Friday, April 4, 2008

Framingham's Most Walkable Neighborhoods

I am a big fan of walking instead of driving whenever possible. When I think back over all of the places I've lived, and visited, the ones I enjoyed most were places where everyday life was not ruled by getting in a car to go someplace. Unfortunately, suburban America has made a car a necessity for leaving your home in many communities.

Framingham, as it is in so many things, goes from one end of the spectrum to the other when it comes to being a walkable town. My fellow Framingham blogger Sharon Machlis Gartenberg has been writing about this for years on her excellent Planning Livable Communities blog.

From the pedestrian nightmare that is the Golden Mile stretch of Route 9, to the pedestrian friendly streets of downtown, Framingham has a little of everything for those traveling on foot.

Some of the principles of walkability include safety for pedestrians, attractiveness of the streetscape, and proximity to desirable destinations. In general, the south side of town is far superior to the north side in terms of walkability, if we use Route 9 as the dividing line.

Downtown Framingham, whatever its faults may be, has a lot of good streetscape; plenty of sidewalks, many street-level businesses for visual interest, and lots of key destinations within close proximity, including town hall, the library, commuter rail, the Danforth Museum, restaurants, entertainment venues, and shops. And hundreds of residences within easy walking distance.

But the north side has its highly walkable areas as well. The villages of both Nobscot and Saxonville offer stores, restaurants, banks, schools, churches, parks, a branch library (in Saxonville), and other services and amenities within easy walking distance of hundreds of homes. In Saxonville, for the eight years I lived there, and now in Nobscot, where I moved last year, I can accomplish many everyday tasks on foot. I can drop my car off for repairs, get a haircut, go to the bank, get a cup of coffee or something to eat, pick up a pharmacy prescription, and enjoy countless other small pleasures in the community.

What are the enemies of walkability? Lack of sidewalks. Distance from key destinations. Or, even when sidewalks are present and desirable destinations nearby, unappealing streetscapes, due to traffic, esposure to the elements, or just plain bad design. Just think of Route 30. Not exactly the kind of place you'd venture down for an afternoon stroll.

Some parts of town that are considered very beautiful and prestigious are terrible in terms of walkability. Miles from anything but other houses or major roadways. Situated on streets without sidewalks that you would be risking your life to walk down, particularly in bad weather or after dark. I daresay even many long-time residents have probably never ventured beyond their driveway unless they were in a car. Or met many of their neighbors. Is this what we truly want, or what we've been conditioned to believe we want?

Could it be that the Natick Collection and Shoppers World are so crowded because people just want to be able to stroll idly, look in store windows, interact with other people, and do the kind of everyday things other generations did in the walkable neighborhoods of years past?