July 18, 2007

College lesson

The University of Massachusetts Amherst campus serves around 25,000 students plus faculty and other staff, roughly the population of Sudbury and Wayland combined. Yet unlike those towns, the campus is designed with the expectation that many of its residents need to walk from place to place -- from dorm to class to dining area to shop to entertainment center.

I'm just back from a three-day photography convention at UMass Amherst, and it was an interesting lesson in walkable environments. While my friend and I stayed on campus, we left the car parked in an upper parking lot and typically walked 15 minutes or more each way to classes and meals. There were plenty of roads for cars, city buses and campus shuttle buses, but the environment was set up for walkers, cyclists and vehicles to share. How?

* Most roadways cutting through areas with large concentrations of dorms and destinations were relatively narrow, one lane each, with well-marked crosswalks, making them feel easily crossable on foot.

* Walking paths were everywhere, often offering some separation (even just a small strip of landscaping) between pedestrian and cars, with interesting streetscapes of buildings facing the street. The setting of the buildings were clearly designed to be walked into from elsewhere, not driven up to like a strip mall.

* Parking was largely to the side or rear of destinations, not in front like the ocean of asphalt that's typically between walkers and retail destinations around suburban malls and strip malls.

* While dorms were often clustered together and not sprinkled amidst classroom buildings, they were still close enough to destinations like the campus center, library and classrooms to make it reasonable walking distance. When design emphasizes walkability as opposed to drive-up, when the weather's good it feels more logical (and enjoyable) to take a 15-minute walk than to go get the car.

You can see a campus map here.

There's no reason suburban centers couldn't be laid out a bit more like this (minus the multi-story towers). Mass transit might not be available to whisk people from elsewhere to the retail centers; but once people arrive and park, they ought to be in an environment that encourages walking from place to place, instead of having to drive from strip mall to neighboring strip mall -- trips that are close enough to walk, but impossible to do so because of street designs.

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