May 25, 2008

Lunch break

It is eye-opening to see how differently people view meals and mealtime in much of Europe vs. the U.S. To many people in Italy, France and elsewhere, meals are to be savored and unhurried. in the Northeast U.S., these days it seems that taking time out for meals is often considered extravagant, wasteful and even lazy.

When we first arrived in Italy, I noticed that my friends and I were always by far the quickest eaters wherever we were, in and out while everyone around us was still enjoying a less hurried meal. By the end of our trip, we had slipped into the rhythm of delightful hour and a half or longer dinners, and unrushed lunches. But that's a hard habit to maintain once back home.

In Italy, many stores close at lunchtime, and even in Florence, the shops close by dinnertime despite the hordes of tourists still filling the streets. Yes, they could probably be making more money if they stayed open; but unless you're in the food-service/hospitality industry, it's expected that you'll be having your meals during lunch and dinner, not working. Interesting and different perspective. I can't describe the look one of my friends in Slovenia gave me when I explained that during my lunch break, I take a 20-minute walk, and then go back to my desk to eat because I've pretty much used up the break time I feel I can take. He couldn't have been more appalled if I'd told him I eat my lunch in the toilet. There's a completely different viewpoint about the importance of mealtime to living a civilized life.

Is there truly a good reason why I couldn't leave later from work in exchange for taking a longer lunch break from time to time? I don't think so. Much of this is self-imposed, because we live in a culture where if you're not running around busy all the time, you fear being seen as not "hard-working" enough, not interested enough in "success." The results of all this pressure have now filtered down to kids, where many "high-achieving" high school students now don't take a break during the day, according to a story in yesterday's New York Times. "I would never put lunch before work," one junior told the Times, as she vowed to work through what will become a new mandatory lunch break. I find that sad.

May 20, 2008

The ‘Vacation Test’

I wrote awhile ago about the "postcard test" -- if you'd buy a postcard of a streetscape, it's a good measure that it's likely to be a livable, pedestrian-friendly place.

Now, upon returning from a two-week holiday, I'd like to offer up a corollary: the "vacation test": Is your community a place where someone would want to spend some free time?

Of course, not every town can be an ocean-front retreat or idyllic mountain resort. And not every community can be a place where out-of-towners want to spend a week.

But if your town isn't a place where someone would want to spend even half a day, finding something to enjoy and hold their interest, well, what does that say about it as an appealing place to live beyond your own private space? True quality of life requires quality shared public space along with one's own private home.

After spending some time overseas earlier this month, in towns that are so pretty, compact and walkable, it's clear that this is a much lower priority in much of America than, say, many countries in Europe.

In Framingham, along with our largely pedestrian-hostile but regionally appealing shopping (Rte. 9) and eateries, movies and arts center, we're fortunate to have the botanical jewel Garden in the Woods. I was there over the weekend, and it was definitely attracting a crowd from well beyond the town's borders. With so many things in full bloom and beautiful walking paths, it definitely passed the vacation test as someplace you'd want to enjoy on a day off. Callahan State Park is another.

However, our neighborhoods could use even more public space where it would be so pleasant to while away an afternoon, outsiders would be drawn there as well as locals.

May 11, 2008

New York City unveils ‘Sustainable Streets’ plan

After NYC Mayor Michael Bloomberg's plan to charge drivers for taking private vehicles into some areas of Manhattan was killed by political opponents, the city's transportation department last month unveiled a more modest proposal aimed at "bring[ing] a green approach to transportation that will simultaneously ease travel conditions in our growing city while squarely facing the problem of climate change and improving the city's quality of life."

Sustainable Streets will increase bus service, as well as add bus lanes, bike racks and 200 miles of cycling lanes next year, among other things, according to the Gotham Gazette. There are a few more details (including video introducing the program) at Streetsblog.

May 4, 2008

Moody Street woes?

The Boston Globe had an article last Sunday about problems on Waltham's redeveloped Moody Street, with some stores closing - notably the Construction Site, a unique children's toy store and one of the district's anchor draws (they're going to keep an online presence only, at least for now).

"The wonderland window displays of wooden toys that once greeted shoppers who crossed the bridge over the Charles River into Moody Street's heart are no more," the article notes. "And the Construction Site is not the only independent enterprise to leave the street in recent months. The past year has also seen the departure of Maxima Gift Center, Harry's Shoe Store, Brickman's Furniture, and Lexington Music Center. "

Why the woes? The piece says:
"A lack of unity and cooperation among business owners, the absence of an overarching plan for encouraging shopping and business in the downtown area, slow foot traffic during the day, a lack of parking in the evenings, complicated city permitting processes, the loss of large anchor stores such as Jordan's Furniture (which left Moody Street in 2004), and not enough affluent shoppers interested in buying higher-end products."

It's a cautionary tale for those who believe "redevelopment" is a process with an end, as opposed to needing continued nurturing and updating. One analyst quoted in the story believed the area's "inner city" urban issues are scaring away affluent suburbanites, but a shopowner who closed a Waltham store told the Globe that many customers weren't from Waltham. There are plenty of residential units around, but most of those people likely work elsewhere. Are the stores open late enough at night to attract the locals? The loss of Jordan's as an anchor store was difficult for many other businesses. What can draw people to the retail center? Is there enough variety and critical mass to appeal to locals year after year? Is there a need to try to attract more daytime businesses to the area where people working in jobs other than retail could shop there during lunchtime? Particularly as the economy softens, even successful downtowns have to work to stay that way.