I was heartened to see a piece in today's Globe West focusing on attempts by Framingham and Natick officials "to make the retail sprawl of Route 9 more pedestrian friendly with better sidewalks, benches, and other amenities."
Great news! ... especially for those of us who work within walking distance of the stores, but who can't actually walk to the mall because it's so dangerous and unpleasant to cross major intersections in the way.
It's all but pointless to promote a retail district like "the Golden Triangle" without offering an attractive, appealing way to walk within it. After all, if you've got to get in your car and battle traffic congestion to get from one place to another, it no longer matters much whether you're going half a mile, a mile or a couple of miles; the synergy of a retail district is lost. Without a walkable "park once, walk to multiple destinations" retail center, you lose the advantage of serendipity -- stumbling upon a destination you didn't know would interest you until you saw it. This is the philosophy behind any well-designed individual store -- put related attractive products close together -- or shopping mall (not to mention Web site). But you can't browse or window shop while you're in a moving vehicle. Nor do you want to in the current hideous walking environment within Golden Triangle destinations.
Walkability means more than the presence of barely usable, ugly sidewalks that make it theoretically possible to get from one place to another on foot. Most people will not walk between retail destinations unless there is a pathway that feels safe and comfortable, and is at least moderately aesthetically pleasing. A sidewalk with 8 lanes of traffic on one side and acres of asphalt on the other, with no buffer or greenery on either side, will not be used by any but the hardiest of pedestrians. To encourage widespread walking will require more than adding a few benches and pretty lights; we need appealing streetscapes that offer buffers between walkers and vehicles and sizeable medians (think Beacon Street in Brookline) for pedestrian crossings. Based on today's article, I'm cautiously optimistic that some of our planning officials support the need for true walkability.