July 30, 2007

Find your neighborhood’s “walk score”

Enter an address at walkscore.com, and the site calculates a "walk score" between 1 and 100 based on information from Google Maps. Try it, it's pretty cool!

Walkscore.com calculates how many different types of destinations are theoretically within walking distance, and then generates the score. You can see it tallying up results as it lists some of those destinations.

The site freely admits "a number of factors that contribute to walkability are not part of our algorithm," including street design/width, public transit options, safety (both crime and accident levels) and streetscape aesthetics ("Are there walking paths? Are buildings close to the sidewalk with parking in back? If buildings have large parking lots in front, they are less inviting to pedestrians.").

Considering how many important factors aren't in the algorithm, it does a pretty good job!

My neighborhood gets a mid-range score, which seems reasonable. My parents' neighborhood, which has many more destinations in easy walking distance, gets a higher score. My sister's neighborhood, which I consider walker-hostile beyond the immediate few blocks, does poorly, as does my in-laws' area, which I find frustrating when trying to walk anywhere. My aunt's compact New York neighborhood, which always felt walkable when I visited as a kid, scores highly. The New York area where my husband's grandparents used to live, which is exceptionally walkable, racks up 92 out of 100.

Try an address or two and see for yourself.

July 29, 2007

Casinos and Livable Communities: Middleborough’s choice

I'm a firm believer that improved streetscapes, walkability and other such amenities don't hinder economic development but actually improve local economies. After all, retail space is a lot more pricey along Newbury Street than suburban Route 9, and housing per square foot is way more expensive in Boston's North End than most Rte. 495 exurbs. However, I'm realistic enough to acknowledge that sometimes the economic bottom line and livable community issues collide.

Such is the case in Middleborough, where the Mashpee Wampanoag tribe wants to build a billion-dollar casino resort complex. The resort would undoubtedly bring lots of money and jobs to the community, but would also change the character of the town. There will be a lot more tax revenue, but also a lot more traffic; there will be more "entertainment" available, but also more problems that inevitably come with drinking, gambling, and huge increases in short-term visitors.

"Since casinos opened in two small, rural Connecticut towns in the 1990s, there has been a sharp increase in local traffic, police calls, and drunken driving arrests, according to a Globe analysis, and the changes have spilled over into neighboring towns as well," the Boston Globe reported recently. In fact, it tends to be those neighboring towns that really get the shaft -- lots more traffic, higher concentrations of people passing through which naturally leads to more traffic-related problems like congestion, accidents and drunk driving arrests, yet no extra tax revenue. It's one of the legacies of a region that clings to local government to finance so many important things that these days have effects far beyond local borders. (In many cases, town officials actually have incentive to site huge projects at their borders, so the negative effects spread to other communities while the town gets to keep all of the money. )

Have you ever been to Foxwoods? I was there once for a business event, and found it kind of depressing if you don't happen to enjoy gambling. I sometimes find Las Vegas depressing also (I've been there several times for tech conferences), but at least you have the option of walking around there (assuming it's not 110 degrees, that is). At Foxwoods, I felt trapped if I wanted to, um, actually take a walk. Yet because of the nature of a casino's main activity, many communities don't want to integrate casinos with traditional downtown environments. So you end up with a separate, parallel city-within-a-city arising, one that has little connection to its host community, and thus no interest in the fate of things like surrounding residential and commercial areas. And in the long run, I don't see it as a good thing when a community's principle revenue-producer is divorced from the rest of the community.

Middleborough residents voted for the casino, some because they felt the complex is inevitable anyway and they want their town to at least get some money in exchange. It's up to them to decide if the financial windfall is worth the change in their community. Unfortunately, residents of neighboring towns had no say in the vote, and many will be as affected as those in Middleborough while getting fewer if any financial benefits. Those who oppose the plan now have to turn their attention to the state and federal approval processes.

July 23, 2007

Mixed-use project aimed at nearby office workers, college in Atlanta suburb

"About 30,000 people work along the Clifton Road corridor in central DeKalb County, but you wouldn't know it from looking at property across from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's sprawling headquarters, just north of Emory University," the Atlanta Jounral-Constitution reports.

"An empty gravel lot sits next to a few aging, low-slung apartment buildings. A motel is surrounded by a sea of asphalt. No shops or restaurants are anywhere in sight. Street life is virtually nonexistent.

"But look for things to change as Emory teams up with Atlanta-based Cousins Properties to build a mixed-use complex on Clifton Road with shops, restaurants and 872 condominiums and apartments, all targeted at those who work or study in the area."

The project realizes that employees are a great market if you offer them a vibrant streetscape and appealing destinations they can walk to.

"We pretty much drive in in the morning and stay here until we leave," Angela O'Connor, a public health analyst at the CDC, told the Journal-Constitution. "I think if we had somewhere to walk to, a lot of us would."

Does this sound familiar? Why is it that poor streetscape design means there's almost nowhere for office workers on Speen Street or Route 9 in Framingham to walk to? Why is it that it's so unappealing for the thousands of students and employees at Framingham State to walk to restaurants and shopping?

It's a problem in many communities, but one that planners around the nation are finally, tentatively, trying to address.
If retail along it had been designed and sited differently, Route 30 in Framingham could have been an incredible pedestrian boulevard, complete with sidewalk cafes, appealing shop windows and an attractive divider that encouraged crossing on foot. Instead, people drive from one strip mall less than half a mile to another, because the walking environment is so uninviting. And few office workers on nearby Speen Street can walk to most of the stores within half a mile, because crossing the streets (and now huge driveways spewing out cars from Target and Lowe's) make it feel unsafe.

July 20, 2007

Framingham Cochituate Rail Trail meets on July 23

The Framingham Cochituate Rail Trail Committee meets on Monday, July 23, 2007 at 7:30 pm in the Ward Room, Memorial Building, 150 Concord St., Framingham, MA

New on the blog: local meetings and events as posts

I've been posting announcements meetings and events on my blog home page as a listing on the right column, but I think a lot of people miss them there, especially if they read the blog via RSS feed. So, I'm going to start publishing them as regular blog posts as well, and hope people find that useful. Apologies to the non-local readers here!

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.

July 10, 2007

Shut off your TV. And your cell phone. And, yes, your computer. Just for a little while….

"In a techno world, traditional camps flourish," says a Boston Globe story last Sunday about the new allure of old-style summer camps.

"A number of rustic wilderness camps in New England are seeing a surge in their popularity, at a time when parents and educators are increasingly concerned that children do not spend enough time in the natural world," the story notes, pointing to Pine Island Camp in Maine where there are "no TVs, video games, or computers, and counselors keep the only cellphone on the island hidden away for emergencies." 

A quaint thought for modern-era kids, many of whom seem surgically attached to various electronic devices? Well, "for the first time in recent memory, Pine Island sold out for the season six months before it opened."

But what about us adults who can't take a month off to head to a nature camp? Actually, there are a couple of things we all can do.

* Take a vacation, regardless of the length. A week or more is best, of course, but even a three-day weekend can refresh and rejuvenate -- if you get out of your regular routine. A getaway is often the best strategy, but you can also vacation at home. This means a vacation, not telecommuting. It also means ditch the chores (unless you love things like gardening). Get outside. Shut off your TV. Turn off the cell phone. Leave the iPod behind. And yes, do try to stay away from the computer. The idea is to slip into a slower rhythm, which is kind of hard when you're immersed in the instant feedback of a computer.

* Take a "rejuventation day" once a week this summer. As above, it means staying away from all those electric-powered devices. Spend as much time as possible out of your car. Not, not as punishment. This will help you reconnect with your community. You experience things differently when you slow down. You see things you don't notice when you're whizzing by in an auto, or have your headphones on. You hear new things. You tend to look people in the eye more.

Also, you're not bombarded by the constant stream of materialism around us, especially advertising, all designed to make us want what we don't have or looking forward to some thing in the future instead of enjoying the moment we're in.

Ads are especially pernicious in aiming to ruin our contentment. After all, if you're happy with things just the way they are, you're less likely to buy whatever it is they're selling, aren't you? They can't even let you enjoy the sporting event you're watching in peace; they've always got to be promoting the NEXT event, which the announcers imply is even better than the thing you're watching now. The overall effect is the exact opposite of enjoying the moment -- it's designed to make you always long for the future, whether that future is life with a new item or watching some new program/movie. Just leave that all behind for a day -- or even part of a day. Pay attention to Now. Enjoy Now.

Some people do this as a sabbath observence; but if that's not part of your beliefs, consider it a mental health day.

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).