Laudato Si’ – Pope Francis wades into the fray over climate change, and spends some time on walkability and placemaking

It’s been almost three weeks since Pope Francis released Laudato Si’, the groundbreaking encyclical on the environment and the role that humanity plays in its ongoing degradation on a global scale. As the dust settles after the initial media blitz, it’s worth considering that a document that speaks broadly on the spiritual dimension of the interconnection of the crises in climate change, global poverty, and increasing inequality also sees the condition of our social interactions and the fabric of our urban places as critically worthy of examination and direction. An excerpt (emphasis added):

There is… a need to protect those common areas, visual landmarks and urban landscapes which increase our sense of belonging, of rootedness, of “feeling at home” within a city which includes us and brings us together. It is important that the different parts of a city be well integrated and that those who live there have a sense of the whole, rather than being confined to one neighbourhood and failing to see the larger city as space which they share with others. Interventions which affect the urban or rural landscape should take into account how various elements combine to form a whole which is perceived by its inhabitants as a coherent and meaningful framework for their lives. Others will then no longer be seen as strangers, but as part of a “we” which all of us are working to create…

Lynn Richards, who currently leads the Congress for the New Urbanism, has boiled it down in a piece entitled The Encyclical of the New Urbansim over at Better Cities & Towns. Lynn’s whole piece is worth reading, as is the encyclical itself, but Lynn seems to sum it up best here (emphasis, once again, added):

In his approach to urbanization and climate change, Pope Francis gave a global platform to the idea that the health of our natural environment is dictated by the shape and quality of our human communities—both our social connections and the physical places we inhabit.

Where and how we design, preserve, and build our streets, neighborhoods, towns, cities, and regions matter. Placemakers of all types, including New Urbanists, share with Pope Francis a conviction that our physical environment has a direct impact on our chances for happy, prosperous lives. Well-designed public places, neighborhoods, Main Streets, and rural villages help create community: healthy ways for people to live and socialize. These places also help reduce our impact on natural systems and can mitigate climate impacts.

The imperative at the local level is for walkable, well-designed development in neighborhoods connected by multiple, interlinked, and convenient networks (pedestrian, bicycle, transit, and auto) providing access to the broader city and region. Every neighborhood in Boston can achieve this vision. WalkUP Roslindale is dedicated to helping it happen right here in Roslindale.

UPCOMING: July 13, 2015 – Presentation to LANA on Proposed Project – 874-878 South Street, Roslindale

The project developer’s presentation will be made as part of Longfellow Area Neighborhood Association’s July meeting, starting at 7:30 pm on Monday, July 13, 2015, at Longfellow House (885 South Street). Per LANA, the tentative proposal is for demolition of the 4 storefronts and the residential structure to the rear and construction of a new 4-story building with 15 residential units, this is a pre-filing presentation, and preliminary plans are not yet available to the public.

Like other recent developments near the square, if done properly, this presents an opportunity to increase density in a walkable area and further invigorate the community and business district. We’ll likely have more comments as the details come to light.

Divas, Dagwoods, and Object Buildings

Friends, Robert Campbell once again dispensed timely wisdom from the Globe a few days ago. If you care about Boston’s built environment and real potential pitfalls in the current boom, take a peek. Campbell observes:

Let’s think about that by looking at two basic types of urban high-rises. I’ll call them the Diva and the Dagwood.

The Diva, self-centered, is a tower that ignores everything around it. It stands, or rather poses, like an opera star on an empty stage. A Diva is usually set back from the street, behind empty space in the form of a lawn or plaza. Developers often praise such a space as a gift to the pedestrian, but that’s hogwash. A plaza isn’t there for the people, it’s there to show off the Diva, or at best to fulfill some bureaucrat’s square-foot calculation of required open space.

No matter how elegantly they may be paved or planted, urban plazas are boring, windy, and little used, especially in weather like ours. The Prudential, back before its Arctic plazas were filled in with shopping arcades, was a good example. The Federal Reserve Bank, next to South Station, is another. It’s a handsome, eloquent Diva tower behind a plaza that has the charm of a recently abandoned battlefield.

As far as the public is concerned, cities aren’t made of buildings and plazas, anyway. Cities are made of streets and parks. From the point of view of urban design, the buildings are there to shape those public spaces and feed them with energy.

The critique goes back to Louis Sullivan in the early days of skyscrapers and a time when the problem was too much stylistic dressing on tall buildings, as opposed to too little. Broadly considered, the lesson for those of us who support smart development is that we should be careful about what we support and demand sensitivity to context in all things. Robert calls buildings that don’t do this “divas” to make non-technical folks get the point, but the better and more accurate term is “object buildings” – buildings that are willfully unconcerned with their surroundings, meant to be seen only in isolation like a piece of sculpture. In cities, such buildings are toxic. If they don’t kill their locations,  they live off them parasitically. While we (hopefully!) are unlikely to see skyscrapers like those Campbell discusses here in Roslindale, the central thesis of his piece argues for careful infill that provides for step by step succession as to density and height as opposed to great leaps. We will have ill-served ourselves if we end up with a slew of “object” buildings in this wave. We would be better off sitting this out entirely.

Welcome to our neighborhood: A Manifesto for Inclusivity

What Todd Litman said over on Planetizen about a month ago: Welcome to our neighborhood: A Manifesto for Inclusivity.

Key concept: An “affordable” neighborhood isn’t just about housing cost as a share of your income. It’s really about housing plus transportation costs. You can afford to pay more for where you live if where you live lets you get around for less — by foot, bike, or transit.

And his response to the commenter is worth citing as well: “There are few better sustainability strategies, which help achieve economic, social and environmental goals together, than to ensure that every household can find an affordable house in an accessible, walkable neighborhood. Everybody wins!”

What will Roslindale look like in 2030? Who will be living, working, and playing here? How will they come and go, and how will they get around once they’re here?

These are questions that two massive city-wide planning efforts are trying to answer. On the first couple of questions, Imagine Boston is the first comprehenisve master plan the city has even attempted in the last 50 years. Go Boston 2030 is the city’s new transportation planning process dealing with the second set of questions.

We are standing at a crossroads as a city. What direction will we take in welcoming our new neighbors, business owners and employees, and visitors? How will these new planning efforts be steered in Roslindale? Will we make our community more walkable and bikeable and livable in the process? In the next 18 months or so, the course to 2030 will be largely set. Now is the time to get involved. What ideas do we want to put on the table? This conversation is critical to our future, and we’re reminded by the last post about why that really is.

Why “Walk UP?”

The term comes from Chris Leinberger at the Brookings Institution and his most recent set of studies about the demonstrable value premium that the real estate market is attaching to “Walkable Urban Places” or “WalkUPs.” To paraphrase Leinberger’s March 2015 report on WalkUPs in the Boston region (the “WalkUP Wake Up Call – Boston” – available online here), a “Walkable Urban Place” is a place characterized by

  • Realtively high intensity of development with
  • Multiple and vertically/horizontally mixed uses (housing, office, retail, recreation, education, etc.) located in close proximity to one another,
  • Employing multiple modes of transportation (walking, bicycling, transit, and automobiles) that get people and goods to the place, and
  • Walkability once you’re there.

In other words, Roslindale Square and the neighborhood that surrounds it.

Between the Walsh Administration’s recent housing report predicting 70,000 new residents needing 53,000 new housing units of all kinds by 2030 and the increasing concentration of new development of all kinds in WalkUPs that Leinberger is forecasting, we are going to see real growth and significant development pressure in Roslindale in the next decade and a half.

WalkUP Roslindale seeks to be a gathering place for those who welcome this new wave of development but know that it has to be done right so that our neighborhood becomes even more livable. Thanks for stopping in!