Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Small Streets for a Better Baltimore

Guest Blogger
Phil LaCombe
TND Planning Group Intern

In an era characterized by concern over rising transportation costs and the long-term environmental sustainability of our suburban mode of living, as well as rapid economic and demographic changes within our cities, a piece of the traditional pattern of living in our cities deserves revisiting. That crucial element of the sustainable city is the small street, found in Baltimore neighborhoods such as Fells Point, Federal Hill, Old Goucher, and Hollins Market.

Small streets have been a critical part of Baltimore’s urban fabric since the 1700s, when industry and commerce first clustered around the harbor. They continued to be an integral part of the expanding city until around 1920. During that time, small streets provided affordable housing for working class families close to jobs. The so-called alley houses provided ambitious new immigrant families of Baltimore with places of living more dignified than the tenements of other cities.

Because rowhouses on small streets tend to be simpler in architecture and smaller in size than the houses on nearby main streets, affordability is part of their nature. At the same time, the small rowhouses afford working-class people the opportunity to live in good neighborhoods. Planners and community leaders today realize that a mix of incomes amongst residents makes a neighborhood healthier and stronger than if it is homogenous. Furthermore, small streets can create affordable housing without any government subsidy.

Butchers Hill presents an excellent example of a neighborhood made affordable through small streets. The homes on East Baltimore Street are quite grand, but just around the corner down North Duncan Street in this photo are houses that are smaller and more affordable yet no less respectable. The two housing types co-exist harmoniously, complimenting each other to create an economically diverse neighborhood that is beautiful and stable.

In addition to being affordable places, small streets are what planners call livable places. Small streets attract people and bicycles, not cars. Building in a compact form creates a more livable environment where people can obtain many if not all of their daily needs nearby. There's no need to drive to the grocery store, library, bank, or café. Many people who live in small streets find it unnecessary to own a car. If a destination is not within walking or bicycling distance, compact neighborhoods that include small streets are often well-served by public transit.

Everyone knows the saying, "It takes a village to raise a child". Until half a century ago, the street was where children played and neighbors met in cities and towns throughout the world. "Villagers" didn't have to go out of their way to raise their neighbors' child, it was integrated into the social and urban fabric of daily life. Neighborhood streets were safe places because there were always people out, neighbors inadvertently self-policing simply by sitting outside and chatting. The streets of Baltimore and other U.S. cities adequately served this function until the onslaught of the private car. 

In his groundbreaking book Livable Streets, scholar Donald Appleyard demonstrated that as traffic increased, people knew fewer of their neighbors and used less of their street for socializing. Small streets discourage speeding and through-traffic with their design, and thereby free the street to reclaim its traditional role as playground and gathering place for residents.

Small streets offer an urban alternative to the suburban cul-de-sac. The cul-de-sac was the 20th century attempt to create a safe space for children to play in the street, and it did serve that purpose well. However, the side-effects included car dependency for all other activities, which only exacerbated the problem. Grandparents and other seniors past driving age were either isolated at home or shipped off to retirement communities, and parents of tweens were forced to play chauffeur between soccer matches and swim-meets. In contrast, small streets in a dense town or city environment provide all of one's needs within walking distance. Kids can walk to school and activities, and the older folks are near services, parks, their grand-kids, and each other.

Baltimore is fortunate to benefit from having small streets in a country where they are uncommon, and the alley houses Baltimore have a unique historic charm unlike houses found anywhere else in the United States. Unfortunately many small streets were demolished in the “urban renewal” era, making the preservation of those that remain that much more important. As the City of Baltimore works to rewrite its zoning code, it should seize the opportunity to include policies that will encourage the preservation of existing small streets and the creation of new small streets.

Want to learn more? Visit the Small Streets website at www.smallstreets.org.

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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