January 10, 2006

The Critical Importance of Street Life

I've just finished reading a couple of interesting articles from the New York Times real estate section. And while they seem to be about widely different things - one, Goodbye Suburbs, about urban dwellers who moved out to raise families but realized they needed to return to Manhattan or Brooklyn; and another on efforts to revitalize Hartford - a common theme emerged: the critical role street life plays in community life.

Now, I'll admit that for those who like more isolated exurban living - McMansions on an acre+ of land, on quiet streets where the only way to get anywhere besides other houses is to climb into your SUV - street life doesn't matter. And that's fine; people like different things.

But if you want to make more compact neighborhoods attractive to people who DON'T long for 2-acre zoning and 3,000-square-foot homes, the vibrancy of life on neighborhood streets is critical.

"It's definitely someone's dream; it's just not our dream," photographer Andrew McCaul said of the $580,000 suburban home he and his wife lived in for a year before returning to the city.

"It's not as easy as being in Brooklyn where you just start talking at the playground and there's always someone to talk to," added his wife, Sarma Ozols. In widely spaced suburbs, it's simply harder to run into people.

Newlywed Sara Mendelsohn, who lived briefly in a Long Island suburb, told the Times: "When we come home and walk from the train to our apartment, there's no one on the street between 7 and 10 p.m. It's just that feeling of being alone. You walk the dog and there's no one there."

Likewise, hearty urban pioneers are coming to still-troubled Hartford because of the possibility of walking to the theater and museums.

Hartford Mayor Eddie Perez told the Times that one goal of a redevelopment project is removing a skywalk that linked downtown buildings. "All that did was turn this into a 9-to-5 office park," he said. "Yes, we saw job growth, but at the other end we sacrificed street life, and we're paying for it in a sense."

This is critically important for town planners to think about if they ever hope to revitalize downtown Framingham. As long as downtown keeps its more compact zoning, the type of newcomers such a district attracts is people who are willing and often eager to swap lots of private space (not to mention quiet) for a bustling, thriving public space out their door.

Keep an unappealing pedestrian environment with nowhere to walk to, and you end up with the worst of all worlds.

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