By Joseph A. Curtatone
(The opinions and views expressed in the commentaries of The Somerville News belong solely to the authors of those commentaries and do not reflect the views or opinions of The Somerville News, its staff or publishers.)
As residents of the most densely populated community in New England, our choice to live, work, play and raise families in an urban environment is dictated by many factors, like proximity to family and friends, access to jobs and services, and the cultural and entrepreneurial energy that defines cities. Walkability and bikeability between neighborhoods and squares, immediate access goods and services, and the cultural understanding that comes with sharing close borders with neighbors are all key factors setting us apart from suburban or rural communities. Perhaps the most fundamental element to our quality of life in an urban core is choice in transportation.
We know that choice is important to Somerville residents, because we’ve asked. From our first-in-the nation Happiness Survey, the award-winning, grassroots SomerVision Comprehensive Plan, and our semi-annual ResiStat public meetings, the same themes emerge: we want our city to be safe, accessible and navigable whether we are walking, biking or driving. Our residents consistently and passionately advocate for transportation improvements, from neighborhood-serving crosswalks all the way to big issues like saving MBTA bus routes and extending the Green Line. Easy access to transit, and therefore to jobs, schools and amenities, is what separates urban communities from suburban and rural ones, and what makes cities so desirable for our young, educated residents.
This tradition of using resident feedback to improve our urban environment is exactly why the city recently launched the “Somerville by Design” initiative. Somerville by Design is a philosophy focused on the idea that we realize the best results in planning, zoning, and infrastructure projects when our residents are engaged to establish a physical, collective vision for our city’s future, how we want our neighborhoods, squares and streets to look, feel and function.
Between October 2012 and January 2013, more than 200 Somerville residents, business leaders and community stakeholders participated in the Somerville by Design “Station Area Planning Series,” geared toward planning for physical improvements around future MBTA Green Line stations. Through a series of public meetings, open studio design sessions and one-on-one discussions with property owners, led by walkability expert Jeff Speck, we are generating physical design plans that will be published this spring and summer, and will lead the way for future design goals throughout the GLX process. Make no mistake, public processes like these can and do yield very real improvements. Take, for example, the 1984 Davis Square Action Plan, which was critical to producing many of the square’s best-loved public spaces and urban design characteristics.
A second phase of work under the Somerville by Design umbrella, the “Complete Streets Series,” kicked off in February. Rather than limiting its focus to areas surrounding future T stations, this Complete Streets series considers development citywide, with participants exploring how we can create and maintain safe and attractive streets that offer the best possible access to, from, and within our neighborhoods. Nationally-recognized engineer and designer Ian Lockwood joins us for this series, working with our city staff to develop and run an exciting, interactive public involvement process that will translate best-practices in urban design to Somerville’s constrained urban environment. (If you haven’t seen Ian’s presentation on City Cable, be sure to check out the OSPCD page on the city’s website.)
Our emphasis on and commitment to a truly multimodal and accessible community is already apparent: we’ve installed more than 25 miles of bike markings in the last three years; we’ve implemented projects like the East Broadway reconstruction, which will include wider sidewalks and bike lanes; we’re discussing the addition of a cycletrack along a reconstructed Beacon Street; and we will break ground on the extension of the Community Path from Cedar Street to Lowell Street this spring. In short, we’re committed to increasing walkability and bikeability, and with that, increasing access to goods and services both in our city and outside of our borders, and each of these projects has been undertaken through open, public processes that incorporate community ideals.
We know from our recent successes in Magoun Square and on Somerville Avenue that an inclusive approach to transportation planning will better serve all of our constituents. In my 2013 mid-term address, I issued an ambitious challenge: let’s work to make Somerville the most walkable small city in America. Walkscore has already ranked us the 10th most walkable community in the nation. The Street and the League of American Bicyclists have named us the 8th most bikeable community. But this is Somerville, and we can do even better. A proactive, complete streets approach will allow the city to balance the needs of different users and offer better transportation choices for all.