Walkable Somerville

On May 10, 2013, in Latest News, by The Somerville Times

Part 2:  What makes neighborhoods walkable

shelton_webBy William C. Shelton

 (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.)

Our 19th Century ancestors who built Somerville’s streets, structures and squares gave no more thought to walkability than a fish gives to water. They created a built environment that met their needs, and they were walkers.

But following World War II, suburban life held a seductive allure. The city’s population dropped from 103,000 in 1950 to 77,000 in 1980. The dimensions of this exodus were greater than these numbers imply, since immigrants replaced many of the departed.

Decades past, and those who had left in search of privacy often found isolation.  Those fleeing congestion came to sacrifice time, money, and health to highway traffic. Those wanting to shed their working-class identities lived to experience an America where popular culture denies the existence of class.

Today, their grandchildren increasingly want to live in walkable neighborhoods like Somerville’s. And they want to understand what makes communities walkable.

Jeff Speck answers that a walk must be useful, safe, comfortable, and interesting. Mr. Speck consults to the City of Somerville and is author of Walkable City:  How Downtown Can Save America, One Step at a Time.


Urban designers describe the physical characteristics that shape these four subjective conditions. Walkable neighborhoods have a center. For a walk to be “useful,” there must be a rich diversity of things to walk to—stores, services, work, school, public transportation, civic functions, entertainment.

There were once 14 movie theaters in Somerville. Their locations are a good indication of neighborhood centers. Teele Square, Ball Square, Lower Broadway, and Cross Street each had a theater. Davis Square hosted two, as did the intersection of Central and Highland. Union Square and Winter Hill each boasted three.

No place in Somerville was more than a ten-minute walk from where one could buy daily necessities, encounter friends, or be entertained. This kind of density of goods and services, in turn, requires a density of residents to support flourishing businesses and frequent transit service.


Pedestrians need to feel safe. In the first instance, this means feeling safe from cars.

A variety of design criteria contribute to pedestrian safety. Generally, the smaller the blocks, the more walkable the streets. Small blocks disperse traffic.

Urban lane widths should rarely be greater than ten feet. Wider lanes promote higher speeds.

Two-way streets tend to be safer than one-way streets. Continuous on-street parking, continuous street trees, and bike lanes buffer pedestrians from traffic. Curb cuts that enable vehicles to cross sidewalks should be minimized.

Urban designers use the term “complete streets.” “Complete,” here means, “inclusive.” It means that everyone feels safe sharing the street, not that you have a separate space for each use. It requires integrating transportation planning with land use.


Humans have a need for refuge. Our predecessors who survived long enough to transmit their genes to us instinctively protected their flanks from things that would eat them. This need seems to be encoded in our DNA. Urban designers talk about a “sense of enclosure” that is required to create comfortable, walkable streets.

We feel better in spaces with defined edges—what some call “outdoor living rooms.” From classical times, designers have suggested that the ideal street space has a height-to width ratio of 1:1. More recently, researchers find that ratios beyond 1:6 create an environment that people want to flee. Think McGrath Highway.

Buildings on walkable streets come up to the sidewalks, with few gaps between them. Parking lots are behind buildings. Street trees contribute to a sense of enclosure while moderating heat and wind, absorbing rain and emissions, and providing shade.

Sound affects our sense of comfort. Heavy traffic and construction noises are conditions that we want to pass through as quickly as possible. Sounds of a fountain or agreeable music encourage us to linger.

Cleanliness is also important. A littered or poorly maintained environment will keep people away from an otherwise well designed streetscape.


None of the foregoing matters much if the walk is boring. The more frequently views change, the more interesting the walk is. A series of narrower buildings is more interesting than a large façade. Frequent doors and windows are essential. Think of Magoun Square, Ball Square Union Square or Lower Broadway.

Now think about Twin Cities Plaza or Assembly Square Market Place. In these locales, the only purpose for your walk is to get back and forth to you car as quickly as possible. On the walkable streets, the ever-shifting storefronts, doors, and windows enrich the experience.

Retail uses at street level are more interesting. Office and residential uses should be on upper levels, also ensuring that there are eyes on the street for more hours of the day, enhancing safety. The street sides of parking structures should be devoted to active uses rather than being blank walls. Public art, vegetation, and well-designed street furniture can evoke interest.

What seems to interest humans most is other humans. We’re curious about each other, we feel safer when others are present, and we see their presence as indication that something interesting is going on. Jeff Speck writes, “The goal of all of the designers who make up the city must be to create urban environments that communicate the presence, or likely presence, of human activity.”

Those who built Somerville created a great urban environment by simply designing a city that met their daily needs. The emergence of a cult of expertise subsequently persuaded us that the pronouncements of experts were more legitimate than the authenticity of our own experience.

To its credit, the City of Somerville began its Comprehensive Plan process by soliciting the wisdom of ‘Villens lived experience. What emerged was a commitment to urban design and land use goals that conserve and enhance what’s best about our neighborhoods.

In the final installment, I’ll look at what the city is doing to protect and extend the domain of walkability.





10 Responses to “Walkable Somerville”

  1. ThinkAboutMe? says:

    Bill, ever read the comments after an article? I suggest it before you phone in Part 2 from your Ivory Tower. SAFE? ask wheelchair users why they go out into traffic instead of the sidewalks? oooops, forgot, we’re the invisible people nobody likes to hear about. do you think we prefer to be facing cars/trucks? Climb down and talk to real people who actually travel the streets. Leave the Think Tank once in awhile.

  2. Somerbreeze says:

    Pedestrians–especially seniors and the disabled–will experience neither SAFE or USEFUL walking as long as City Hall fails to enforce the local ordinance prohibiting business-district sidewalk cycling.

    Based on past history, City Hall has no intention of enforcing it, either.

    So how can Jeff Speck call Somerville a “walkable city” while this cynical indifference to public safety prevails?

  3. Andy Cap says:

    I’m wheelchair-bound. I never go out on my own because it is so frustrating and dangerous. Despite all the money spent on making a few ramps here and there, the big picture in Somerville is still terrible. You cannot really go around in a wheelchair by yourself. Before my illness, I used to think that society should not spend many resources on this, but now that I’m in the situation I realize how difficult things are for people like me.

  4. Greg says:

    Interesting article. Thought provoking. I find myself in the camp that feels like we need to pour a lot of money into making streets more pedestrian and bike friendly while being less car friendly. However, I like the idea of Assembly Square and I think if some good bike lanes are cut into the streets that lead there coupled with wide, tree lined sidewalks it can be the best of all worlds. Who knows? That parking lot might be 1/4 filled with cars and overrun with walkers and bikers. . .a man can dream!

  5. Thingaboutme? says:

    AndyCap, sorry for your illness, but it shows what we deal with all the time. People don’t care about us, think us whiners/complainers, but then when you or someone in your family becomes ill or disabled, you understand completely! This city is revolving around young, healthy, able-bodied people and screw some of us who have physical issues.

  6. A. Moore says:

    Thingaboutme? That’s because we will die off and not be a problem to them anymore. Just wait until they get there. Reality.

  7. ritepride says:

    Stil ironic with cruisers sitting beside poles with “NO TRUCKS” signage on the Blvd and these heavy rigs with no business on the Blvd drive past the cruisers and none are pulled over/ticketed….

    WHY??? Because the cruisers are busy tagging stop sign offenders who do not stop for the Tufts students crossing the street…More priority for taxexempt Tufts than the tax paying residents…You can bet on upcoming Tufts Commencement weekend City Hall will pull the cruisers from this detail so none of the Tufts students parents get ticketed for zooming past the stop signs. You can bet down the line certain city officials kids will be attending Tufts at “reduced tuition pricing”….Historic Somerville…Da Envelope puhleeez!

  8. gregtowne says:

    “Jeff Speck answers that a walk must be useful, safe, comfortable, and interesting. Mr. Speck consults to the City of Somerville” I think we (tax payers) would love to know how much the city is paying Mr. Speck for his consulting work. Another shining example of progressive gov’t waste in this city. Has anyone seen their tax bill lately? What a joke.

  9. Bill Shelton says:

    I do get tired of writing columns that are critical of city government. And I don’t think that they have much legitimacy unless I also appreciate city officials when they do something right. And Somerville By Design is very much the right thing to do.

    That said, there is another story that deserves (and will get) its own column(s). It begins in 1992 when implementation of the Americans With Disabilities Act required all cities to prepare a Self Evaluation Transition Plan explaining how all city facilities and programs would be made accessible to people with disabilities. A few years later, the federal judiciary determined that “facilities” included streets and paths.

    Somerville never prepared the Transition Plan. Over the next two decades, the city spent many millions of street maintenance and road improvements, including $4.7 million in the mid 2000s that it received as part of the Safe START program. When streets, intersections, and sidewalks are reworked, it would seem wise and cost effective to routinely make them compliant with ADA guidelines. Astoundingly, that didn’t happen.

    The Community Access Project, a small group of local heroes, filed over a hundred complaints about unsafe and deficient streets and crossings. Finally the U.S. Department of Transportation told the city that if it wanted to keep getting funds, it must prepare and implement a Transition Plan. Work on the Plan began late last Fall. We’ll see how it goes.

    It hasn’t escaped my attention that the constituency that most supports Somerville By Design has the means to use cars when they want to, while those most affected by streets that are unsafe to pedestrians and the wheelchair bound, are not.

  10. Bostom says:

    Gregtowne and Mr. Shelton: Did he really say that? C’mon, nobody, even the official who hired him, can think banalities like that are worth paying for. Can they? Why pay for platitudes when the truth is not only so apparent but also absolutely free?

    A walk MUST BE none of those things unless you’re a consultant hawking your book.

    You walk to go somewhere.
    Maybe because you like walking.
    Maybe because your cardiologist said it would do you some good.
    Or because you don’t have a bike or a scooter or rollerblades or a skateboard or God forbid, an evil device called a car.
    The bottom line is that you walk because you want to or have to in order to get where you want or have to go.

    Simple as that. Where do I sign up for his job? I need one that pays more because I have seen and paid my ever-increasing tax bill and if this is even a tiny part of why it went up so much, Somerville is good and truly screwed.

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