have few suburban choices for great streetscapes in the built environment).

Some of my favorite places to enjoy the season outdoors:

Garden in the Woods, Framingham - although best known for the botanical garden, the Garden site also has acres of natural forest and well-marked trails through them.

Broadmoor Wildlife Sanctuary, Natick - nice grounds and lots of trails. Although right on Route 16, it doesn't take much walking before you lose the sound of passing traffic.

Old North Bridge, Concord - not a ton of walking trails, but an absolutely lovely spot by the Concord River to enjoy nature and contemplate history.

Heard Pond, Pelham Island Road, Sudbury/Wayland - not exactly a nature walk, since lots of cars are driving by, but it's still a pleasant stroll or bicycle ride by the pond. The trail at this entrance to the Great Meadows National Wildlife Refuge is pretty short and unremarkable, but it can add a few minutes and some relaxation to your walk away from vehicular traffic.

Wayside Inn, Sudbury and the nearby grist mill - not exactly for hiking, but a lovely regional seasonal setting and great spot for taking photos.

And, of course, what New England autumn would be complete without an afternoon of apple picking. Two of my favorite spots: Bolton Spring Farm in Bolton and Tougas Farm in Northborough (the latter good if you've got kids, although it is kind of annoying they limit the number of people allowed on the grounds per bag of apples to be picked).

Spots like these definitely enhance local quality of life!

Lowe’s Framingham - First Impressions

I'm going to go back soon to take a more in-depth look at the new Lowe's on Rte. 30 in Framingham. But after a quick glance from nearby Target, it looks a bit better from a pedestrian standpoint than I'd feared although not as good as I'd hoped.

Pluses: There appears to be an actual pedestrian walkway from the Rte. 30 sidewalk to the store - making it the only one of the four major retailers clustered there (Target, Stop & Shop and BJ's being the others) that bothered to design a way for walkers to get to the building. It also looks like there's  a landscaped, albeit narrow, walking path from Lowe's to Stop & Shop behind it. I haven't tried walking the sidewalk in front of the building yet to see whether the landscaping makes an effective screen for walkers or if it looks like all the other pedestrian-offputing big box stores in the area. Disclaimer: I'm still not exactly sure where all the parking is.

Minuses: There seems to be no way to walk to Lowe's from the Target right next door without feeling frightened at the rivers of traffic you'd need to dash across. I also see no improvement in the Rte. 30 sidewalk where it crosses the wide intersection that dumps traffic out of the Target/BJ's/Stop & Shop parking lots and cut-through. Something should have been designed there to allow the sidewalk to function without the extreme discomfort walkers have there now just continuing down the street, even if they're not trying to cross Rte. 30 (a truly alarming prospect with the current design). I'm also not convinced that there's enough parking for the store. It would have made much more sense if planners had thought ahead to have all the buildings there sited close to the street with well -landscaped and -protected walkways between them, and clustered parking that would have made it easier and more logical for someone to park in one spot and patronize all the other stores easily on foot.

October 7, 2006

Streetscape Report: Downtown D.C.

I'm just finishing up a few days in our nation's capital at a conference, and managed to sneak a couple of hours to walk around and check out the streetscape.

The silver lining in our new post-9/11 environment -- some of the street closings near the White House indeed made for a safer environment ... for those of us crossing on foot without worrying about speeding vehicles. If the wide stretch of Pennsylvania Avenue is going to remain vehicle free, though, I wish it would be designed as a pedestrian plaza, instead of remaining a wide expanse of blacktop that's obviously meant for multiple vehicles and now just serves to remind us that the designed use is no more.

I didn't get to Georgetown this visit, which I recall fondly as a walker-enticing neighborhood. Alas, downtown Washington, D.C. on an autumn Saturday is quite a bit less so. Besides hotels and bus tours, there seemed to be little residential street life. Stores were mostly closed; streets felt cavernous and mostly empty just a block or two away from the main tourist sites.

It's clear this is an area designed for the business workday, and there was little evidence of local residents. This didn't look like a mixed-use district, and could ha ve used some off-hours life.

Buildings like the White House, Treasury, Patent Office and numerous other grand structures were built to impress and not engage. The message here is to show the majesty of the republic, which is rarely compatible with a warm, human-scale neighborhood (although sections of Rome manage to pull that off, mostly with stunningly designed piazzas). Filled with people on a beautiful sunny day,  downtown D.C. works as an impressive environment to take in. Relatively empty on a cloudy, cool weekend afternoon, it's somewhat forbidding and a tad depressing.

A park near our hotel was overrun with men clearly down on their luck. Many before me have commented on the sad irony of this wealthy nation's capital being home to so much poverty; but I have to add that one of the saddest sights I saw today was a beggar within feet of a stretch limo that seemed as long as half a football field.

Street theater in the immediate vicinity of the White House was fairly entertaining, including not only the expected assortment of political protesters, but dozens of red-clad runners -- including many men sporting red dresses or skirts -- in what appeared to be some sort of run for charity. There's something to be said for this superpower capital  as political theater, no matter how forbiddingly near-empty the nearby avenues. 

October 3, 2006

Details Matter: Lessons from Paris

If you've ever been to Paris, you know what a magical place it can be -- especially at night. And that's no accident.

"Nighttime Paris operates on different levels. There is a constant interplay between the permanence and grandeur of monumental Paris and the serendipity and surprise of intimate Paris," writes Elaine Sciolino in a New York Times travel essay.  "The real secret to Paris’s beauty at night can be described in one word: light.

"In some cities, lampposts are designed to light only the sidewalks and streets, so that surrounding buildings recede into darkness. In much of Paris, however, streetlights are attached to the sides of buildings, highlighting the curves and angles of the structures themselves. "

None of this happens by itself. It doesn't happen by starting off with the assumption that public space should be created on the cheap. And it doesn't happen by thinking of aesthetics as a we-can't-afford-it frill.

Lighting the monuments, churches, bridges and public buildings of Paris is not left to chance. The project to adorn the Eiffel Tower with 20,000 flashing lights (they dazzle for 10 minutes every hour on the hour until after 1 a.m.) cost $5 million and involved 40 mountaineers, architects and engineers who had to endure high winds, raging storms, pigeons and bats.

An entire lighting division in City Hall is responsible for choosing the design, style, color, intensity and timing of the lighting for nearly 300 structures.

"Wasted" money? If you asked most Parisians, I believe they'd answer non. Considering the quality of life it offers residents as well as the appeal to tourists worldwide, it looks to be money well spent.

October 1, 2006

California Bay Area Streetscape Grants

A San Francisco area commission recently gave out $17 million to regional communities "to promote streetscapes that are more amenable to getting around on foot, bicycle and transit," the San Mateo County Times reports.

"The Transportation for Livable Communities program seeks to help communities make bus stops more pleasant places to wait at, to ease access for bicycles and encourage 'smart growth' principles of clustering housing with convenient transit access."

Worthy goals indeed, although I'd add creating pleasant and appealing streetscapes for pedestrians.

A spokesman for the Metropolitan Transportation Commission said it received $113 million in requests for the available $17 million. "We get enormous amounts of demand for this," Randy Rentschler told the Times.

New blog functionality here: Rating Comments

I'm trying out a WordPress add-on that allows users to rate other people's comments. I'm not sure if I'll keep it, I'll see how it goes. If you're interested in trying it, just click on anyone's comment and you should see a +/- option at the bottom. Hit plus to recommend the comment and minus if you don't like it. The votes are tallied per comment.

A civil society, our uncivil discourse and the appeal of Deval Patrick: Why Words Matter

Many other things besides our physical environment affect "livable communities." And while I rarely venture into (non-planning-related) politics here, it's time to take a stand on ... rhetoric.

Yup, words.

Sure, they can't break your bones like those childhood sticks 'n stones. But the constant name-calling, mud-slinging partisan politics that have sadly come to define the current era harms our society.

It's hard to come to a workable consensus on an issue when you've got one side pouring through any and all statements by the other to portray them as weak, ineffectual and "flip-flopping." Once such Karl Rovian attacks began working, we no longer had two political parties trying to implement their vision of improving society. Instead, we've got too many politicians competing how to best boil down the most complex issues to six-word sound bites and tear down opponents with invective that would make Mean Girls proud.


And I'm not alone.

For all the "pundits" and "analysts" out there who can't figure out why Deval Patrick is polling so well, despite supposed unpopular stands on "important issues," here's a clue: Voters like what he's saying and how he says it. They like how he carries himself. He comes across as caring and principled -- courageous enough to say what he thinks while flexible enough to believe that it's worth listening to others because he might learn something. He appears to understand the difference between being true to your core values and being so stubborn that you'd never change your mind despite mounting evidence that you were wrong; and between listening to others to try to learn something, and changing your tune whichever way the latest polls blow.

People like that.

Deval Patrick speaks to many when he talks about people wanting to change the cynicism of the era, and yearning to "check back in" and work toward hope - and a better future - for all. Add to that a resume that combines a rags-to-riches personal story with solid experience in the public, private and non-profit sectors, and it's no wonder he appears to be appealing to a majority of voters (at least according to the latest polls) despite endless harping on what opponents hope are "hot-button issues."

You know what? I'm mature enough to understand that I might not agree with my candidate on every issue. I don't agree with ANY candidate on every issue. And Deval Patrick is right when he talks about the importance of the governor's office being more than just arriving with a laundry list of issues, but also the power of the "bully pulpit." A lot of people appear to like the idea of him holding it.

I'm well aware that politics is a contact sport. But there's a wide spectrum of possibilities between everyone holding hands singing "kumbaya" and the kind of non-stop vitriol we hear coming out of Washington, Beacon Hill and even our so-called respectable media these days. It's not just cable TV talking heads, radio shock jocks and tabloid desperate-to-grab-attention-by-saying-the-most-outrageous-things-they-can-dream-up columnists. Even the Boston Globe has succumbed.

September 30, 2006

Doing some blog tweaking this weekend

I'm fiddling around with "themes" to update the look of this blog - it's been pretty much the same for 2.5 years now - and also with some plug-ins that might add functionality. Thanks for your patience this weekend if the site suddenly starts looking very different as you're browsing, or temporarily slows down.

If you notice something wrong here, please let me know.

September 28, 2006

Rutgers Design Competition Stresses Pedestrian Appeal, Community Integration

"Rutgers University on Tuesday unveiled five architectural concepts to remake the heart of its flagship campus on College Avenue in New Brunswick," the Record reports

"In inaugurating the design competition, the university said it was looking for ways to make the College Avenue campus more pedestrian friendly and to better connect it with the Raritan River. The campus is cut off from the river by Route 18."

These days, a pedestrian-friendly streetscape and town/gown integration are considered increasingly important in attracting students to college campuses, as I posted last month. And such integration pays dividends to the host community as well -- something that Framingham is sadly lacking despite the presence of a state college.

"Wellesley is [a] beautiful example where the college presence vitalizes downtown," reader Martin commented on this site. "Framingham State, on the other hand, is virtually invisible from the neighboring commercial area along route 9." His entire comment is worth reading (at the bottom of the post).

The entries in Rutgers design compeition, "created by five renowned architectural teams from around the globe, are, at this point, meant to spur discussion, not construction at the cash-strapped university," the article notes.

"Budgetary constraints or not, this university is not going to stop dreaming," President Richard McCormick told the Record.

You can see the concepts online here.

September 27, 2006

‘Boston’s love/hate for cars?’ Oh, please

Incredibly, author David Kruh compares the soul-less concrete wasteland of City Hall Plaza with the North End's pedestrian-packed Hanover Street. In today's Boston Globe, he writes: "As we look around the city at our experiments with auto-less streets (not just City Hall Plaza, but the mess that is Downtown Crossing) even the most anticar, pro-pedestrian advocate has to wonder if we are, once again, reacting with our gut instead of accepting how Boston actually lives, works, and plays."

Um, no.

Every streetscape,  as well as street, has its own characteristics that make it succeed or fail as a traffic route and pedestrian draw. Comparing poorly designed City Hall Plaza (where an existing neighborhood was razed and hideous "modern" architecture deposited where it didn't belong) with Hanover Street is like comparing Route 9 with Newbury Street and expecting the exact same outcome if cars were banned.

I doubt you could draw many pedestrians to the Golden Triangle even if cars were banned, unless building siting, architectures and facades were substantially changed. On Newbury Street, though, pedestrians would naturally fill in the added space. That's because Newbury Street is already a great walking environment.

Kruh, who has written two books about Scollay Square, is certainly correct that City Hall Plaza was an experiment gone awry. But that's not because it's a chunk of space where cars don't go; it's because of a terrible design. Nearby Boston Commons and the Public Garden work very well as spaces where cars can't drive through.

In fact, Hanover Street is already a major pedestrian draw. I doubt banning cars will make it less so; instead, it would give pedestrians more space to walk and sit outdoors. The idea here isn't to create another City Hall Plaza by wrecking the existing neighborhood!

Given the local climate, walkers probably don't need the extra space from, say, November through February or March, and it's certainly realistic to argue that during the worst New England weather, it might be more beneficial for suburbanites to be able to drive close to their destinations than it would be to keep the street empty for people who won't want to linger outdoors on foot. But once the weather gets nice, a pedestrian plaza on Hanover Street will improve an already great streetscape that's a proven pedestrian magnet.

Lost Opportunity

How can it be that a house once owned by refugees from the Salem Witch trials - people who helped found the town of Framingham - can appear as one of the state's "10 Most Endangered Historic Resources?" How was it allowed to fall into such disrepair that, as the MetroWest Daily News reports, the roof is about to cave in at places and "there are areas of the house where you don't want to walk?"

As Halloween approaches, Salem cheefully exploits its grizzly past of the witch trials. Yet relatively few people know that Framingham became a refuge for innocent people falsely accused of witchcraft - a small positive in an otherwise dark chapter of American history.

The Peter and Sarah Clayes House at 657 Salem End Road could be turned into a museum, and serve as a local place to educate visitors about that part of Massachusetts history. There could be some great events there around Halloween.

Some area residents want to help save the house, and have hired an attorney to help track down ownership of the currently abandoned property, the News notes. They deserve wider community support.

September 22, 2006

Arcade, cont.

The fate of the Arcade downtown revitalization project "will become a lot clearer in the next six months, or maybe even sooner," according to the MetroWest Daily News, following an extension of its special permit by the Framingham Planning Board until March 2007.

The board first approved the plan in spring 2004, but a variety of delays, including waiting for MassHousing to make a financing decision, have kept the proposal on the drawing board.

"Developers hope to be back before the Planning Board before the end of the year, asking for a demolition permit of 80 Kendall St., which would serve as the staging area for the $56-million building and renovation project," the News notes. "In the meantime, Arcade developers expect to soon ink a deal that will double the space occupied by CVS Pharmacy. That move will be made regardless of the progress on the mixed-use development that will include 290 apartments."

I'm sure many people will be happy at the news that CVS is not only staying in downtown Framingham, but expanding. It's a good sign of the company's faith in downtown revitalization plans. And, having ground-floor retail to serve the local community in the business district's prime commercial center is certainly a good thing - lots better than vacant storefronts or non-retail uses. However, I'm still wondering if the Arcade developers or town officials have a broader vision of what they want downtown Framingham to become and plan to work to make it happen, as opposed to being grateful for anyone who signs a lease.

A large chain drugstore is a useful neighborhood business, but NOT an anchor store for a regional business center. Local residents, commuters and workers will shop there, but it's not a draw that will bring people in from outside the immediate neighborhood (although once people are there, they'd certainly stop in). If people hope to turn downtown into a regional destination with appeal beyond the immediate precincts, there needs to be a lot more thought given to creating an attractive mix of retailers with an appealing sense of place -- one that more than makes up for the fact that a downtown can rarely compete with a strip mall for drive-up convenience. Because strip malls can rarely compete with downtowns for overall experience and ambiance, especially when there are unique local-owned stores and attractive pedestrian streetscapes.

More Local Outdoor Seating: Wellesley

I was pleasantly surprised to see the nationally known Blue Ginger restaurant in Wellesley now offering outdoor seating. That's another way to add life to a streetscape -- not to mention allow people to enjoy the beautiful late summer/early autumn weather.

Last Sunday in Provincetown, the last-weekend-of-summer weather was absolutely perfect, and we were able to enjoy breakfast, lunch and dinner al fresco at our inn (breakfast) and various local restaurants. Outdoor tables were packed, no doubt adding to the revenues of local businesses as well as to tourist appeal. It's such a shame to have to go indoors on a gorgeous day, instead of being able to enjoy a drink or a meal outside.

September 21, 2006

Provincetown: Sense of Place

Sorry for the lack of posts over the past couple of weeks! It's been an especially busy time. ... except for a long weekend down on the Cape, which was a delightfully restful time ... and where I noticed that downtown Provincetown was filled with pedestrians despite extremely narrow sidewalks, sometimes no sidewalks at all; and it was bustling even though it was one of the most difficult environments for driving you can find. Why is that?

One thing for sure is a special sense of place. Say what you will about P-town, it's definitely a different environment that a cookie-cutter suburban mall! Seriously, the stores are mostly locally owned, and they're interesting. I wandered into a number of galleries, but even the tacky T-shirt stores seemed to have character. And the few chain stores sprinkled in weren't so overwhelming that you felt like you could be Anywhere, USA.

Stores - and farther down Commercial Street, inns and homes - right up to the sidewalk create a feeling of safety for walkers, when you've got loads of windows nearby, what planners call "eyes on the street." It is instinctively comfortable when you feel that there's a neighborhood of people in their homes and shops who can be looking out -- much more so than when you're walking by a parking lot, a driveway, a big garage door or a blank wall.

The overall narrowness of the street creates the feeling of an "outdoor room," another thing pedestrians instinctively crave. While I would have preferred the sidewalks to be a tad wider in spots - in many areas it was tough walking even two abreast - in fact those narrow walkways and roads, creating very slow-moving one-way traffic generated a lot of foot traffic. Driving through the narrow streets and trying to find parking became less appealing than the interesting walks back and forth. While people sadly often drive from, say, Target to BJs only a quarter-mile apart, because the walking environment is so unappealing, I regularly walked the 25 minutes each way from the inn I stayed at to the business district while we were in Provincetown.

September 11, 2006

When Zoning Inhibits Walkability

A small but determined group of developers, planners and civic leaders has struggled for 12 years to create a unique urban environment in Midtown," according to the Houston Chronicle.

"Much of what they are trying to achieve — a walkable neighborhood with a vibrant street scene — is forbidden by city development rules still focused on the automobile. "

"Unfortunately," developer Ed Wulfe, chairman of the Main Street Coalition, told the Chronicle, "the Houston way is slow and painful."

Is Massachusetts any different? How hard is it to get appropriate zoning for a suburban business district to allow mixed use and buildings at the sidewalk? How likely is it that pedestrian needs for screening between sidewalk and traffic ever get consideration, or do planners think solely about the widest streets possible? Does anyone think about how to make appealing as well as safe crosswalks so someone wants to walk from one side of the street to the other, or are communities thinking solely about creating the best traffic sewers possible, that can carry maximum amount of cars as quickly as possible? Do local towns think about walker appeal, or just maximizing parking? 

September 10, 2006

Bicycle lockers coming to Framingham train station; bike-friendly LIFT buses on the way, too

New LIFT buses will be equipped with bicycle racks, so people who don't live near a bus stop could cycle to a stop, according to an article in today's MetroWest Daily News. Town planner Bryan Taberner also said that 10 bike lockers will be installed near the comuter rail station, which would allow people to cycle to the station.

Admittedly, there are many more automobile drivers than cyclists in the area; and tihs won't have an immediate impact on traffic woes. But factoring in bicyclists is smart planning, especially in a town where many areas are not quite densely populated enough to support truly convenient local mass transit, but are reasonably close to such areas.  We've got to start somewhere!

Aside: I'd still like to see express bus service to downtown Boston from the Logan Express or mall areas - ideally on a similar schedule to the airport bus, but any service would be better than nothing. The train simply isn't useful for most people off rush hour. And by the time some of us on the north side of town have driven downtown, we could be halfway to a T stop in Newton where there's MUCH more frequent service. 

September 4, 2006

Are There Lessons in Allston for Downtown Framingham?

A woman I work with recently moved from the Allston section of Boston to downtown Framingham. Cutting her commute wasn't the only reason; she thinks what happened in the student/immigrant neighborhood of Allston - turning into a desirable mixture of ecclectic retail & housing, could happen in Framingham as well, although she expects it might take a decade, and isn't put off by that at all. Ah, to have patience....

I happened to be in Allston today, and looked carefully at what they've got now, with an eye toward what lessons there might be for Framingham's downtown revitalization efforts.

Allston has very large student and immigrant populations. The ethnic restaurants and other businesses are all over the global map - Korean, Colombian, Middle Eastern, Vietnamese, Brazilian and lots more. Framingham doesn't have nearly the student population that Allston does, but if downtown Framingham had the same sort of appealing streetscape for the 18 to 30 crowd as Allston had, you'd get more Framingham State students down there. And with the proper vision, incentives, planning and investment, Framingham's key downtown streets could attract an ethnic mix like Allston's (or Waltham's) that attracts and encourages foot traffic.

Allston Village has matching grants for businesses that want to do facade/sign, lighting and awning improvements. Remembering what the area looked like a few decades ago when my husband was a student living in Brighton, I'd say there's been a decided improvement in aesthetics - while not going overboard on gentrification. You wouldn't mistake Allston for Brookline, but downtown Framingham could do a lot worse.

One thing I noticed: Allston doesn't have a ton of non-walk-in businesses in the midst of the key retail district on Harvard Avenue around Commonwealth Avenue. There aren't many ground-floor offices, for example -- there's a critical mass of consumer-oriented storefronts, so there are businesses to continually engage a casual shoppers' interest while walking.

This is important. You don't want endless amounts of insurance offices, medical offices, mortgage brokers and other such businesses on your prime retail street; it makes for a less compelling experience. Framingham really needs to think about a small stretch of key business district zoning that would encourage an uninterrupted stretch of restaurants and shops that entice someone to stroll around, not simply run an errand an dleave.

Downtown Framingham doesn't have the public transit that Allston does, but the two areas do share some serious traffic problems. Allston is fortunate that its train tracks are depressed and don't cross the main roads; but trying to drive down Harvard Avenue during business hours is, um, chancey. It wasn't bad today, except for the usual slow traffic, multiple lights, tons of pedestrians crossing in front of cars against the light and occasional double parked trucks on the narrow road. But I've been there during rush hour, and the delays, backups and traffic tie-ups would feel familiar to anyone driving through downtown Framingham. But that doesn't seem to have killed off Allston's business district, in part because a lot of people seem to be living, working and/or walking around anyway.

As you drive toward the end of Harvard Avenue and make a right onto Cambridge Street, heading toward the Mass Pike entrance, Allston's pedestrian activity comes to an abrupt halt. The streetscape changes, including a business with parking in front, instead of at the street, as well as sidewalks with no landscaping, no buffer between sidewalk and street. Once you get to the stark chain-link fences looking out at an overpass over train tracks, it's not a shock that lots of people don't feel like walking around there anymore.