Tuesday, December 4, 2007

Walkable Places

Alderman Verne Vance, a vocal advocate for human-scaled development in Newton, forwarded a link to an interesting, if a bit hazy, Globe article on the rise of walkable urban places in the U.S. The article cites a study by developer/consultant/urban planning professor/think-tank fellow Christopher B. Leinberger that identifies 157 region-serving walkable urban places in the 30 largest metropolitan regions in the country.

The Boston area has a bunch — the Back Bay, the South End, Kendall Square, Wellesley Center, &c. — but nothing in Newton. We ought to aspire to get on the list.

Here is the definition:

Walkable urban is:
  • at least five times as dense as drivable sub-urban (floor-area-ratio of between 0.8 and upwards to 40.0),

  • mixed-use (residential, office, retail, cultural, educational, etc.),

  • compact (regional-serving walkable urban places, as defined below, are generally between 100 and 500 acres in size),

  • generally accessible by multiple transportation means (transit, bike, car and walking), and

  • walkable for nearly every destination once in the place.

That last criteria really speaks to the vision we have of places like Chestnut Hill and Needham Street. We need to think about both places as potential walkable urban districts.

At the last ZAP meeting, Alderman Lisle Baker said:

Route 9 itself is not a pedestrian corridor in the conventional sense that we think of Newton Centre and we've talked about in the past.

True as a description of what is, but inadequate as a statement of what should be. (The quote starts at about 59:00 of the meeting audio.) Any development on Boylston Street between Hammond Street to the east and Langley Road to the west — most obviously including Chestnut Hill Square — should do its part to knit the district together so that it is safely and comfortably walkable from end-to-end.

Hard to see how to do that without making Boylston Street itself the central pedestrian artery, which means requiring wide sidewalks, wide roadway shoulders, and first-floor commercial activity.

By the way, don't let the word "urban" set off visions of skyscrapers. Look above at the first criterion. It talks about density over .8 FAR. That's a lot less than anyone is proposing for Chestnut Hill Square.

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