April 30, 2007

They’re Not Frills: Boston to Plant 100K+ New Trees

"Boston will plant 100,000 trees during the next 13 years, with the bulk of the plantings to take root in the city's least green neighborhoods," the Globe reported Saturday. "By expanding the urban forest by some 20 percent to cover more than one - third of the city, leaders hope to reap a range of benefits, including cooler temperatures in summer, absorption of carbon dioxide and storm water runoff, and increased psychological well-being among residents."

The plan also includes "a partnership with the USDA Forest Service to launch the nation's first Urban Research Forest," according to the Boston Parks Department.

Trees are good for the environment. And, when properly planned, planted and cared for, they're great for communities. Derrick Z. Jackson had a wonderful column on the importance of trees, which I wrote about last year. "A 1997 study by the University of Illinois showed that crime in a housing project was significantly less and community bonds were stronger on tree-lined parts of the project than on barren parts," Jackson said.

Check out Urban Advantage's images of a a neighborhood commercial center, and what widened sidewalks and the addition of trees does to the streetscape. This shows what streetscape improvements can do in a community. Head to http://www.urban-advantage.com/images.html and click on the "neighborhood commercial center" at the top left.

April 29, 2007

Framingham Seeks Walkable Community Workshop

"Framingham has applied to the Boston MPO to host a Walkable Community Workshop later this year to focus on Downtown Framingham," according to the agenda for this month's Bicycle and Pedestrian Advisory Committee meeting. This is good news indeed! I hope we get approved and the workshop comes to town.

I'd been hoping a couple of years ago we could get such a workshop, but couldn't find anyone interested then in applying for or sponsoring it. This is significant progress in realizing the urgency of a walker-appealing business district!

I know that some people feel "walkability" isn't the most pressing issue facing downtown Framingham. However, without a more appealing streetscape, it will be all but impossible to rejuvenate downtown. What would a walkable community mean? An environment that encourages people to walk from residences to shops, from the train station to homes and businesses, and from one destination to another. Waltham created one on Moody Street. We don't have that yet.

In my ideal world, the workshop would also focus on ways of integrating nearby Framingham State College into the immediate surrounding community, creating a walker-appealing neighborhood to draw students and professors off the campus. It's just nuts that we've got a state college in town yet nothing immediately around the campus catering to that community, without having to cross a dangerous Rte. 9 exit ramp and then go over a hideously unappealing footbridge --  that then dumps out onto some more traffic whizzing by from Rte. 30. Look what's around Wellesley College. Williams College. Harvard University. Can we not think of anything better to put adjacent to the Framingham State campus than a private ambulance office?

Also on the agenda at the FBPAC meeting: A review of the Downtown Visualization Project report released by Framingham Downtown Renaissance. The meeting is Tuesday, May 8, 7:30 at the Memorial Building.

‘It’s Almost Impossible Not to Make a Friend Here’

After decades of focus on larger, more luxurious private residences (think exurbs, large homes, large lots), with relatively little attention to neighborhood public spaces, the pendulum is starting to swing back.

That's what went through my mind, anyway, as I read an interesting story in the New York Times today highlighting how some new condo and apartments are creating common spaces and building social activities.

Once primarily limited either to college dorms on one end of the age spectrum and senior citizens residences on the other, developers are now offering things like game rooms, activities and more for working-age residents as well.

Humans are "extremely social creatures," Susan Meiklejohn, an associate professor of urban planning at Hunter College, told the Times. "I think people in New York really suffer from an inability to really interact with people. And that's what these developers are realizing."

Case in point: Orion, a 60-story condo in Manhattan, which the Times says has "a glass body and a Club Med soul, where residents in anytihng from pajamas to pinstripes can enjoy a taste of camaraderie with their free (yes, free) daily breakfast, Starbucks coffee included.

" 'It’s almost impossible not to make a friend here,' said Danny SiFonte, the resident manager with a buildingwide celebrity akin to that of Norm on 'Cheers.'

“ 'We’re going to do movie nights and we’re going to do book clubs,' said Nancy Diaz, a resident who, in an interview, likened the condo to a cruise ship. 'There’s talk of using the pool for water volleyball. We’ll have Monday night sports. We have a spring fling coming up in May.' "

And Orion isn't alone.

"A six-building condo development in Prospect Heights, Brooklyn, for instance, which will have its first open house on May 6, has been named Hello and given a name-tag sticker as its branding image. . . .

"The amenities, like rooftop cabanas, a barbecue area, wine cellar, library, children’s playroom and pool, are spread throughout the six buildings, in part to motivate residents to fraternize."

This is what has been so sorely missed in many suburban neighborhoods, not just urban ones. It's one reason why I was so enthusiastic about rebuilding the tiny branch library in Saxonville, because the new library would have included some space for community activities, not just squeezing in, getting a book and leaving. It's why I'm so sorry that Amazing Things is moving to downtown Framingham and leaving my neighborhood.

More and more, people are starting to realize that quality social connectedness requires at least the option of interacting with people in your neighborhood somehow. Without always having to get in your car and drive somewhere, but as a natural part of your day.

April 24, 2007

Update: A Vision for Garden in the Woods

I love Garden in the Woods, the botanical/wildflower garden and education center in north Framingham. It's a lovely natural oasis amidst a suburban neighborhood, but I can't help thinking about how it might be an even more appealing destination to stay at longer if there was a place to sit, eat, drink and relax. A little cafe could make it a place to spend more of the day before or after strolling/hiking through the garden, or attending programs/classes.

Update: Check out the comments! It seems that the Garden is rolling out some food service, with snacks, drinks and picnic tables. Great news! Thanks to Nicola Cataldo from the New England Wildflower Society for letting us know.

The botanical garden in Geneva, Switzerland has a lovely cafe where you can buy food and drinks -- including wine and beer, since Europeans don't have that hysterical puritanical streak we do when it comes to having a glass of wine with lunch. Of course, they also have a lot more public transportation, meaning everyone doesn't have to drive everywhere. It's probably unlikely that Garden in the Woods would ever get into the beer & wine serving business, which is too bad. But even a little place to sit out and have coffee, tea or soda and some prepared sandwiches would be a fun addition to time spent at the Garden.

April 22, 2007

New York City Mayor Proposes Charging Fee for Driving Into Some Areas of Manhattan

"Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg made a series of Earth Day proposals this afternoon to improve the environment of New York City, including charging a new congestion fee to drivers who come into parts of Manhattan during peak hours during weekdays," the New York Times reports.

The $8 fee for autos and $21 for trucks would be charged for driving into most areas of Manhattan south of 86th St between 6 am and 6 pm. Bridge and tunnel tolls paid to get into the borough would be deducted.

“The question is not whether we want to pay, but how do we want to pay — with an increased asthma rate, with more greenhouse gases, with more wasted time, lost business and higher prices," Mayor Bloomberg said. "Or do we charge a modest fee to encourage more people to take mass transit.”

London instituted such a plan in 2003.

It makes sense to me. For those who believe in capitalism and "market forces," it's only fair that drivers start paying more of the true costs of dependence on automobiles, instead of forcing society as a whole to subsidize it.

The fee wouldn't be imposed for at least a year. It's expected to face opposition in the state legislature.

April 18, 2007

Framingham: The Good, The Bad, The Needs Changing

Fifty or so residents came out on a cold, rainy evening last night for the Framingham Planning Board's Master Plan "Visioning Workshop." The purpose was to get input from the community on what we'd like the town to become in the future.

The exercise involved breaking up into small groups and answering several interesting questions, such as: What's good about the town that you'd like to preserve? What changes do you see occurring, either bad or good? What things need changing?

The good: Diversity was one of the most frequently mentioned aspects. Diversity of people -- racial/ethnic, socioeconomic, family types -- but also diversity of development patterns (rural, suburban, urban), housing stock and so on.

Residents also liked the location and easy access to so many other areas; water features (lakes and rivers); historic buildings; neighborhoods; schools and more.

The bad: Growing traffic problems topped many lists. Also mentioned that I agree with: Suburban sprawl, auto-oriented development, crime downtown, dispersed government accountability, areas are dirty and not well maintained.

Needs changing: More walkability, not surprisingly, topped my list. Among the other issues brought up that I agreed with: Opportunity lost in not better integrating the college into the community, form of government, better taking advantage of water features in town, dealing with traffic, improving non-auto forms of transportation.

In my group, the MetroWest Daily News came under intense criticism for not caring about the community, having people from outside the community who don't understand the town writing about it with skewed perceptions and misunderstandings, emphasizing negatives and ignoring positives, and having outsiders lecture the town on what it should do (when this town shoulders much more of its regional burden than the lecturers' own communities).

There should be a report coming out summarizing what all the different groups came up with soon.

April 17, 2007

Paris to Offer Thousands of Rental Bicycles on Demand at Very Low Cost

Here's a cool idea: The city of Paris will begin offering "thousands of low-cost rental bikes at hundreds of high-tech bicycle stations scattered throughout the city, an ambitious program to cut traffic, reduce pollution, improve parking and enhance the city's image as a greener, quieter, more relaxed place," the Washington Post reported recently.

"By the end of the year, organizers and city officials say, there should be 20,600 bikes at 1,450 stations -- or about one station every 250 yards across the entire city. Based on experience elsewhere -- particularly in Lyon, France's third-largest city, which launched a similar system two years ago -- regular users of the bikes will ride them almost for free.

" 'It has completely transformed the landscape of Lyon -- everywhere you see people on the bikes,' said Jean-Louis Touraine, the city's deputy mayor. The program was meant 'not just to modify the equilibrium between the modes of transportation and reduce air pollution, but also to modify the image of the city and to have a city where humans occupy a larger space.' "

An aide to Paris's mayor told the Post that a recent study of trips in the city via auto, bicycle, taxi and walking showed cycling was always fastest.

A private company, Cyclocity, operates Lyon's program and will be running Paris's. It will cost about $38/year or $1.30/day to be allowed to rent cycles. After that, rentals will be free for the first 30 minutes, $1.30 for the next half hour and $9.10 for 2 hours, the Post reported.

April 15, 2007

The Costs of Commuting

There's a great article in this week's New Yorker magazine (sorry, it's not online update: Thanks to Charlie for posting the link to the article) about commuting, "There and Back Again" by Nick Paumgarten. I know it's been written about before, but he takes an intriguing, in-depth look at the lengthening commute of the average American, what the costs and trade-offs are, and whether people are even aware of the price they're paying.

In Atlanta, "perhaps the purest specimen of a vexed commuter town," Paumgarten notes, 94% of residents commute by car.
"According to the last census, the travel time in Atlanta grew faster in the nineties than in any other American city, and it's getting worse.Travelling ten miles can take 45 minutes.

"Road-building doesn't much help. Atlanta is a showcase for a phenomenon called 'induced traffic': the more highway lanes you build, the more traffic you get [see my post, Building More Roads is One of the Worst Solutions for Congestion, Not an Answer]. People find it agreeable to move farther away, and, as others join them, they find it less agreeable (or affordable), and so they move farther still. The lanes fill up."

Paumgarten took a commute with one Atlantan with a 55-mile drive each way, with a drive home that can take up to an hour just to get out of his office parking lot thanks to rush hour combined with heavy traffic from a nearby mall.

The commute isn't outrageous by current standards, Paumgarten notes, yet the trip is wearing, "with its toxic blend of predictability and unpredictability -- tedium broken by episodes of aggravation and despair. Barring the invention of the jet pack, the trip can only get longer."

People "tend to overvalue the material fruits of their commute -- money, house, prestige -- and to undervalue what they're giving up: sleep, exercise, fun," Paumgarten writes, summarizing a study done by two University of Zurich economists. One, Alois Stutzer, told him: "[People] have to trade off social goods for material goods. This is very difficult for people. They make systemic mistakes. We are very good at predicting whether we'll like something but not at knowing for how long."

However, Puumgarten notes, this presupposes that people actually have a choice as to whether or not to engage in long commutes. In many areas of the country, living, working and shopping in a small area is all but impossible. "Postwar zoning laws aggressively separated living space from commercial space, requiring more roads and parking lots. . . .
"[Robert Putnam, author of "Bowling Alone] likes to imagine that there is a triangle, its points comprising where you sleep, where you work, and where you shop. In a canonical English village, or in a university town, the sides of that triangle are very short: a five-minute walk from one point to the next. In many American cities, you can spend an hour or two travelling each side. 'You live in Pasadena, work in North Hollywood, shop in the Valley,' Putnam said. 'Where is your community?' The smaller the triangle, the happier the human, as long as there is social interaction to be had. In that kind of life, you have a small refrigerator, because you can get to the store quickly and often. By this logic, the bigger the refrigerator, the lonelier the soul."

If you're interested in how lengthy commutes affect not only individuals but society when more and more people take "extreme commutes" of 3 hours a day or more, I definitely recommend reading the full article (April 16 of The New Yorker).

April 11, 2007

The Framingham Art Gallery You May Not Know About (and Probably Haven’t Visited)

I heard there was some sort of art gallery at Framed in Time, the frame shop in one of the old mill buildings in Saxonville. But I never went in. I didn't know ... Was it part of the framing store? Did they expect you to have something you wanted framed if you went in to see the art? Well yes and no -- yes to the first question, no to the second. I met the gallery's curator, Olga Shmuylovich, last night, and she made it clear that the community is invited to come see the art exhibits there.

Tower Gallery at Framed in Time wans to help showcase the work of community artists, and bring together artists, people who enjoy viewing art, and the community at large. "Sonja and Jessica," featuring art by Sonja Holzwarth Maneri and her granddaughter opens Monday, April 16 and runs through Saturday, May 5. That's followed by the father and daughter show Alex Belozersky and Eugenia starting Saturday May 12 (there's a reception with the artist on May 19 from 4 to 6 pm).

I do plan on stopping in soon!

Speaking of art, Framingham's annual "Spring into Arts" festival kicks off Patriots Day, Monday, April 16 with the multicultural fair at town hall from 11 am to 2 pm.

Other highlights include award-winning students from Berklee College of Music and New England Conservatory performing Israeli songs, Civil Leangue, April 23, 7 pm; Fountain Street & Tripp Street combined open studios, featuring more than 60 local artists, April 28-29 11 am to 5 pm, followed by Saxonville Open Studios May 5-6 noon to 5 pm; and the opening of Art Goes Wild at Garden in the Woods on May 19.

April 10, 2007

More Than Just Books: What Should a Library Be?

I was part of a focus group tonight to talk about ideas for the future of the Framingham library, part of a long-range planning process now underway. Despite the fact that I'm still bitter over Town Meeting's failure to approve rebuilding of the McAuliffe branch library, it was an interesting evening, offering a relatively rare opportunity to sit back and think about what we'd like for our community.

Ideas that came up repeatedly: Yes, it's important for the library to be a center of knowledge, where it can be stored, loaned out and shared. But people also want their 21st century library to be community centers, offering places to take classes, attend events, and even relax and socialize. We'd like it to be a "glue" stitching together disparate parts of the community, the one place where you could find out about other organizations' events. Several said they'd like the library more involved in the local arts community.

A great library would be a key "third place," that important additional public space so important in communities besides where people live and work.

I still think it's ridiculous we don't have a decent secondary library building in the northern half of Framingham, and wish we'd tried for an override to get the new branch built while we had a chance at 25% state funding....

April 9, 2007

Visioning Workshop For the Framingham Master Plan 2007

From a notice posted on a local e-mail list by Planning Board member Andrea Carr-Evans:

Please come share your vision with other community members.
Hosted by Framingham Council on Aging at the New Senior Center

Tuesday, April 17
Callahan Center
535 Union Avenue

Reception 6:00 PM
Enjoy light refreshments.
Workshop 7:00 - 9:30 PM
Door prize raffle at the end of the evening!

For more information please contact the Framingham Planning Board Office at 508-532-5450 or e-mail fram.masterplan@gmail.com

Please RSVP to the Framingham Planning Office so that we can accommodate everyone.

April 8, 2007

Energy Use and Suburban Living

"The bill for the last generation’s planning mistakes is now coming due," Benjamin Ross of Action Committee for Transit (Md.) writes in a New York Times letter to the editor. "Spread-out housing and scattered jobs require more driving and longer pipes. With suburbs already in place, we find that widening heavily traveled roads and laying utilities beneath them is much more expensive than building on empty farmland. . . .

"Buyers of new tract houses and office parks should pay for the longer highways, pipes and wires that spread-out development demands; they should no longer be subsidized by taxpayers and utility ratepayers who live in denser communities that are more economically and environmentally efficient."

It's a fair argument. Why should those living in smaller personal, private space help pay for the lifestyles of those who want more private property?

Some smaller, less densely populated communities are seeking help in bridging the rural divide and getting broadband Internet access in places where it's not currently economically feasible. But is it good policy for those living in more efficiently developed areas to be forced to subsidize that lifestyle? An interesting question.

There is a higher cost per person per person of exurban living in terms of energy use. New York City "turns out to be the most energy efficient place in America," according to a recent Boston Globe op-ed piece by Douglas Foy (former head of the Mass. Office of Commonwealth Development) and Robert Healy (Cambridge city manager). The scale of the city's energy use looks enormous; but when you calculate it per person, the city "uses dramatically less energy to serve each of its citizens than does a state like Massachusetts." In fact, NY city residents use less energy per person than any state's average. And that's despite another 750,000 commuters who work in the city, use energy during the day but don't count in the per-capita tallies!

"Cities are inherently the 'greenest' of all places. They are much more efficient in their use of energy, water, and land than suburbs. They provide transportation services in a remarkably equitable and democratic fashion. They may be the best of all places for seniors to grow old. . . .

"The old paradigm of the pollution-filled city as a blight on the landscape, and the leafy-green suburbs with pristine lawns as the ideal, is outdated."

It's not a coincidence that most of the states getting the highest number of federal dollars back vs. what they give to the federal treasury are relatively suburban or rural and not densely urban: Alabama, Alaska, Hawaii, Missouri, Montana, New Mexico, North Dakota, South Dakota, and West Virginia (the others are Virginia and Washington, D.C.) New Jersey gets the biggest shaft, getting just 55 cents back for every dollar it sends. In contrast, Montana gets $1,58 for every dollar, Alaska $1.87 and New Mexico $2. (All figures from the Tax Foundation for fiscal year 2004.)

Clearly we don't want to force everyone to live in densely populated urban areas. Hey, I like my house! But policymakers need to think seriously about who should be subsidizing whom as we struggle to curtail global warming and other negative consequences of our supersized energy thirst. Walkable communities have many positive benefits; suburban sprawl has a societal and global cost. We need to encourage better patterns of development.

April 5, 2007

Representative Town Meeting is Broken (in Framingham, anyway)

Last week's election offered stunning proof that Framingham's representative Town Meeting form of government is broken. And I'm not even talking about the 14% turnout rate.

What's truly frightening is that two-thirds of the town's precincts couldn't even field enough candidates to fill available openings.

People no longer want to serve.

This problem used to be mostly limited to a few South Side precincts which had a chronic lack of candidates. But it's growing, and spreading.

When I wrote an article last year about Town Meeting's woes, about half our precincts couldn't find enough people interested in putting their names on the ballot.

This year, the problem was critical. Twelve of 18 precincts couldn't get enough volunteers on the ballot even to fill available openings. In fact, voters in only 4 precincts had an actual choice -- that is, a contested race.

In my own Precinct 5, where I won election in the early '90s in a six-way race for four seats, we only had three names on the ballot (there are four openings per precinct each year). The declared winner for the final spot had just 6 write-in votes!

There was an unfilled vacancy on the ballot in Precinct 1, 9, 10, 12 and 14. Even worse, other precincts had only one or two names: 8, 13, 15, 16, 17 and 18.

Let's face it. If you get "elected" in a race where there are more openings than candidates, it's hard to claim you have support of the electorate. A greater sense of civic responsibility than your neighbors? Probably. But under such conditions, it's entirely possible to "represent" only yourself and your own interests.

Fortunately, many of Framingham's Town Meeting members are conscientious and care deeply about the community, and I admire their willingness to put in long hours and serve. But the fact is that they're not accountable unless they choose to be. And accountability solely at the discretion of our elected officials is no accountability at all.

Supporters of our current form of government argue that it allows people to be much closer to their government than a town council with just a few members. What they're missing is that when you have a local council of 15 or 20, it's a lot more likely you know how those councilors are voting than members of a body of 200+. Representative Town Meeting is not like Congress. We cannot read about our reps online or in the newspaper.

If you excluded people active in government, I'd wager that the vast majority of voters last week couldn't name even half of "their" Town Meeting representatives, or how those representatives have voted on just two issues of importance to them, or even their reps' general political philosophies. Nor is there anywhere you can go to research such information before an election, since almost no Town Meeting votes are recorded. Even if you choose to attend Town Meeting sessions it's almost impossible to see how "your" 12 reps vote amidst a sea of 100+ hands or chorus of yeas and nays.

As for vacancies, there are many reasons why people don't want to serve, and it's not all about laziness. Town Meeting is a major commitment of time on weekday evenings. Career responsibilities (long hours, evening hours, business travel) knock out some people. So do family responsibilities (child care, elder care, kids' evening activities), evening classes and other activities. And, frankly, many don't see the point in spending so much time to be one among 216 in a part-time legislature where authority is also spread out among so many other places (Selectmen, Town Manager, etc.) I heard there were many applicants for the most recent opening on the Finance Committee. Why? There, no doubt, people thought the much greater amount of time they put in would be worthwhile because of the effect their actions would have. Also, the number of openings was more reasonable for the size of the town.

Smaller units of government don't necessarily make for happier citizens. In a study comparing Long Island, N.Y. with two counties in Northern Virginia, "On Long Island, 36 percent of people feel it's 'very or somewhat easy to get help from an elected official.' In Northern Virginia, 45 percent of people felt that way," according to a report in the Long Island newspaper Newsday.

Yet Long Island (2.8 million people) has 439 units of local government; those Washington, D.C. suburbs (1.3 million) have just 17. For schools, there are 127 small local Long Island districts vs. just three much larger ones for the D.C. suburbs, so L.I. voters are in theory much closer to their representatives.

"More than 70 percent of Northern Virginians rated the value they get from property taxes as excellent, compared with fewer than 50 percent of Long Islanders," the study, by the Center for Government Research, concluded.

Talk to some people in Framingham about the need for change and they look at you like you want to evict their grandmother from her home. But "it's our history!" is not reason enough to keep a form of government that the town has outgrown. Representative Town Meeting no longer serves the large, complex community we've become. A precinct of 3,500-plus people is too large these days to be a "neighborhood" where everyone knows everyone else with a minimum of effort, yet way too small to have its own media following the activities of a dozen reps. It's the worst of all worlds.

A town council with both neighborhood and town-wide councilors makes much more sense. But if we can't get that passed, at least dramatically slash the number of Town Meeting members so that it's easy to keep track of each precinct's members and most voters have a choice at the polls. The idea of a representative legislature isn't supposed to be that anyone who wants to serve gets a seat. That's what open Town Meetings are for. It's supposed to be that reps actually represent the voters, which is impossible when most voters have no meaningful choice and no idea what their reps are doing.

How many more years are we going to watch participation decline before we acknowledge it's time for a change?