June 27, 2007

The importance of surprise and delight

Every time I go back to Moody Street in Waltham, I'm so impressed with how the neighborhood has been revitalized. Filled with interesting restaurants and shops, it's also filled with people walking from place to place, along a streetscape that's appealing in part because it offers little surprises and delights.

Between Moody Street and the cinema, a friend and I encountered a surprising little window display that didn't seem to have any purpose except to entertain. Around the corner, there was Boston University's Center for Digital Imaging Arts had an exhibit of graduating students' projects -- you could just walk in, close to 9 pm, like a gallery, and look at some of the works.

A true "park once, walk to many destinations" environment, my friend and I met with no plans except to walk around and find someplace we wanted to have dinner. There are so many choices, all enticingly accessible on foot. It was a nice summer evening, and several places had windows partially or completely removed, so the inside was almost an extension of the streetscape. The only thing missing was outdoor seating -- there's just not enough room. After dinner, we could walk and see a number of independent retailers that still give the street a sense of place (not a collection of chain stores you could see anywhere, U.S.A.), including an independent bookseller.

There were no parking lots breaking up the streetscape; parking was behind the cinema or other stores, or along the street. There were no businesses set back from the street, or gaps in the streetscape to discourage pedestrians. There weren't large medical offices or insurance companies or other such destinations that wouldn't interest someone interested in an evening of dining and entertainment.

And I couldn't help wondering: Why can't downtown Framingham be like that? Do we have the will to try to reimagine an area of our downtown to include an enticing streetscape with positive surprises and delight?

June 24, 2007

Visit Art Gone Wild

I finally had a chance to see the "Art Gone Wild" exhibit at Garden in the Woods, and I definitely recommend it. It's a fun collection of a cross between natural landscaping touches and outdoor art, and it's especially nice to see some new mini-exhibits along the main Curtis trail that many of us have walked numerous times.

I didn't take photos this weekend, since I was visiting in mid-day when the light wasn't at its best, but I hope to be back again to take some pictures of a few of the installations.

Framingham is very fortunate to have a place like Garden in the Woods in our community. Although we also have a number of public parks -- town as well as state run, pretty much all woefully underfunded -- Garden in the Woods is another "third place" essentially public space although run by a private non-profit. Join as a member, and you can visit as many times as you want for no additional charge. It's beautifully maintained and a lovely, peaceful space that draws visitors from far beyond MetroWest.

June 19, 2007

‘Keeping Boston Walkable’

"If at any given time you look and see that pedestrians along our streets are not diverse, it may be a signal to us that we are not making our community as accessible as we should," write Michael F. Flaherty (Boston city councilor) and Wendy Landman (executive director of Walk Boston) in a Globe op-ed piece yesterday. And, I'd add, if you look around and see there aren't any pedestrians at all, we've made a poor physical environment for walkers.

With the weather finally nice and the days long, people are naturally out walking in areas where it's conducive to do so. In my neighborhood, people are out on foot before, during and after business hours. Around my office, you see lots of people out at lunchtime on certain streets, and few if any out on others -- a clear sign that some areas were successfully designed to encourage foot traffic, while others are pedestrian-hostile.

The presence of sidewalks, as I've said before, doesn't make for walkability. The unpleasant streetscape along many portions of roads like Speen Street, Rte. 30 and Rte. 9 limit walking, although there are many destinations to walk to if the environment were better. Here are some images from Walkable Communities Inc. at walkable.org where you can see comparisons of good and bad walking environments.

June 17, 2007

Calling it ‘Smart Growth’ Doesn’t Mean It Is: Hartford Courant

There's a nice opinion piece in today's Hartford Courant, noting that developers are starting to label a lot of projects "smart growth" that are somewhat of a stretch.

Smart growth is more than mixing different types of housing units and tossing in a convenience store or two you can walk to. It's about more traditional patterns of development that give at least equal weight to public transit and walking as a way of getting to places, as it does to driving. If you can walk to a general store and post office but have to drive everyplace else, it's not smart growth.

"Smart growth can't be built everywhere and this isn't a feasible location for it," writes Tom Condon of an over-55 project that a PR firm is pitching as smart growth. "Residents won't be able to walk to much of anything outside the development - the RV campground down the street? - so will have to drive everywhere. There are no transit options. There are as yet no utilities. There will be one main road in and out, so there isn't much connectivity and traffic may be an issue." It may be a plus that plans call for cluster development and preserving some open space, but that's not the typical definition of "smart growth."

Condon likens the smart growth phrase to what once happened to "natural food," he says:
"This initially referred to vittles that contained no artificial ingredients and were minimally processed. But soon the corporate food industry co-opted the term and started calling everything "natural," whether or not it was laden with preservatives, fillers, taste-enhancing chemicals and God knows what else.

"Thus the term 'natural food' lost much of its meaning. . . .

"So, maybe the smart growth people - and the New Urbanism folks as well - need to do what the foodies did. They changed the term to 'organic' and created certification standards"


It is a good sign, though, that developers now want the "smart growth" label!

June 12, 2007

Concord Center merchants battle Citibank

It's hard to argue that a Citibank would generate too much traffic, bring in "undesirables," or hurt property values. Yet many merchants in Concord Center are nevertheless opposed to plans for a Citibank branch in the heart of the town's historic retail district. And they're right.

Concord Center might be a great place to locate from the perspective of a nationwide bank: lots of foot traffic, and lots of tourists who are likely to want to pop in and get some money to spend. But a historic district with local retailers that thrive on foot traffic is the wrong place for a big branch of a national bank.

* What makes Concord Center special is its sense of place. Start adding too many national chains to the mix, and the area will start looking like every other part of America, not something special.

* A major national bank branch is a bad choice for a street that otherwise has a lot of unique local merchants. It breaks up the interest in the streetscape for shoppers on foot.

From what I hear, Citibank is slated to come in and displace two loal businesses, incluidng the Artful Image. However, it sounds like a special permit would be required, to change the use from retail.

Citibank would be a better corporate citizen if it found another spot outside the historic district for a fully staffed branch, and set up an ATM only within the center.

June 2, 2007

Proposal would encourage more students to walk to school

The Safe Routes to Schools bill proposed for Massachusetts "is designed to help communities establish safety education programs; install new crosswalks, bike lanes, and signs; construct and replace sidewalks and traffic-calming bumps; and build multi use trails connecting to schools," the Boston Globe reports.

It's a great idea, although of course you've got to have schools that could conceivably be walked to -- many exurban communities don't. In addition, it would be tough in a community like Framingham where the idea of neighborhood schools was replaced by "school choice" in order to better racially/socio-economically balance the town's schools; and thus many elementary school students don't live near their schools. And with only one high school in town, and a community half the size of Boston, most high schoolers don't live within walking distance either.

Still, many students could benefit from such a program -- including in Framingham, where there still are students within a mile or so of their schools. I see some parents walking their kids to the Stapleton School, even if many more take the bus or drive.

Newton resident Joanne Hooker told the Globe that she started walking her children to school after warning her often-oversleeping daughter Rebecca that she'd have to walk to school if she missed the bus. "Rebecca continued to sleep in, and the family took to the streets. It turned out that the children loved it -- Rebecca most of all." Walking turned out not to be a punishment, it was fun!

"Many of us remember a time when walking and bicycling to school was a part of everyday life," notes the Federal Highway Administration Web site. "In 1969, about half of all students walked or bicycled to school. Today, however, the story is very different. Fewer than 15 percent of all school trips are made by walking or bicycling, one-quarter are made on a school bus, and over half of all children arrive at school in private automobiles.

"This decline in walking and bicycling has had an adverse effect on traffic congestion and air quality around schools, as well as pedestrian and bicycle safety. In addition, a growing body of evidence has shown that children who lead sedentary lifestyles are at risk for a variety of health problems such as obesity, diabetes, and cardiovascular disease.

"Safety issues are a big concern for parents, who consistently cite traffic danger as a reason why their children are unable to bicycle or walk to school. The purpose of the Federal Safe Routes to School (SRTS) Program is to address these issues." The state bill would help do so at a local level.