October 31, 2007

Art’s role in community renewal

The Globe's got an interesting piece today about the role of creative arts in rejuvenating not only urban centers, but small towns like Hardwick, Vermont.

Clearly, bringing in artists can't by itself resuscitate places struggling with crime, loss of jobs and other woes. But currently, it's tough to attract residents who contribute to the 21st century knowledge economy without "cultural amenities such as art galleries, bookstores, theater spaces, eclectic restaurants, and live music stages," notes the article. "So the towns have set their sights on artists who can create these sorts of amenities. Some have provided financial incentives to the artists; others have fixed up sidewalks and parks to make their downtowns attractive to new galleries, theaters, and museums."

Note the streetscape improvement strategy. It's very tough to get a synergy of creative people breathing life into a declining business district, if that district isn't a physically appealing place to walk around.  And that's an important point as Framingham looks to the new Amazing Things Art Center to help revitalize downtown. 

Even if the center is successful in drawing people to the area, they're not going to do anything else nearby without an environment that encourages them to do something more than go back to their cars. They won't walk from one destination to another unless it's aesthetically appealing to do so. Gaps in the facade, with buildings set back and parking lots in front; boring building fronts; blank walls; ugly sidewalks; chain link fences; car-centric street design  ... all of these make pedestrians less likely to want to go from one destination to another on foot.

October 28, 2007

75% of Americans favor improved public transit and smarter growth to deal with traffic woes

A solid majority of Americans backs improving public transportation and wiser development as ways to deal with increasing traffic woes, while only one and five believe building new roads is the answer. That's according to a new survey sponsored by the National Association of Realtors and Smart growth America.

"Eight in 10 respondents prefer redeveloping older urban and suburban areas rather than build new housing and commercial development on the edge of existing suburbs," according to a summary of results. And, "nearly 90% believe new communities should be designed so we can walk more and drive less." (The survey has a margin of error of +/- 3.1 percentage points.)

Are our community planning officials listening?

October 21, 2007

Toronto’s streetscape ‘gaps’

I'm just back from a business trip to Toronto, which is a nice and reasonably walkable city (although I was unpleasantly surprised at the homeless problem there. Somehow I expected Canadian cities would have a better handle on that.) However, I found a significant difference between a reasonably pleasant pedestrian experience in Toronto and an outstanding one in Montreal. Why? In large part, gaps in the streetscape. Toronto has some nice destinations to walk to and ways to get there, but there were too many breaks in and between areas with aesthetically appealing walking areas.

For instance, Toronto has a lovely street, Elm Street, filled with restaurants and trees sparkling with lights in the evening. But it's only a few blocks. It feeds into Yonge Street, with a fair amount of pedestrian nightlife ... but around that, there were lots of breaks in interesting things to see on foot. In the few blocks between that area and our hotel, it was pretty dead, with business buildings interspersed everywhere (killing off the night streetscape) and parking lots or garages deadening the aesthetics. Likewise, when we took a walk down to the Hockey Hall of Fame, there was a similar problem -- too many uninteresting areas sprinkled in, making the walking experience possible but not compelling.

Contrast that with Montreal, where you can walk for a long time seeing reasonably appealing streetscapes, without major breaks for huge parking lots or blank walls of parking garages. It's a good lesson in the need to plan the overall impact of an entire district, not just building by building or even block by block, to create an outstanding pedestrian experience.

Despite this, though, I do have to say it's entirely possible to walk around Toronto -- I was especially impressed at the thought given to sidewalks in underpasses, which were much more appealing than the typically creepy walkways you find in many places around the U.S.

October 11, 2007

Toll hike public hearing - Friday evening at 6 pm

Why not just make it Saturday at 5 a.m. and be done with it? Are they serious - dinnertime on a Friday night when the Red Sox start a playoff series? Anyway, that's when the Turnpike Authority travels out to Framingham (perhaps getting to experience some westbound Friday evening Pike rush-hour traffic) to hear what we have to say about getting soaked for a wildly disproportionate share of the transportation financial burden.

Update: They've scheduled a second hearing for Monday, October 22, from 6-8 PM at Nevins Hall in the Memorial Building at 150 Concord Street in Framingham. Well, that's more reasonable.

I hope to be able to get down to Town Hall to give them a piece of my mind. I'm not a regular Pike commuter and haven't been since 1997, but I still find it outrageous that people commuting between, say, Framingham and Newton (which I did for 8 years) pay tolls to fund the Big Dig in Boston when many commuters on the actual Big Day roadways don't even pay tolls to use it.

Once the original Pike bonds were paid off, there was no good reason to keep collecting tolls except that some people just couldn't bear to part with a revenue stream. It used to be, you could argue drivers got their money's worth from the tolls because the road was in better shape than most other highways, especially in winter. But from what I've heard, that's no longer the case. And the congestion is as bad as on other highways in eastern Mass. What are toll-payers getting for that money exactly that commuters on Rte. 495, Rte. 128 and every other highway aren't?

For those who favor "user fees" like a Pike toll, I say it's time for all vehicle users pay their fair share, instead of assessing an extra burden on the users of one highway only. Pike drivers also pay gas and income tax to maintain all the other roads that funds, PLUS a fee assessed just on them. Yet no other drivers contribute to Pike maintenance. How is that a rational policy?

Let's have all drivers start shouldering the true cost of roadway infrastructure. The state needs the money? Then increase in the gas tax, with some sort of offsetting reduction or tax credits for low-income people who would be particularly hurt by this.

MAPC Policy Summit: Equitable Development

From the MAPC:

The Metropolitan Area Planning Council and MetroFuture present a policy summit on some of the region's most critical development issues, viewed through the lenses of equitable development, sustainability, and smart growth.  Following an opening plenary, issue-specific breakout sessions will cover impact fees, housing choice, our aging population, and making our plans into reality. The event takes place on Tuesday morning, Oct. 23 in Boston.

October 4, 2007

Trader Joe’s, Whole Foods, and the inability to walk between them

Trader Joe's and Whole Foods both appeal to a similar demographic -- consumers who care about the quality of their food, and are seeking something besides unhealthy agribusiness offerings. In Framingham, both have set up shop -- one block after another, in fact. It creates a synergy to be a regional draw, and a perfect opportunity for a park-once, walk-to-multiple-destinations retail center... except it's all but impossible to walk between the two because of the way they were designed. Why???

I recently walked between Whole Foods and Walgreen's just across the street, and that was scary enough. Distance is short, but you have to cross multiple lanes of traffic that was criss-crossing lanes everywhere, and no driver expectation of foot traffic.

Even though both stores are set back from the road, there's no crossing area between the buildings (and you'd have to be insane to try that yourself); instead, walkers have to double the distance by going to the edge of the parking lots to get back to the street. But at Rte. 9, the lanes of traffic you need to cross increases because of Prospect Street turning lanes added, with no median area breaking them out. It's not something most people would even try. Instead, I'm sure that most take there cars the less-than-quarter-mile between the two.

It doesn't have to be that way, and it shouldn't be that way.

Why weren't both shopping areas designed so people could easily walk up to them and between them from the sidewalk? Why couldn't the parking be at the side or rear? The Trader Joe's in Brookline is designed like that, making it easy to walk there from other retail spots in the area. But here, the design only reflects considerations for traffic flow. There appears to be zero concern given to people who might want to walk there.