Walkable Somerville

On April 26, 2013, in Latest News, by The Somerville Times

shelton_webPart 1:  What it is and why it’s in the news

 (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.)

University of Michigan research finds that about a third of American homeowners would like to live in walkable urban neighborhoods such as those that comprise most of our city. But only 5-to-10% of metropolitan housing is located in such neighborhoods.


While demand for walkable neighborhoods is increasing across most demographic groups, it’s growing fastest among millennials—young adults born after 1980. 64 percent of them decide where they want to live, and only then look for a job. 77 percent say they want to live in an urban core. As this would imply, walkable communities have an advantage in attracting the most talented workers.


In its simplest terms, “walkability” is a measure of how much a neighborhood encourages, motivates, and supports walking. It’s a hot topic among city planners, developers, economists, government officials, and neighborhood activists.


Economist Joe Cortright has coined the term “walkability dividend,” which accrues to cities that encourage walkable neighborhoods. He analyzed data from 94,000 real estate transactions in 15 major markets and found that walkability translates into higher home values. And walkable cities’ property tax revenues increase, because property values increase.


Their city services costs go down as well. Over decades, transportation planners have learned the hard lesson of “Induced demand.” When they try to reduce congestion by expanding traffic capacity, they get more congestion—and more cost.


Brookings Institution Fellow Christopher Leinberger is a developer as well as a scholar. He says that real estate and infrastructure development are in the midst of a structural change comparable only to what took place following World War II. “We in real estate are fundamentally re-tooling how we design, plan, regulate, and finance to serve this pent up demand” for what he calls, “walkable urbanism.”


Epidemiologists tell us that people live longer, healthier lives in walkable neighborhoods than in nonwalkable neighborhoods, and in cities and towns rather than in sprawl. They are less obese, have lower levels of diabetes, and suffer less cardiovascular disease. The American Cancer Institute says that urban design should encourage walking because it reduces cancer rates.


Sociologists tell us that walkable neighborhoods provide more opportunities for social interaction and their residents have more friends and associates. They also have greater pride in their communities and they volunteer more often.


Criminologists tell us that walkable neighborhoods have markedly lower crime rates.

Biological scientist Craig Stanford tells us that upright gait and walking have been vital to the development of the human brain, raising the question of whether a century of driving has made us stupider.


Climate scientists and climate-change advocates tell us that a New York City resident has one-fifth the carbon footprint of a Dallas, Texas resident. And exhaustively reviewing the scholarly literature, urban researchers Reid Ewing and Robert Cervero tell us that, “Almost any development in a central location is likely to generate less automobile travel than the best-designed, compact, mixed-use development in a remote location.”


For all these reasons, walkability is an essential focus of the city’s Somerville by Design Initiative, a participatory effort to conserve neighborhood character and wisely plan the areas around new Green Line stations.


Consider a lover’s stroll from the Somerville Theater to the Rosebud Diner in Davis Square versus one from the Somerville Avenue Target Store to Twin Cities Plaza. In the former, the built environment participates in and enhances the experience. In the latter, the environment constrains and disrupts the experience. Thinking about why goes a long way toward understanding what makes for walkability.


Perhaps the most important factor is having someplace to walk to, and through. In Made for Walking, Julie Campoli illustrates how walkable neighborhoods offer a density and diversity of such places—restaurants, health services, retail financial institutions, stores, civic functions, entertainment, recreational facilities, schools, jobs, parks, and transit stops, all in walking distance.


Given desirable places to get to, walkability requires a means of doing so. This involves a density of street and path connections with many short links and many intersections. In other words, something like Somerville’s street grid.  It also involves easy access to transit that will take a walker to places of interest outside the neighborhood. We enjoy a reasonably good bus network, and the Green Line will further increase the walkability of Gilman Square, Magoun Square and Ball Square.


Walkable streets must be appealing. Threshold requirements are safety, cleanliness, and an acceptable level of noise, but they are not enough.


Perceived “walking distance” varies greatly depending on how comfortable, interesting, and engaging the walking environment is. Urban designers use terms like “human scale,” “sense of enclosure,” “imageability,” “transparency,” and “complexity.”


The more interesting the view and the more it changes, the more people will walk, and the longer they’ll walk. We like structures that are built out to the street, with lots of doors and windows. We like architecture, design, and streetscapes that are pleasant to look at and be in.


We like other people on the street. We’re social critters. We enjoy observing others of our species, and their presence suggests that we’re in a good place.


We’re more comfortable when we feel sheltered, by building height, or trees, or canopies and overhangs. Outdoor seating and places where we can linger increase walkability. And of course, one or more good bars is a must.


In my next column, I’ll talk about how cities, businesses, developers and residents create walkable neighborhoods and what we can learn from them. Cities on the leading edge of this movement aren’t just those we might think of as “trendy.” Cincinnati, for example, has produced a comprehensive plan that funnels growth into 40 walkable “Neighborhood Centers.”


Somerville enjoys a big head start, not because we’re so clever, but because our ancestors built a city around people rather than around the automobile. Jeff Speck is a “new urbanist” whose Walkable City book has garnered huge attention this year. Retained by the city as a consultant, he tells us, “You are already ahead…. You were born on third base.”


8 Responses to “Walkable Somerville”

  1. A. Moore says:

    We had a walkable city many years ago. Don’t expect to see that again unless we can find a way to work with businesses. You could live anywhere in Somerville pretty much and without a car walk to a store and get whatever you needed, not so any more here. Living in Magoun Square we had grocery stores, meat markets, hardware stores, everything was accessable. We no longer have that luxury here. As a family you could get by without a car here, not so anymore. Mom and pop store are making a comeback but we need to be able to have an affordable place for them to set up shop here. Plus be more helpful to them starting up by not making it impossible to start up a business here. We could actually work here in the city as well but that is also over with. Sad to say this will never really be a truly walkable city again.

  2. MarketMan says:

    There is a lot of truth to what A. Moore is saying. Somerville has a walkable city layout, but it needs the right mix of businesses to be truly walkable. We aren’t doing to bad in some areas (Ball, Davis, Porter), but we need more businesses that offer utility (grocery, hardware, medical, etc) and not just all entertainment (restaurants and bars).

  3. Josh says:

    Size-wise Somerville is walkable. However, it’s just not a pleasant walk anymore. You used to see activity, lovely homes and gardens, kids playing. Now more and more of them are gone, replaced by student housing, young people just here for a few years of fun, and huge developments, many without any setback so that they become just a granite wall overshadowing the sidewalk.

  4. paul says:

    I hope the anti density people that always speak against developments read this article.

  5. Somerbreeze says:

    Yeah, really “Walkable City,” while we STILL have the sidewalk cyclists out in force once again, while City Hall still refuses to enforce the local ordinance prohibiting it, despite repeated requests from citizens and the Board of Aldermen for enforcement…

    No, Mayor Joe is too in thrall to the Bike Lobby to ensure public safety…

    Walkable City is just so much Happy Horsemanure!

  6. Dimi DeRose says:

    If you write a series of Most Tripable Cities, Somerville can be featured first!
    There may be charming theaters and vintage diners to walk to but getting there without falling on your face is a real risk. No area of the country has worse sidewalk trip hazards than right here.
    Can you explain, how is Somerville walkable if you trip in a hole from a missing brick or fall up a hill made by tree roots?

  7. ThinkAboutMe? says:

    know what I’m sick of? an article like this, and all the yapping about a walking city, and never a thought about we who use wheelchairs, canes, or walkers. your walking city is a nightmare for me. You need to sit in a chair and experience your lovely brick sidewalks. or your new brick intersections. Now businesses set out tables or signs on the sidewalk, making it impossible for us to get by. In Davis in front of 4 horses I had to wait for someone to move a sign so I could get by. try to get by your ‘brunch lines’ in Union or Ball Sqs. sidewalk seats and a line taking up the rest. Excuse me, excuse me, trying to get through, please—that’s what a walk through YOUR squares is like for me. so talk about the health benefits but don’t care that folks like me just stay home because of the lack of concern on anybody’s part. Once again, a great big giant thank you. (and none of this excuses me from paying all the fees and taxes to live here—just prevents me from enjoying any of it)

  8. Anne says:

    Dimi DeRose, you have hit on a huge problem. There are streets where the sidewalk is at a 90 degree angle due to tree roots and noone seems to notice or care. Also, bricks are a big enough problem for the disabled when they’re flush with the pavement, but in a few years they start losing bricks and it’s a nightmare. This has happened on the bike path. Also, the bike path has not been paved since its’ inception and parts of it are a mess. I have tripped more than once on the uneven surfaces. It’s great to build things but not if you cannot maintain them. But I know the city workers are kept pretty busy placing street closure signs, or notifications of private fundraisers.

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