April 14, 2006

Where in the ‘Built Environment’ Can You Go to Enjoy a Nice Day Outside?

I don't mean finding a park or a trail to go hiking, cycling or running. My question is: As the weather (finally) gets nice out, where can you go to enjoy it by strolling around and/or sitting outdoors in a manmade environment? That question goes to the heart of whether a streetscape is truly pedestrian-appealing.

In Boston, Back Bay is an outstanding option -- extremely attractive streetscapes, sidewalks and buildings designed for maximum appeal when on foot, and plenty of outdoor cafes where you can stop and spend some time outside eating, drinking and people-watching. Parts of the waterfront near the North End are also nice for outdoor strolling amidst the buildings, with lots of benches where people actually do want to stop and sit.

Quincy Market is another place thronging with people when the weather gets nice, as is Harvard Square in Cambridge.

In MetroWest, though, options are somewhat limited for spending an afternoon outdoors in a manmade environment. Concord center is a top choice, with a truly appealing streetscape, and outdoor dining at the Concord Inn in nice weather. But even some of the other nice, revitalized downtowns aren't designed for enjoying a beautiful spring afternoon walking around, if you include "some sort of attractive place where you'd truly want to stop, sit and enjoy a nice day" as part of the equation.

That's a key issue I hope Framingham officials consider when someday there's serious work to revitalize downtown. Simply sticking more residences and stores down there won't itself create that kind of magnet environment to draw people. You need great storefront design, thoughtful placement of stop-in-the-nice-weather destinations, infills of businesses that were built far back from the sidewalk (few things kill your streetscape as effectively as too many parking lots fronting the sidewalk), landscaping between sidewalk and traffic, and so on. You also want your storefronts and sidewalks designed to encourage outdoor seating in nice weather, a great way to bring life to your streetscape.

In yesterday's Globe Calendar, there was a review of an outdoor cafe in Belmont: "Syrian-born Vivian Abkarian has had a hair salon in Belmont’s Cushing Square for almost seven years. Her Salon de Paris took up too much real estate, she decided one day, so she divided the place in half. One part still houses her salon, and the other has become Cafe D’Or, or 'golden cafe,' " the review starts off.

"Abkarian gave the place a French name because she pictured people eating at sidewalk tables in mild weather the way Parisians do at their neighborhood cafes. Since the cafe opened, she says, 'when I see people sitting outside on a sunny day, I feel like I’m sitting in Europe.' " We shouldn't have to cross the Atlantic in order to experience the joys of sitting at an outdoor cafe on a nice spring day.


  1. I dunno, I always kind of liked walking around downtown Natick and Maynard. And nothing beats getting a sub and just sitting by the South Natick dam (OK, that one's a stretch; not all that much to see once you've walked by the library).

  2. Downtown Natick's nice for a short walk around, but to spend a whole afternoon? I guess I'm not that enamored with sitting at the dam :)

  3. I've been wondering this for a while about my own city. I am in Florida, my city has little air pollution, theres a general concensus that we are a "green" county, but yet while working in the downtown I have no place to go and sit if I were to bring my own lunch. Not unless I want to drive somewhere. Thats not completely true- there are 2 places I can walk to, but neither really meet my criteria of a safe haven from the office. One is the downtown plaza. The daytime home to the homeless population (and right next to the downtown bus terminal- where the buses sit and disrupt the quietness with thier deisel engines). The other is a shaded quiet park where the homeless drug users and prostitutes spend thier time. Yes, the police know about it and they prefer to leave them there so they know where they are at. Its right across the street from the homeless shelter and next to a historically poor community. So, instead of cleaning up the park for local workers to use it as a refuge from the office, its been handed over to people with criminal behavior. The poor community next to it does not want development around them for fear of thier property values to go up. Yes, you read that right- up. They are so poor that they know they cannot afford to move, so they will not be selling thier homes and therefore do not want thier property value to go up because all it means to them is higher taxes. Its often hard to grasp this, but unfortunately many towns are faced with this and local officials are afraid to be the ones to make the change. They are what we call NIMTOO's- Not In My Term Of Office.

  4. Elizabeth SappenfieldApril 19, 2006 at 9:12 AM

    I've always thought that Wellesley Center had nice window shopping for strolling and browsing and some nice green spots with benches. And of course there is always the pond at Wellesley College if you want to picnic and lie in the sun.

  5. Sometimes we have to wonder what went wrong in downtown Natick and Framingham, while something else went right in downtown Wellesley. Can we attribute all of what is nice about Wellesley to the College? And all of what went wrong in Framingham and Natick to Shoppers World? I don't think so. Much of how the look of the towns is a result of greed (those with money aren't as desperate to get more) and the differences between people of wealth and class in the one town, and people who don't have the same in the other two. In Wellesley, in the fifties and sixties, the residents loved their downtowns (both Center and Hills) and maintained their sense of class, while in Natick and Framingham, they became enamoured of the bright shiny lights of Route 9, aka the "Golden Mile" as the Framingham News used to brag. It's such a shame.