Wednesday, August 3, 2011

20-Minute Neighborhood as the New England Town

Guest Blogger
Phil LaCombe
TND Planning Group Intern

Although we write mostly about the 20-minute neighborhood in the context of the city, sometimes small towns remind us that cities are really just a collection of neighborhoods and that the best cities are collections of 20-minute neighborhoods.

Recently, I took a trip from Maryland up to my home region of the Pioneer Valley in Western Massachusetts and in my travels visited the town of Greenfield, Massachusetts. Around 17,000 people call the Town of Greenfield home and roughly 6,000 people live within 20 minutes’ walking distance from the center of town. Greenfield is neither a tourist or college town, yet its Main Street contains all the right elements to provide a solid foundation for a 20-minute neighborhood.

We all need to eat, so a grocery store is arguably the most important element in a 20-minute neighborhood. Greenfield has the reasonably-sized Green Fields Market, which presents an inviting storefront in a compact space directly on the sidewalk but provides a thorough selection to meet nearby residents’ daily needs. A full-service food store brings people of all demographics to the main commercial street and can even serve as a community gathering space. A jazz ensemble, writers’ workshop, and yoga class all regularly make use of the second floor of the store. Sitting at a table on a sidewalk, I noticed that many of its patrons do not drive but walk or bike to the store.

Because I’m in just my early twenties, I never knew a time when people went downtown to shop at a department store. I was shocked to find Wilson’s Department Store on Main Street in Greenfield. There’s no need to drive to the mall or big-box store outside of town to buy clothing or housewares—you can walk to Wilson’s. Like all of the smaller buildings on Main Street, Wilson’s sits directly on the sidewalk to encourage walking. Much of Main Street features diagonal parking that helps to calm traffic on what would otherwise be a very wide street.

The “necessity” amenities in Greenfield, which include the grocery store, department store, post office and more, support “optional” amenities and activities such as the movie theater. (The movie titles on the marquee are out of date because I took these photos on a previous trip.) There’s also the library, YMCA, art galleries, smaller shops, a great park, and an array of cafés, bars and restaurants. All of these amenities feed on the foot and bike traffic from each other, creating synergies that not only bring life to the town but also circulate dollars in the local economy.

Because Greenfield’s businesses sit directly on the sidewalk, engage the street, and exist in a connected mixed-use fabric with nearby residences, they create synergies for walking and overall livability. One could live well in this town of just 17,000 people without using a car on a regular basis!

For good reason, the center of Greenfield earns a Walk Score of 92, making it a “Walker’s Paradise.” However walkable it may be, it’s important for a neighborhood to also have good transit access so that it’s possible to travel to other neighborhoods, towns and cities without a car. A transit center currently under construction will provide local bus, intercity bus, and paratransit service just two blocks from the center of town. In a few years, the transit center will offer Amtrak rail connections to other cities in the region as well as the Northeast Corridor, including New York City and our very own Baltimore. 

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