July 3, 2007

What we can learn from Block Island, R.I.

No, most communities can't turn themselves into summer oceanside resorts! ... and for many, it's way too late to save a third of their land as preserved open space (or to prevent Anyplace, U.S.A. homogenization of chain stores and strip malls). However, we can still learn some valuable lessons about streetscape and planning from Block Island, one of the relatively few non-urban U.S. communities that assume many visitors don't have cars.


Block Island cyclistMost in-season ferries to the island don't carry cars -- in fact, only one service, from Point Judith, carries vehicles, and even from there there's also a passenger-only option. A lot of visitors walk, bicycle, or rent mopeds as well as take taxis or rent cars. Streets around much of the island assume multiple use, and it's common to see walkers and cyclers outnumber autos. Planning and design reflect that.


In the main commercial district of Old Harbor, the streetscape is particular appealing for pedestrians. There are plenty of "eyes on the street" -- not only shop and hotel windows looking out at the street, but also Victorian-era verandas where people sit outside and watch the harbor and main street activities. The main street itself is narrow in most places, only one lane in each direction, making it non-intimidating to cross on foot, and creating a comfortable feeling of enclosure. It's a marked contrast to an environment like Route 9 in Framingham, where the multiple lanes of traffic and set-back strip malls are just two of many factors making for an unpleasant and uncomfortable walking environment.


But another thing worth paying attention to is the architecture of the buildings themselves, offering a form of "surprise and delight" by varying building facade geometry. In other words, the street isn't all one flat, boring row of windows and doors. Some windows jut out. Some doorways are set back. Some buildings are at street level while others are not, instead giving a Newbury Street type of split entryways either a few steps up or a few steps down.


I posted several more streetscape photos from Block Island on SmugMug. Note that I took most of them early in the morning, before most of the stores and restaurants were open, because that was the only way I could get good shots of the buildings, sidewalks and streets without a ton of walkers and cyclists getting in the way! Throughout most of the business day and evening, the streets were filled with people walking and biking.


I'm trying to find a copy of zoning regulations for Block Island. I'm curious how they've managed to keep out pretty much all chain stores -- one local place boasts they brew Starbuck's coffee and another sells Ben & Jerry's ice cream, but that's pretty much it.


Anyway, I'd invite you to look at the rest of the streetscape photos -- it's just one page of thumbnails (click any small image to see a larger version, and click that larger version on the right to see an even bigger one), or you can click the slideshow button at the top right. (And if you're interested in what the rest of the island looks like, I have another collection of 6 pages of thumbnails with pictures around the island).


  1. I'll be interested in reading about what you learn regarding the zoning regs there because the absence of strip development is one of BI's many charms. The Old Harbor area -- the area with the "main street" that you referred to -- is a historic district, if I remember correctly, and is controlled fairly strictly. New Harbor is a different matter -- newer, not well-designed, tougher to use, although people with boats seem to like it.

    Another amazing thing about Block Island is that every inch of the shoreline is open to the public (with the possible exception of a small beach at Ballard's which you wouldn't want to use anyway unless drunken rowdiness is your thing). You don't have to pay to park, you don't have to display a permit, you don't have to do anything except get yourself there. Is there another town in the northeast like that?

  2. There are only about 900 people who live on the island in the winter. Not enough to support a Starbucks or McD's year round! The hotels and restaurants have to import summer workers, and many commute daily from the mainland. No one who didn't inherit property (I did) or has $$$$ can afford to live there. I can't live there because it would cost twice as much to build a house on my lot than on the mainland.