July 28, 2006

Hingham Selectmen Seek More Pedestrian-Friendly Roadways

Making Hingham more walker-friendly is the second-highest goal of the year for the town's Board of Selectmen, the Hingham Journal reports. "This effort will include more planning for sidewalk repair and replacement," the paper says. "In addition, the Selectmen will review whether pedestrian crossing areas can be made safer in areas around town."

Officials realized that it wasn't enough to worry solely about road construction and vehicle traffic, and in fact the pressing needs of walkers also must be addressed. How refreshing!
Only a town energy policy ranked higher as an objective for the coming year. Other issues on the list included increasing business outreach and developing a harbor plan.

July 27, 2006

Gorbachev: Focus on ordinary residents in urban planning

Speaking to the Earth Dialogues forum in Brisbane, Australia, former Russian leader Mikhail Gorbachev and other delegates said that local leaders "should put ordinary residents at the centre of urban design and planning, and make cities more pedestrian-friendly," according to a report from News Ltd. online.

Gorbachev currently chairs Green Cross International, an environmental policy group.

Sadly, focusing on making a pleasant environment for average citizens on foot is a revolutionary concept in too many communities these days. But one only has to look at where it's been done successfully - Newbury Street in Boston, for example - to see that it can be economically successful as well as aesthetically pleasing.

July 26, 2006

North End Residents Battle Gentrification

"A wave of condo conversions is wiping out the North End’s mom-and-pop cafes and homey convenience stores, sparking a revolt in the tightly knit neighborhood," the Boston Herald reports. "Dozens of North End residents and activists packed a City Hall hearing yesterday to blast a proposal by a local developer to turn what had been the home of Prince Pantry into luxury condos.

"Faced with a small army of angry residents, the developer withdrew plans to convert the Prince Street building, though the one-time grocery store appears gone for good. A vote by the city’s Zoning Board of Appeal left open the door for another condo proposal."

It's a tough dilemma for a neighborhood that's becoming even more economically attractive to redevelopment now that the elevated highway between it and downtown has been torn down. "At stake, say North End residents, is a way of life," the Herald notes. "With corner groceries and shops all within walking distance, longtime neighborhood residents haven’t needed a car to get around."

The North End's great, unique streetscape is one of the chief attractions that lures tourists (and suburbanites like me) to the area to dine and stroll. But for residents, the ability to walk to locally owned stores offers a viscerally appealing sense of place amidst an increasingly chain-stored, strip-malled America.

"It's a way of life that does not require inserting a key into a car to get a quart of milk," resident Tommye Mayer told the Herald.

Economics may make a high-end condo development more appealing than a small grocery store in the short term, but the city will lose something very special (not to mention lots of tourist dollars) if it allows the North End's special ambiance to morph into just another neighborhood of condo-dwellers.

July 22, 2006

Wanted: Not Just Any Business

In Framingham, there's been a lot of concern about properties coming off the tax rolls. Beside the often-acrimonious debate over social services (and how much is too much), is worry any time a building, land or use changes over from tax-paying to tax-exempt. But I've heard much less discussion about the type of businesses the town wants to attract in various business districts -- and I don't just mean characteristics like respectable, not too noisy and not too much traffic.

The NY Times reported recently that Morristown, N.J. is starting to worry about all the bank branches cropping up in its downtown center. "What's wrong with banks?" you ask.

If you want a thriving downtown with lots of foot traffic through the evening, you can't have a lot of things like ground-floor banks or insurance companies on key shopping streets, because they close early. If you're building mixed-use in a commercial center, you need the mixture to include enough activity to encourage residents to come out both day and night, as well as an appealing streetscape. Walk through Boston's Downtown Crossing sometime after 8 pm, even in summer, and you'll see what I mean. What's a bustling retail center by day becomes a ghost town by night -- not the pleasant quiet of a tranquil residential street like Back Bay's Commonwealth Avenue, but the creepy silence of being surrounded by empty, dark buildings.

"It's a relatively new issue, but we think that as demand for retail space in downtown areas increases, it will become an increasingly important topic, especially in areas where there is a limited amount of on-street retail space," David M. Feehan, president of the International Downtown Association,told the Times.

Locally, I hope we're not so eager to bring new investment downtown that nobody's paying attention to retail and commercial mix.

July 18, 2006

D.C. Police Nail Drivers Who Don’t Stop For Pedestrians

Washington, D.C. police were recently pulling over and ticketing drivers who didn't stop for pedestrians in crosswalks -- those pedestrians being undercover police officers, the Washington Post reports. Good for them! As a pedestrian in the Boston area, I frequently see cars whiz by as I'm already in a clearly marked crosswalk, and it's dangerous.

No, I don't want to hear the old, "with all the serious crime in D.C., don't the police have anything better to do?" Pedestrian deaths accounted for 43% of all traffic fatalities in Washington this year, the paper notes. There isn't anything better to be doing than trying to save people's lives.

July 15, 2006

Oregon town’s downtown ’serves people, not cars’

"The thousands who stream into [Sherwoood, Ore.] this weekend for the annual Robin Hood Festival, billed as a 'Renaissance faire,' will be entering a downtown undergoing another kind of revival. A $6.5 million streetscape project, paid for with urban renewal money, is remaking Old Town into an example of what's commonly referred to as 'new urbanism.' The twist is that what's labeled new is actually a reflection of an earlier time, when city development was done to accommodate people, not cars," according to the Oregonian.

Along with new lights, traffic barriers, benches and bike racks, the article says, several downtown blocks have "curbless streets," designed to "broaden the function of a city street and slow traffic."

"Instead of viewing streets as a mechanism to move cars, we're viewing streets as a public space," Rob Dixon, Sherwood's community development director, told the Oregonian.

"The design of the curbless street says this is public space for pedestrians, bicycles, strollers and SUVs also. The more traditional street says this is a road for cars, and you take your life in your hands if you're in anything other than a car."

What a great thought: Streets are public space shared by pedestrians, cyclists and motorized vehicles.

Is it that way in your town? If you try walking around most local suburbs -- and by "walk," I don't mean a well-defined, "safe" exercise or dog-walking route, but walking to actually get somewhere you need to go -- you'll soon agree with the "take your life in your hands" part.

If I try to walk to the bank from my office, in theory less than a 10-minute walk, it's almost always harrowing, because it involves trying to cross Rte. 30 on foot. Ever try that? Yet there's absolutely no reason why crossing a multi-lane east-west thoroughfare should feel so frightening. I do it all the time on Beacon Street in Brookline around Coolidge Corner, and there are well-designed crossings that let pedestrians feel comfortable while traffic still gets through. It's all about design -- but if you don't design with the idea in mind that pedestrians are as important as through traffic, you end up with the type of pedestrian-hostile major roads seen in too many American communities.

July 10, 2006

A Look at Mashpee Commons

"Block by block, year by year, [its developers] expanded and diversified Mashpee Commons, all the while sticking to the idea that people should be able to do things on foot - get to stores, restaurants, movie theaters, doctors, the post office, the public library - a broad range of everyday destinations," writes New Urban News senior editor Philip Langdon in the Sunday Hartford Courant.

"They didn't ban cars, but they had them park at the curb - since on-street parking helps pedestrians on the sidewalks feel shielded from moving vehicles - or in perimeter lots that are better shaped than the oceans of asphalt at conventional shopping centers.

"In their decision to revive a traditional, mixed-use form of development, [Buff] Chace and [Douglas] Storrs were onto something important. Mashpee Commons became a much-studied example of how New Englanders can create compact places amid the sprawling, low-density development that's been the norm for the past several decades."

There are a number of important points worth reading in this article, besides an endorsement of the broad goals of pedestrian-friendly, mixed-use developments:

* An unattractive, soul-less strip mall was transformed, but it didn't happen overnight. It doesn't always have to happen in a grand gesture all at once. Doing something to improve sense of place is better than doing nothing.

* You don't have to ban cars to make an attractive environment for walkers. The right parking can improve your streetscape.

* Small details matter, such as including space for small, non-chain stores.

* It may not be perfect, and that's still OK. You don't have to re-create Concord Center or Newbury Street in order to improve on pedestrian-hostile design.

July 9, 2006

Cafe Conundrum: Wi-Fi

What happens when cafes start offering free wireless Internet access? Does it increase business or attract freeloaders? The Globe has an interesting article on the conundrum, focusing mostly on the establishments' bottom line. But the piece also mentions in passing what I see as another, early 21st-century dilemma: Do laptop-toting patrons make a cafe seem too much like an office?

The photo running with the article, showng five occupied tables at a JP Emack & Bolio's - three with people on laptops - demonstrates the point. It definitely changes the atmosphere when everyone around you is working on a computer instead of talking, reading the paper or daydreaming.

Now I love wi-fi, and since I got my new Palm Pilot, frequently hunt for hot spots so I can check e-mail or quickly surf the Web. And in fact I'm writing this on my home wireless network, so I can sit in the light-filled kitchen and look out at the yard, instead of our cluttered, dingier computer room (which will hopefully be redone next year, but that's another story!)

Unfortunately, though, many Americans (myself among us) haven't learned proper limits between what should be social/relaxation time and what should be work/online time. The cafe-as-office clearly fills a need, especially for the self-employed or telecommuters who crave someplace to work while being around people. But our society also could desperately use more European-style cafes that allow us to simply sit, sip and linger, talking with friends or watching passers by.

My solution? We need two different business models: the office-oriented cafe with Internet access, catering to the plugged-in crowd; and the social cafe, modeled along the traditional Parisian version. Maybe some savvy entrpreneur could even offer both options in different space at the same place.

Austin Seeks Walker-Friendly Districts via Mixed-Use Incentives

Austin, Texas city planners hope to create a more walker-friendly district by "offering incentives to build 'mixed-use' buildings (which combine stores, offices and housing) on heavily traveled roads," the American-Statesman reports.

"Picture Lamar Boulevard, with its traffic and smattering of stores and offices, as a denser, walkable area akin to an old-fashioned town center. Pedestrians would shop and dine at stores and restaurants on street level, and then work and live in office space and apartments above the stores," according to the article.

"The idea grew out of a two-year effort that is almost complete to write design rules for Austin stores and restaurants. City planners realized that they did not just want stores to look good; they wanted buildings and streets to function better, as places where people can live, work and shop. . . . If the idea works, commercial strips such as Lamar, Burnet Road and South First Street could become cool, new-urbanist hubs like those that are prevalent in places such as Portland, Ore., and Seattle."

Rte. 9 already has various areas where people can live, people can work, or people can shop. But they're not integrated in a way that anyone wants to walk from one to the other, which is a pity. The condos being added to the Natick Mall expansion are the right idea but the wrong implementation, because condo-dwellers will likely only be walking to stores within the mall itself, not to anything else nearby, thanks to the '50s-era parking design that surrounds the new mall with a sea of asphalt. What a golden opportunity lost.

July 6, 2006

Future of the Library: Long-Range Planning

I've been invited to share my views about the future of the Framingham library system, as part of the library's long-range planning process. I love libraries and am glad to participate (despite my lingering bitterness over falling just short in building a new branch library in Saxonville. What a wonderful community asset it would have been! We got 60% of Town Meeting but needed 2/3! Argh. I digress....)

Anyway, here are some of my early thoughts. Have any of your own?

* I see the public library as an important "third place" in the community -- a public gathering spot and heart/soul of the community, that along with home and work is important in people's lives. My ideal library would be better integrated into the local streetscape. Siting the main library tucked away on a side street was, in my opinion, not the best choice for downtown, although I realize there may not have been other parcels available. However, I'd love to devise some way to make an appealing pedestrian environment between the library and other destinations downtown, to encourage a lot of two-way foot traffic back and forth between the library and other spots downtown.

July 3, 2006

‘Feeling Isolated? You’re Not Alone’

Columnist Ellen Goodman turns her attention to the recent study "Social Isolation in America" which, she noted, discovered that "one-fourth of Americans report that they have nobody to talk to about 'important matters.' Another quarter report they are just one person away from nobody. . . . In only two decades, from 1985 to 2004, the number of people who have no one to talk to has doubled. And the number of confidants of the average American has gone down from three to two."

Why do so many of us have fewer people in our close inner circle? Some blame time pressures of an ever-expanding workday; others point to technology, which allows us to "communicate" at our keyboards and on cell phones instead of making more face-to-face, personal connections.

I think those play significant parts -- in fact, the merging of the two trends becomes an additional issue, since it's harder to be "away" from work or fully present with people around you if you're constantly minding your BlackBerry. I'd argue that the design of some newer communities also contributes to lower likelihood of getting close to your neighbors. If you live in a McMansion where the most prominent street-facing feature is a massive garage door, and you only interact with your immediate surroundings in an enclosed, tank-sized SUV, it's harder to make connections with your neighbors.

It's no accident that recent ensemble-cast shows like Seinfeld and Friends took place in Manhattan. It's harder to imagine an exurb with 2-acre zoning where a variety of neighbors are casually and regularly dropping in and out of each other's homes.

The average American's decreasing number of close friends is a serious social policy issue. "These are the kinds of people that you can call on when you have times of trouble, if you really need help or someone to move in with for three months after Katrina hits your house. . . . We've got less of a safety net," Lynn Smith-Lovin, a Duke sociologist and coauthor of "Social Isolation in America," told Globe reporter Scott Allen.

"The study is a vindication for the Harvard author of 'Bowling Alone,' the provocative book published six years ago that portrayed an increasingly lonely society based on trends from the decline of dinner parties to lower voter turnout and falling participation in bowling leagues," Allen wrote in an article published June 23.

"[Bowling Alone author Robert] Putnam said the new study, based on a comparison of data from national surveys in 1985 and 2004, captures escalating social isolation that began around 1965 as the rise of television, two-career households, and increasingly farflung suburbia combined to destroy old, close-knit neighborhoods. Putnam believes that growing isolation helps explain the escalating rate of depression and other signs of worsening mental and physical health.

" 'As a risk factor for premature death, social isolation is as big an independent risk factor for death as smoking,' said Putnam, a professor of public policy at Harvard University. He said that the drop-off in confidants measured by Smith-Lovin and her coauthors was even more precipitous than he anticipated."

I believe many of us crave not only close friends, but a so-called "third place" -- outside of home or work -- where we can be with a group of friends. Such a place was portrayed in the popular series Cheers, a bar where "everybody knows your name."

However, when we pay so little attention and devote so few resources to public space, instead concentrating solely on private space, too often the result is that everyone has their own isolated private homes but interactions are fewer. Even when the third place is a private enterprise, it needs a thriving public neighborhood around it to flourish.