Walk the talk

Despite Boston’s pedestrian-friendly reputation, there’s plenty of room for improvement
By DAVID EISEN  |  January 17, 2007

A KICKIN’ BIKE STAND: Architect Keith Moskow’s bike-stand design would free up clogged city sidewalks.

Boston is billed as America’s premier pedestrian city, but is it really true? Yes, Beacon Hill’s colonial townhouses and narrow streets are lovely and put tourists and locals alike in a pleasant mood. Back Bay’s wide, leafy boulevards and Victorian-era eccentricities enfold the urban stroller in lush Olmstead-style greenery. And the more recently developed South End entices strollers with its outdoor cafes, lovingly restored storefronts, small parks, and intimate gardens.

But it’s not enough to rely on the achievements of the past; we need streets that work for us today. Stand back and take in the city from the pedestrian’s point of view: too many streets are not all they are cracked up to be. Overflowing trash cans and asphalt perennially under repair belie those adoring urban portraits found in college view books and tourist brochures. The delights of the city should be endless, yet they’re too often marred by rundown sidewalks, uninspired design, and a loss of civility and respect.

Perhaps we’ve lost sight of the sensuality of public places now that the Internet and cell phones provide the connective tissue that holds society together. Too many of us — whether bankers, college kids, or cooks — armor ourselves against the environment in our rolling cocoons of glass and steel. All that technology may be convenient, but it sucks the life out of our streets. A sense of civic pride and our city’s collective memory can only be achieved by re-energizing urban thoroughfares traversed by foot.

In Boston, a number of advocates are committed to making our streets accessible to the diverse city constituencies that share these narrow slices of real estate by making them as great they can be. Some are urban designers, some are nonprofits, and others are city officials, but they all want to give a better form to the pulsing energy of urban life today.


TRASHED TREASURE: Boston’s sidewalks are riddled with garbage and cracks — not exactly a pedestrian’s paradise.

Hoofers’ lament
“Walking is for everyone” says Wendy Landman of the nonprofit WalkBoston. “It brings people together on the city streets that belong equally to every one of us. Advocating for walkers is a social-justice issue, a health issue, and an environmental issue.” The answer to our epidemic of obesity and diabetes? Walking. The solution to pollution? Walking. And how do we get rid of the asphalt all over town and replace it with grass? By leaving the car home and walking — taking back the streets, as it were.

With a staff of five and a flotilla of volunteers, WalkBoston’s approach is both top down — pushing to make pedestrian issues a priority for government and business, and bottom up — raising expectations for the quality of the urban environment. Both are woven around a vision of a city in which a wonderful network of interconnected streets, efficient and accessible mass transit, and citizens personally invested in the character of the city, make walking a constant pleasure and an effective way to get around. The organization’s well-researched maps laying out the best ways to get from here to there and back are distributed at hospitals, schools, and workplaces all over Boston, touting lifestyles that are better for everyone. Walking, Landman says, is not only good for people, it “makes the city itself vibrant and alive.”

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