December 31, 2007

If we are indeed what we eat…

...typical American priorities for our food reflect a society that largely values convenience, quantity and value. The more recent rise of chains like Starbucks adds brand panache to the mix, but it's a minority of the country that can battle time and financial pressures to value quality over quantity and a relaxed, pleasant experience at mealtime.

Americans spend a smaller percent of our income on food than most Europeans do, opting for, say, packaged factory-produced bread from a grocery superstore that will last a week or more over fresh-baked bread that gets hard the next day. Mass-produced foods filled with preservatives and corn syrup are cheaper, and thus more appealing to many, than locally grown/created, less chemical filled alternatives. It's also more convenient to shop less often.

But if you're curious what you're missing out on and you're local, I heartily recommend heading over to B&R Artisan Bread on Rte. 30 in Framingham (Bella Costa shopping center). The bread there has made me understand why my friends from Europe simply cannot eat any of the factory-produced, pre-packaged foodstuff that usually passes for bread around here. Artisan bread created by a true craftsman (as owner Michael Rhoads certainly is) bears about as much resemblence to Wonder Bread as a Renoir does to a velvet paint-by-number. Have a few fresh baguettes, and then see how you feel about going back to the stuff in the plastic package. It's tough.

The issue isn't only what we eat, though, but also how. Friends in Europe were horrified to hear that I typically eat lunch (and breakfast) at my desk during the week, but that's the only way I seem to be able to squeeze in both enough sleep and a lunchtime walk. The days of daily hour-long lunch breaks appear to be over, at least in my business. But we lose more than free time this way.

Savoring a good meal is an oft-repeatable pleasures of life that many Americans are missing. I'm starting to believe the American obesity epidemic is due in part to the way we eat -- hurried, multi-tasking, not paying attention and not savoring our food. It takes a larger quantity to be satisfied than if you're eating smaller amounts of high-quality food more slowly and with full attention. So here's one resolution for 2008: Eat at least one weekday breakfast, lunch and dinner of traditional foods in a traditional fashion -- no multi-tasking, no TV blaring, not working at my desk.

December 27, 2007

The joys of ‘complete streets’

Sacremento recently transformed two midtown streets "from hostile, car-dominated thoroughfares to 'complete streets' that accommodate bicyclists, pedestrians and motorists," writes Lea Brooks in a Sacramento Bee op-ed piece. "It was a small but significant step toward making Sacramento a more livable community."

The two roadways went from three one-way lanes, all for motorized vehicles, to two one-way lanes for motorists and bike lanes on both sides. "Overnight, these streets switched from being intimidating to safe, convenient and pleasant routes for bicyclists of all abilities," said Brooks, president of the Sacremento Area Bicycle Advocates. More people are now cycling to work safely, helping to reduce both traffic congestion and pollution.

Truly complete streets create an environment equally hospitable to walkers, cyclists and motorists. They sport aesthetics so people WANT to walk, and allow for a feeling of safety for pedestrians and bicyclists as well as SUVs.

(Thanks to CenterLines, the e-newsletter of the National Center for Bicycling & Walking, for the link.)

Locally, I was in Coolidge Corner in Brookline this week. That's a neighborhood of complete streets swarming with pedestrians as well as cars. There's enough interesting retail to make walking from block to block inviting; the streetscape isn't broken up very often by parking lots or buildings set way back; there's a buffer between pedestrians and traffic (on-street parking as well as some landscaping); and it feels safe crossing even busy intersections with multiple lanes of traffic, thanks to well-marked crosswalks, the trolley line breaking up the wide expanse of Beacon Street, and drivers who have learned to expect people on foot.

It's a marked contrast Route 30, when several colleagues and I recently dashed across on foot to get to REI. It felt hostile, intimidating and unsafe. At Leggat-McCall Drive and Rte. 30, there are no sidewalks on the eastbound side by the Fidelity/Bank of America building, no marked crosswalks and no pedestrian signals ... although there are hundreds of office workers within walking distance of that area retail. Bad planning! Planners should always consider the needs of multiple transportation modes, not just cars. Let's stop creating communities where there's no alternative but driving, even for trips of half a mile or less.

December 26, 2007

Public hearing on pedestrian access to transit in downtown Framingham

The Department of Community and Economic Development is holding two public meetings about pedestrian access to transit in Downtown Framingham on Thursday, January 3. There will be two sessions:

4-6 pm in the Memorial Building, Blumer Community Room

and 7 to 9 pm at TD Banknorth, 74 Concord Street, Framingham

This meeting was rescheduled from December because of snow.

For more information, call 508- 532-5455.

December 24, 2007

Winter walking perils

Once again, most suburban communities are treating walking as some kind of seasonal hobby, instead of as critically important transportation method as the automobile. While roadways are cleared on the taxpayers' dime as soon as possible after a snowstorm, many sidewalks are left impassible for weeks. WHY IS THAT? Why is clearing routes for motor vehicles considered the government's business, but clearing routes for pedestrians nobody's business?

Here in Framingham, the town does clear some sidewalks on routes where kids are likely to walk to school. As for the rest of us, tough luck. The town does not clear all sidewalks, and the town has no ordinance requiring anyone else to. Therefore, they can simply stay snow-covered all winter. Need to walk to work? Too bad, get a car. Need to walk to get someplace else? Too bad, get a car. Can't or don't drive? Tough luck.

Need to walk your dog? Too bad, let your pets go on your front lawn. Need to walk from your office to get lunch, or to another building? Too bad, drive instead. It's gotten so bad that my company's official policy is to advise us to drive to a building that's a 2-minute walk away.

December 12, 2007

Shops, cafes, parks, plazas and walkability sprout in Atlanta

"The buzzword for Atlanta developers in the aughts is walkable," the Atlanta Journal Constitution reports. "From the recent announcement of an $8 million grant from the Woodruff Foundation for a new 35-acre park in the Old Fourth Ward to spanking new streetscapes in Buckhead, development around the region is forming a whole new ethic aimed at putting Atlantans on their feet."

"You have to think about extending [residents'] life beyond their living rooms," one developer told the paper.

Indeed you do. Or you should. There is increasing demand for walkable communities that some developers and local officials understand, while others don't.

Thanks to the National Center for Bicycling & Walking's CenterLines newsletter for the link.

December 11, 2007

Dining al fresco. In December. When it’s 36 degrees.

I was in Brookline on Sunday, enjoying a walk down Harvard Street, along with lots of other people taking advantage of a walkable retail center with some interesting, non-national-chain stores ... when I passed Panera's, and saw people eating outside. Not just at a couple of tables, either, but there had to be at least half a dozen tables with people eating or having coffee/tea outdoors. It was not an Indian summer kind of day, either, but 36 degrees or so.

You know you've got a great streetscape when people enjoy sitting at an outdoor cafe when it's 36 degrees.

December 6, 2007

Your opinion sought: What do pedestrians need?

The Metropolitan Area Planning Council has kicked off work on its Regional Pedestrian Plan. Make your voice heard! You can take a survey on important issues facing walkers, at

"The Plan will identify and recommend policies and practices to facilitate and encourage walking as a convenient, safe, and practical form of transportation throughout the 101 cities and towns of the MAPC region," according to the MAPC Web site.

Ah, so much to choose from! Inability to walk from my office to shopping a quarter-mile away because of lack of sidewalks and safe crosswalks. Inability to walk to a nearby building for meetings because sidewalks aren't cleared. Treating walking as some kind of optional hobby instead of an important mode of transit. Always designing for the needs of automobiles instead of balancing design for walkers, cyclists and motorists. time to click over and give them my point of view....

December 5, 2007

Walkability is catching on, even in the suburbs: Brookings Institution

After decades of post-World War II car-oriented development, there's been a "gradual shift" toward change, as more Americans seek to live and work in places where you can get somewhere without a car. That's "demonstrated by the success of the many downtown revitalizations, new urbanism, and transit-oriented development," says Christopher B. Leinberger, visiting fellow at The Brookings Institution.

In a survey of "walkable urban places" among the nation's 30 largest metro areas, Leinberger looked at where such walkable areas were most prevalent per-capita, along with availability of rail transit.

Interestingly, "there are an equal number of walkable urban places in the center cities and the suburbs," the study notes. "While there has been much attention on the revival of American downtowns over the past 10 years, the revival of suburban downtowns, the redevelopment of failed regional malls and strip centers, and the recent emergence of lifestyle centers appears to be an equally dynamic trend."

As the Boston Globe reported today, the study called Washington, D.C. the nation's most walkable, with "the most regional-serving walkable urban places per capita in the country." Boston was second. But the study's rankings are foolish,  penalizing places with high population densities. New York -- the only city in America where more than half the population takes public transit to work -- only ranks 10th. That's because while it has the highest number of walkable neighborhoods, the survey divides that over the metro area's huge population, 19 million, coming up with "only" one per 896,000. The fact that "one" place might be serving many more people in New York than it does in D.C. isn't taken into consideration. Yet high population density can be a key attribute of walkable neighborhoods.

In my opinion, pretty much all of Manhattan and many Boston neighborhoods (Back Bay, Beacon Hill, North End) would be a walkable urban place.

I do agree with the methodology showing that Northeast and West Coast have higher than average walkable urban places compard with the Southeast, Midwest and Southwest.

December 1, 2007

"What do you want to do tonight?"

I've long wished for a local resource where I could go and find stuff to do in Framingham -- sortable by date, or type (music, photography, outdoors, etc.), or more specific tag (astronomy, book-discussions, whatever). While there are several resources to find listings, none did what I need.

So, I decided to code one myself :-) as part of an exercise to learn the Web development framework Ruby on Rails. is still under development and very much a beta, but it's live!

You can search by date, type, tag, venue, sponsor, and appropriate age (some are tagged specifically for kids, seniors, adults, etc.)

For example

This weekend's events:

Upcoming jazz events:

Holiday events:

You can see lots more ways to find events on the site.

I've entered listings for a couple of weeks already, and more are on the way. I'd be interested to hear your comments.

My original goal had even more features, and I still may add some functionality. But if I wait to add all the possible cool features, it'd be 2010 or so before launch.

For now, even without things like personalization or multi-criteria searching, I think it's a neat local listing site offering searching unavailable elsewhere. Yes, MetroWest Daily News has a nice comprehensive arts listing, but it's flat text -- you can't search or sort it. Steve Orr's community e-mail list has some listings, but it's only what memebers post, and it's not in any format to use to answer questions like "What's going on in town this weekend?" or "What local jazz events are coming up?" has that kind of functionality, but Framingham events are pretty limited. certainly isn't trying to replace long-time entry as a community bulletin board listing site, but since the events portion of that site is only sortable by date, I decided to post an events database with some more functionality and see if there's a demand.

If you do visit, please let me know what you think!

It actually takes quite a lot of time to input all the events, so I'm not sure I'll be keeping it updated for 2008 unless there's a fair amount of demand and others would be interested in entering events.