October 13, 2008

Sprawl and quality of life

When post-World War II suburbs were designed, the idea was to improve quality of life -- give people more space to breathe at affordable prices, compared to cities (viewed as too congested and noisy), while still giving them reasonably easy access to things like shopping.

But half a century later, we discovering that suburban sprawl isn't all it was cracked up to be. Post-1970s development took the original idea and expanded on it, giving people so much "room" that development patterns often made it difficult to do anything without a car or even walk around the neighborhood and get to know your neighbors.

When there's no care given to shared public space, when what greets the streetscape is a huge garage door and not a home's windows and entryways, when front yards are never for living or being in but 100% of activity occurs in private spaces where no neighbor-to-neighbor interaction is possible, well, your sense of community changes. And when you can't do anything -- anything -- without getting in your car, when your kids can't even go visit a friend without being chauffered, well, even those who love automobiles can start growing weary of how many hours they need to spend in their vehicles.

Add an increase in traffic jams and ever longer commutes, and older patterns of development start looking more appealing. Imagine being able to walk to the store to pick up a few things for dinner on a nice early autumn afternoon. I grew up going out for milk and bread for my mom, and she still often walks to the grocery store, hair salon, or to pick up a morning paper.

It immeasurably adds to your community to have lots of your neighbors out and about. I saw it on primary day, when I walked to my polling place and ran into several neighbors who were doing the same; we stopped and chatted about this and that. Those are the kinds of interactions that help stitch together a community, that don't happen unless people are out in shared public space. But we can't be out and about that way unless such space exists; and we can't and won't be out walking unless there's an appealing streetscape to draw us out. Useful destinations we not only can walk to but want to because of an attractive pedestrian environment truly add to our quality of life.

October 3, 2008

Project aims to turn Mass Ave into 'great pedestrian-friendly street'

Arlington has received state and federal funding to help turn its portion of Massachusetts Avenue "from a transportation corridor to one of Arlington’s great pedestrian-friendly streets," according to the project Web site.

The idea is to better balance the needs of walkers, cyclists and users of mass transit with automobiles. As opposed to the all-too-usual suburban roadway "improvements," typically aimed at how best to move motor vehicle traffic (what some planners rightly refer to as "traffic sewers").

Several public hearings have been scheduled this month on the plan.

The Mass Ave. redesign "will strive to create a truly livable, pedestrian friendly street, where people feel safe and comfortable meeting, shopping, and strolling, while also creating a vehicular traffic system that is safe, efficient, and easy to navigate," planners say.

More specifically, Arlington officials are considering:

* "Changes in street width and sidewalk width that offer options for seating, caf├ęs and landscaping."

* Shorter and more visible crosswalks.

* Bicycle lanes

* Better on-street parking in East Arlington

* "Street furnishings that make using Mass. Ave. more comfortable."

Doesn't sound much like the Rte. 9 or Rte. 30 we know in Framingham ... or even what many people in a position to actually implement plans talk about for Rte. 9 or Rte. 30. But perhaps with enough public support, we'll think about such things going forward?