Saturday, December 15, 2007

Pedestrians an Afterthought?

You've got to wonder what they were thinking. The design of the new Beacon Street must have looked pretty impressive on all those drawings. Despite the excessive intuitive lane weaving that the driver must somehow have the precognition to execute, the autos for the most part seem to have been accommodated. After all that's what the highway department thinks its job is.

But what about all the other life that goes on around and across and in the road? It is, after all those of us who cross Beacon on foot, take the trolley, walk or jog along the sidewalks, ride a bike, shop, talk to our friends, window shop, attend Arts Festivals, tend our front yards and sometimes just sit on our front stoops to watch the world go by all on or along side historic Beacon Street. Just how much thought was given to the way all of this was going to work out?

If the intersection at Harvard and Beacon is any indication, not much. Stand on the southeast corner of this intersection and watch as the streams of pedestrians weave and dodge there way around the two huge signal boxes placed directly in the middle of the obvious travel path, not to mention the many poles, etc. These impediments are so intrusive, we are forced to dodge each other dodging the boxes and poles! Yes, we can manage I guess, although I think people in well chairs or on walkers would have a hard time of it. But managing is not the point is it?

This crossing should have been designed and planned to be plenty big, wide, clear and with a good flat surface and if we were really lucky it could have been aesthetically appealing with some nice T signage thrown in. Doesn't anyone know how to plan for pedestrians? Didn't anyone think about the amount of people on foot that cross this street daily. My experience with the St.Paul Street T stop has not been much better. Here we have crowds of people with suitcases destined for the Holiday Inn getting off onto a strip of asphalt only to find that they must circle around on a narrow little circuit of patchwork pavement wrapped around a few poles, signal boxes and planting beds. Again, no real thought was given to accommodating numbers of people or making it easy, convenient or pleasant. My friend Susan Bartek tells me that the narrow passage way was actually much smaller and it was only through her quick action as she watched this error being committed and called it to the attention of the Town and T that some slight accommodation was made. Pretty incredible that this kind of ineptitude is still going on.

In this day and age of global warming we should be doing everything we can to make walking, biking and riding the T the preferred transportation alternatives. Part of this means making sure the effort is made to design and build functionality for all transportation modes, especially when masses amounts of time, energy and tax dollars are being expended.

This seems to be a case where better, professional expertise in the form of design review and oversight were needed. Whether or not this was a failure of attention or a simple lack of staff resources, it revels yet another instance where the complexities of the governance we are in need of has outstripped our ability to provide it. And I'm afraid this seems to be happening on just about all fronts at once. Ours is a complex, dense and in many ways urban community and we are not really managing change let alone planning for the future adequately.

[Where: 1319 Beacon St., Brookline, MA 02446]

Saturday, November 24, 2007

Rumors of the Death of the Book

This topic isn't exactly Brookline related per se, although I'm sure we have more than our fair share of heavy reader and authors per capita than just about anywhere. So here comes another gizmo we are supposed to want to carry around with us and use, the Kindle. It's supposed to be so much like reading a book, we can get lost in the experience, just like we do when we read.....The great minds at MIT worked for a decade devising E Ink, which is much more like ink on paper, rather than looking at a backlit screen. There will be a wireless all-pervasive "whispernet" cellphone network that we use to download our books from Amazon. We can climb a tree and download a book at the same time!

Do you detect a note a sarcasm? I am showing my age I guess. How many books do I need access to at once? To actually read? One of my big problems with the Kindle is its exclusive network and control of content. Can you get books anywhere else and read them on the Kindle? Or is this world domination a la Amazon? At least with an IPod it supports multiple file formats and you can source music files any number of ways.

Another big problem I have is browsing or serendipity. How many of you have wondered into a great book store or yard sale for that matter and stumbled upon a great book you never knew you were looking for? How will we find these if the physical objects don't exist? Amazon recommends X because you liked Y is just not going to get it.

I know, books are an environmental nightmare and this is the digital age after all. The Death of the Book is Inevitable!! This is what "they" say anyway. I wonder. We always get this idea that its a zero sum proposition, when in fact, it might just be that we have another way to read, with both formats remaining viable for different purposes.

After listening to a very interesting discussion on WBUR with Steven Levy (author of this week's Newsweek article The Future of Reading) and Sven Birkerts (author of The Gutenberg Elegies) a friend gave me a copy of the Newsweek article. In it Levy says "Talk to people who have thought about the future of books and there's a phrase you hear again and again. Readers will read in public. Writers will write in public...the notion of the author as authoritarian figure gives way to a Web 2.0 wisdom-of-the-crowds process."

If you ask me this is completely missing the boat. Being an author isn't just about the ideas. Sure, in the research phase of project, get all the input you can. The more ideas the better. But its the process of making connections, winnowing, the content. Then its the craft. Do you think the group process would have made Shakespeare better? Any writer worth their salt knows its sweating bullets, editing, editing , editing that makes something good.

When we read something it is that we want to experience another persons vision, or get some idea of how they think or share their view of the world? How could this happen if everything written was a group effort? There would be no cohesion. Maybe I'm missing something in what they are predicting.

Digitizing books has obvious research benefits (searchable databases, universal access etc.) and I'm all for that. But does that mean technology will necessarily improve upon the book? Maybe not, but perhaps we won't have a choice. I don't know about you, but it sure seems like the future sure is coming faster than ever!
[Where: 02446]

Tuesday, November 6, 2007

Beacon Street Finishing Touches

If you are a construction junkie or a little kid who likes watching big trucks moving dirt and pouring pavement, you've had quite a year. The Beacon Street project finally hit Coolidge Corner full force for the past few months, and each time I've ventured to the corner on foot I've stood in amazement at the scale and monumentally of the action going on. It's also been a challenge wandering into the street or onto the bouncing plywood planks as we attempt to frequent our usual places of business. These maneuvers seemed nearly impossible for many elderly and mothers with strollers, but they still tried, as the rest of us tried to help them! I also stood, quite saddened and stunned, when I went to go to Rodney's bookstore and found it gone. It was a treasure trove to me.

I admit, I haven't been completely tuned into the whole project, mostly trying to remember not to come home on Beacon in my car the few times a week I'm out in it. I can't say I really know why it was that this massive undertaking was considered necessary. Granted one of the big improvements on the functional side, in my opinion, is we will no longer have the angle parked cars backing up into the travel lanes. I was once stopped in a line of cars backed up from the Harvard/Beacon light and someone in a parked car started to back-up. Now, this seems normal, they are just getting ready to move when the traffic clears, but no. I soon realized that this person was either blind or not looking and was continuing to back-up into my car and I had no where to move to, my only resort was my horn. It took a good five long blasts until the apparently blind and nearly deaf person finally stopped within an inch of my car.

The bike lane is a good idea, although it would have been much better to have done it without gaps. But all those traffic lights seem like a few too many. I'm all for safety at intersections and if it helps the pedestrians, great, but I remain skeptical on that score. We should be at the point in our thinking that we accommodate all users of a roadway, no longer seeing it as the exclusive domain of maximum velocity moving automobiles, but rather a part of the fabric of a living breathing community. The name for this new (or actually old) way of looking at streets is called "complete streets". The pedestrian/auto conflicts at Beacon/Harvard have really been escalating in the last few years, as the cars get stuck in the middle of Beacon or don't want to wait for pedestrians as they try to turn right. On this score, I'm not sure the new project will be much help. As I crossed Beacon Street from the Southeast corner, I noticed a strange offset to the route we were guided on which sent us directly into a large (5 ft tall) switch box as we crossed the T stop. I hope this was just a construction fluke. Otherwise this is a case of not considering the pedestrian.

Coinciding with the completion of the Beacon Street project, the new commercial building next to the post office is nearing completion. The one good thing about this new building is all the glass. It will at least not be a harsh, solid wall. Sadly though, it will be a Staples. Generic, utilitarian office supplies, which are readily available at two other nearby locations does not stir the soul.

But what has really grabbed my attention now is the "jewelery" of the project. It's like after your house rehab gets done and now you are putting the furniture, the rug and pictures into the room. It becomes livable again. One day we see a mountain of dirt with a squadron of interesting looking mid-sized trees and the next day they are planted in a row between the T tracks and the roadway to the east of Pleasant Street. Nice, I hope they live. At least we have gotten some rain. So many of the new trees I saw planted this summer in and around Washington Square looked as if they will not make it. But as a whole, the plantings look nice and I am hopeful that the overall effect will be leafy, green and softening as they grow.

How about those snazzy new light posts. They have a nicely detailed curving arm in a glossy black paint, with an elegantly egg shaped glass. They are lovely, but they get lost in the forest of poles! Are we really going to have the jumble of sizes and styles that we've got going, or are they (please!) going to take down a few of the old ones. As an example of what I'm talking about, check out that little traffic island at Beacon and Pleasant Street. There are the thick short poles with the multitudinous traffic signals on them. These we are stuck with, but they add a lot of visual clutter just by themselves. Then there are the new street lights, great, wish we could see them. Then there are the old street lights, the pole is a composite stone and the light fixture is your standard issue interstate highway lamp. Then, (yes there's more!!!) there are the sixties era square black shades with white globe lamps meant to look smart and dress up the traffic island (which was always trying to convince us it was meant to be a public space as evident from the presence of a bench). There are more of these black square retro lights scattered about in Coolidge Corner. My guess is they came in with the Center Place development, which with its mirrored facade is looking pretty dated these days too.

The design of the new light posts is nice, but if there is no consistency of use, their effect will be one of creating chaos rather than making a design statement. The look of the street "jewelery" such as the plantings, signage, lighting, benches, building facades, etc. will set the tone for all of Coolidge Corner and will have significant impacts on how welcoming and pleasing it is. Consistent design standards are needed and would be welcome to both developers and regulators alike. I wonder if we will get our historic cast aluminum street signs back? Are they really still thinking of posting both signs, the historic and a new street sign on the same post? This would be disastrous and silly. These details could be the most important part of this massive project, I hope they pay attention and reduce the chaos.

Wednesday, October 3, 2007

An Information Rich Environment: What will it Say?

We will soon be living in an age when we will carry devices or (horrors!) wear implants, that will read information from objects in our environment. I for one am very concerned about just what the nature of this information will be. Like all of our new technologies, these new developments hold both great promise and potential peril.

As someone who has studied and written about natural systems, the built environment, urban history and landscape design, I have often dreamed of the day when this type of information was readily accessible to people in their environment. Think of it. As you passed over a river on a bridge you could access a video showing the formation of the river valley through geologic time, or you could see the water shed depicted on a three dimensional topography map. Wouldn't this help us appreciate the fact that what someone puts on the ground 100 miles up stream eventually gets carried down the river and out to sea? Or what if we could call up a database of indigenous plants and animals from any geographic location, to help us identify the local wildflowers or sort out which were the invasive species? I have always felt that a greater awareness of a locales membership in a larger bio-region would expand our understanding of ecologic interdependence and give us a broader interpretation of the idea of home.

In terms of the built environment we can learn fascinating details about the development of a region or community, from historic industries to building types and social customs to school cultures. The opportunities for real knowledge are endless, and it is possible that our experience of our environment can be enriched and enhanced. Real-time data could offer us insight into our energy consumption, the patterns of movement within our city, or the efficiency of our recycling efforts, for instance. The data rich possibilities are only now being conceived. Of course, it is also possible that all of this information overload will yield only a mediated experience and our devices and individual information consumption will serve only to separate us from any real interaction with our surroundings. We will have to know how to find the proper balance and to share and interact in a real and meaningful way. It seems likely that small-scale economies, personalized service, public festivals and spaces, etc. will become even more cherished rather than less so.

But, as we all know, the world of commerce sees the potential in these technologies too. There have already been experiments where targeted ads have been sent to individuals' cell phones as they pass certain stores. Does this seem intrusive? Yes, I believe most of us would say yes. There will be those few who say they welcome the information, but more advertising is not something most will be asking for. The discouraging part is what the most popular choices are. Are we condemned to suffer the tyranny of the masses? As the current media consolidation phenomena continues, we are told time and again that we are getting what we ask for. But the truth is we aren't given a choice. This argument is getting old and tired. It is being used to justify everything from McDonalds to McMansions and it just rings hollow. If the choices are elevated we will make better choices.

If we are given a menu of information choices, let's hope we choose those types of information that expand our understanding of our place in the world, the natural environment and history, and not simply distract us with more consumerism and isolating entertainment.

Monday, September 3, 2007

Zoning - A Social Contract

Once again there will be some zoning changes proposed for Fall Town Meeting. In general, I agree with the direction these changes are going, they are aimed at protecting existing neighborhoods around Coolidge Corner from the very real threats of loss of homes through demolition and new building that is excessively dense in relation to their surroundings. These twin goals aimed at protecting the Coolidge Corner neighborhoods arose from the lengthy and inclusive planning processes that gave us both the Brookline Comprehensive Plan and the Action Plan for Coolidge Corner. However, on the way to implementation, (drafting the zoning changes), these policy initiatives' intent have been subverted and subsumed by other special interests.

As a result of vocal opposition from a few homeowners and real estate and development interests, the Zoning By-Law Committee has failed to fulfil it's public mandate and instead have proposed modest changes which fall significantly short of stated policy goals. Without getting into the technical specifics of the proposals, I would like to comment generally on some of the issues raised by those who oppose more substantive changes and to point out some of the real costs and missed opportunities suffered by the people of Brookline and those living in the affected neighborhoods of adopting this approach.

Objection to implementation of more substantial changes seem to focus on the loss of the opportunity for individual property owners to sell their property for prices far in excess of the current home's value, based on the extra value attached to the property to be gained from building to the maximum development potential. They do not tell you that this is what they are talking about. Instead, they will say that the proposed zoning change would "reduce the value of their property". This is not true. The value of their existing property (for taxation or market value estimates) is based on what is currently built. So what they are really fighting for is their right to "cash in" by selling their property for tear down and redevelopment (at a much higher density). They consider this some kind of basic right. But what about the resulting impacts on their neighbors, and the town in general. What about the very real possibility that their actions will actually lower the property values of the remaining homes in their neighborhood. Think about it. A few individuals are fighting to protect their ability to sell to a developer who will choose tear-down and denser redevelop, but because of the widespread impacts this choice has it is not an individuals choice, and here is where we need to understand the public and social contract function of a zoning ordinance.

In every arena of human interaction, we have developed laws and rules that identify what most reasonable people think are appropriate limits and compromises on the continuum between individual freedom and public protection/benefits. Zoning came about to ensure certain basic protections from the harmful impacts of noxious land uses. Since that time zoning has evolved to ensure stability and uniformity by identifying very specific uses and dimensional requirements for each property within a given zone. Many feel the protections don't go far enough because they do not deal with many features of buildings and streetscapes that contribute to the character of a particular neighborhood. Just meeting the zoning requirements does not insure a new building will fit harmoniously into an established neighborhood setting. This realization has led to the creation of new types of zoning ordinances such as "form-based" zoning, which requires new buildings to more closely match the form of surrounding buildings.

In many cases, communities find themselves in the unfortunate position of having large areas that are "over-zoned" , thereby allowing new buildings that are much bigger in scale than existing ones, creating the very real threat of new building that is disruptive, intrusive and detrimental to that illusive yet tangible neighborhood feel many of us cherish here in Brookline. This is the case in many Brookline neighborhoods and dealing with this issue was at the heart of the policy objectives identified in our Comprehensive Plan and the C.C.D.P.C. Action Plan.

As with any law, regulation or rule, there are pros and cons, trade-offs and gray areas. In the case of reducing the allowable maximum building square footage to better match existing homes, one of these gray areas is that of additions. My calculations show that the possibility for current homeowners to add (up to an additional 1,000 sq. ft.) onto their existing homes could easily be accommodated while still meeting the overall objective of retaining appropriate scale and neighborhood character.

I believe the majority of citizens in Brookline (especially those living in those neighborhoods near Coolidge Corner where the greatest development pressure exists) would favor a zoning ordinance that retained existing building scales and neighborhood characteristics, if it were written clearly and carefully, was fairly applied and included enough "wiggle room" to accommodate modest additions and change. We have witnessed some really inappropriate new building (1 Somerset comes to mind) and many individuals who have never thought twice about the import of zoning are left scratching their heads. Yet, we don't seem to be able to have an informed and intelligent discussion about these issues. In this way, the social contract is invalid from the outset because is was not developed as a reflection of the public consensus.

Saturday, August 11, 2007

They tore the blue house down

I had seen the letter from the zoning board of appeals. Someone wanted to build something on Green Street. I made a note of the address and went to see what structure we were talking about. It was a large blue Victorian house, next to the Temple. I knew it as an alternative high school, with its small sign that said "Beacon High School" with funky cars parked out front and somewhat outrageously dressed students. I remember thinking that the house, while maybe being a bit run down, was a handsome structure with great potential. I assumed the new construction would be a rehab and reuse of the existing structure because it was, after all, a nice old house. Wrong.

One day last week the green construction fence went up around the house. The next day, a front end loader was ripping off huge chunks of the back of the building. I stood on the sidewalk and my jaw dropped. I still held out hope that the ripping would stop and that the front part of the blue house would be spared. The next day I walked by and the front end loader was on top of a tall pile of debris, dust was billowing in large clouds. The house was no more. I was stunned and saddened and wondered how this could have happened.

What will go up on the site of the Big Blue Victorian? Will it be a bland, stark box, built to the edge of the lot, harsh with no trees or greenery? A structure with no beauty or ornament, no front porches or attractive roof lines? One that maximizes the square footage and therefore profit potential of the lot now made available? I am not hopeful.

I should have gone to that meeting. But for me, night meetings are virtually impossible. So where does that leave the concerned citizen? How are we to keep track of these proposed changes to our neighborhood? The letter announcing the zoning board meeting did not mention demolition. I had naively had faith that the zoning board would press for preservation and adaptive, sensitive re-use. In other words the right thing, being sensitive to the neighboring homes. Did the people living across the street and next door go to the meeting? Did they know that one day they would wake up and the blue Victorian they had gazed out their windows at for years would be reduced to a pile of rubble.

How quickly and easily the destruction happened. The machinery made a home seem like a pile of tooth picks. As I stood on the sidewalk, stunned, looking at pile of wood boards that were once a home, dreading what was to take their place, I wondered if anyone else cared. I could not help but lament my lack of attention to that letter about the meeting I couldn't attend. And I could not help but think there must be a better way to inform citizens about these important decisions and to allow us a chance for input in a way that is more straight forward and convenient than the tedious and arcane zoning board meeting.

They tore the Big Blue Victorian down. [where: 74 Green St, Brookline, MA 02446]

Wednesday, July 25, 2007

Which Brookline are we Talking about?

I've been doing a lot of head shaking and wondering out loud lately. Wondering how is it possible that seemingly well-intentioned people could just not get it. Take the case of our illustrious Commissioner of Public Works who seems to think the farmer's should be made accountable for the opportunity cost of the parking revenue the town would have got if we could only park cars instead of host a farmer's market!,+Brookline,+MA
+02446&sll=37.0625,-95.677068&sspn=42.310334,77.695313&ie=UTF8&z=16&iwloc=addr&om=1. That market adds so much good for the citizens of this town on so many levels it would be worth it if we had to pay the farmer's to come sell us their produce! Then there is the Economic Development Advisory Committee who seem to be under the impression that three sites in Coolidge Corner should, will and must be developed to their absolute maximum income generating potential even if this means building at a scale exceeding current limits by four times. Why bother drafting plans, involving the community in a lengthy process of identifying goals and objectives and having ordinances if at every turn these guidelines and rules are overrun and ignored as they have been time and again? The list is growing longer, the St Aiden's project , the ZBA handing out variances for the asking, lax building code enforcement, and more isolated, bloated one-off development proposals on the drawing board that will bring in a few more bucks but don't have a lot to offer the community in the long run.

Meanwhile, we have yet to articulate a vision for a truly prosperous Brookline in the future. What will assure out continued success as a community is investing in those public amenities that young families look for, like farmer's markets, arts organizations, parks, developments that create usable and attractive public spaces, pedestrian amenities and retail establishments that are a mix of the useful and practical and fun and unusual. All supporting an environmentally responsible, non-auto dependent lifestyle. We have the basic structure already, it would not be difficult, but we could make some major mistakes and ruin our chances.

Brookline is a desirable place and we don't need to go begging to developers to get growth at all costs just to pay for needed services. Where is our self-respect? Developers will tell you that it is not so much regulations that they object to. What is worse, is long drawn out open-ended negotiations, where no one can say what it is they want just what they don't. Change happens and it would be a lot better if we were prepared for it. Instead, we get various committees, working at cross purposes, coming up with proposals which are not part of a long range vision for a vibrant, vital Brookline of the future. We should ask, what will this add to the quality of life of our citizens? They seem to be working on mandates that come from.... where?

How is it that our elected and appointed officials and municipal employees keep getting it wrong? How is that they seem to completely not understand the necessity to nurture and support those things that are critical to maintaining and enhancing the quality of life for Brookline's citizens? I have thought about this long and hard and I think it comes down to this. They live in a different Brookline. Their Brookline is a lot more like a typical suburban community. Single-family homes with yards, a garage, a quite street. They drive their car to Coolidge Corner, they don't walk through crowded neighborhoods or try to sleep though yet another student kegger next door. They do not understand that for those of us who live in the denser parts of town, those public amenities like parks, the farmer's market and the senior center are our yards, porches, living rooms and vacations. The public realm is truly that, a shared space that makes occupying a small condominium bearable. If they understood these experiences perhaps they would have understood from the beginning that tearing down a historic Kennedy family place of worship, heritage trees and a reasonably spacious yard and replacing it with a massive towering stack of subsidized housing was too much to ask. We love the same things about Brookline that they do, only for us they take on a much greater significance in our daily experience. Being able to safely cross the street on foot in Coolidge Corner should matter more than moving a few more cars faster.

Monday, July 9, 2007

The Affordable Housing Question

Affordable housing has been in the local news again, raising many questions with few clear answers. There seems to be only a general consensus that there is a lack of affordable housing and that we should try to do something about that. However there is no clear agreement about how to go about this, or what would be considered affordable and for whom. Several approaches have been either pursued or suggested, each with their own potential results both intended and unintended.

The State's answer (40B) was to encourage developers to build affordable housing by granting subsidies and allowing them to ride roughshod over local land use ordinances. Locals often invariably object and with good reason. Inserting out-of-scale, extremely dense buildings into existing neighborhoods is a direct assault on the quality-of-life of a residential area. The local zoning code was developed with preservation of appropriate scale and density in mind. The principle problem with the 40B approach is that it does not allow for the appropriate placement of large scale dense development. Only through vigorous opposition did the neighborhood manage to scale back the St. Aiden's proposal enough to save the historic church structure, the on-site heritage tree, and achieve a density more in line with the neighborhood. Still, this was at a steep cost to town in real dollars and now many are questioning the wisdom of the undertaking in light of the fact that the beneficiaries of the low cost housing will not be middle income working families but rather those who qualify for subsidized housing. The range of housing options therefore has not been broadened, only the quantity of existing options at the top and bottom of the affordability scale augmented. Do we as a community have a moral obligation to provide this housing? Is this the most effective way to spend those funds we do choose to spend towards bridging the affordability gap? While it may achieve some of our goals, I have to think there must be other more creative ways to address this issue, such as subsidizing mortgages for first time buyers, allowing more "infill" within existing housing stock to address the growing need for smaller units for singles and smaller households.

Others (see Leonard Bernstein's letter to the editor in the July 5 Brookline TAB) have suggested that the problem lies with restrictive height and density limits, which he feels should be raised and that by so doing we would see an increase in affordable housing in Brookline. I am afraid this would not at all be the outcome of "upzoning". Mr. Bernstein suggests that the area around Coolidge Corner would be a suitable location for this increased density and that in fact those who have worked to "conserve" his Coolidge Corner neighborhood are to blame for the lack of affordable housing and should be ashamed of ourselves.

The most recent zoning changes proposed in the Coolidge Corner Planning district consisted of changing the zoning for some existing three family dwellings from a multi-family zone to a three-family zone. This was done to remove the financial incentive for tearing down the existing three family building in order to build a bigger more lucrative building. A developer has every incentive to build housing at the top of the market value, to gain the highest rate of return for their investment. The resulting new housing would therefore be more expensive than those units they replaced and the new building would be out of scale and context with its neighbors. It was this incentive for developers to build at the top of the market that the State's Chapter 40B seeks to counteract.

When the three-family zone was coming up for its first vote, Brookline voters became the recipients of a very targeted negative letter campaign that claimed that such a change would cause property taxes to rise. The source of these letters turned out to be a national organization representing small land lords. Perhaps there was an affected property owner who wanted to sell for top dollar.

As Americans we are in fact very conflicted and confused about property rights and development. We often don't think much about it or have a strong opinion until something impacts us personally. Most people do not have any grasp of the processes involved in getting something built and probably assume that there are far more checks and balances, long-term strategizing and thoughtful consideration given to development decisions than there really are. Attempting to achieve a public benefit (in this case affordable housing) within a market driven system requires direct government intervention of some sort. Finding an effective mechanism remains illusive.

Thursday, June 21, 2007

Brookline Today

I've just finished reading Our Brookline Our Stories, the book put together by the Council on Aging for the Brookline 300 celebration in 2005 (was it really two years ago already?). What really stands out is how choosing Brookline as a home had a profound influence on the arc and fulfillment of people's lives. While it may not be true of other places to the same degree, Brookline's shared strengths and sense of community have supported and aided many individuals, helping them achieve personal goals and nurturing dreams. Brookline provides a complex web of interweaving supports, from the uplifting physical environment to the availability of intellectual stimulation and thereby continues to draw those who value these things. Thus creating a self-perpetuating cycle that brings continuity and commitment to our town. What everyone who chooses to invest their residential dollars here understands is we are buying more that the four walls of our home, we are buying a place within a special community.

And yet I also am left to wonder about the difficulties that new generations face as they chose to make Brookline home. Many of the families portrayed in the book seemed to be decidedly middle class, making a go of things in Brookline through hard work and determination. They were able to buy a house and prospered by staying put. They were invested in Brookline because they were building a life here and so were their neighbors and local business owners. They all knew each other and this built trust and a feeling of safety. Mobility and rootlessness are features of modern life and threaten to erode communities around the globe. Will those who can buy the best simply go elsewhere rather than staying put and working through the sometimes messy business of local governance? Does the value of a strong and supportive community mean the same thing to them? The vast income divide opening up in our world today widens the culture gap and makes the prospects of a truly harmonious diverse community more fraught with challenges. The haves demand luxuries and top of the line amenities, hiring out all domestic duties and living mobile information intensive lives, while the have nots struggle to make do with aging housing , limited access to technology and sky-rocketing transportation costs. Brookline is unique in its attempt to embrace a diverse population. As several stories in the Our Brookline book told, this was not always the case. While our values have banished discrimination, economic divides erect barriers just as divisive. Can we succeed in building a community where all of our residents are valued and given equal voice?

Involvement in public affairs is encouraged and valued in Brookline, but who are those that govern? I feel gratitude and respect for those that serve the town, and we are the beneficiaries of a great deal of talent and expertise given selflessly. But I also wonder how truly welcoming and accessible our political institutions are for those who are less familiar with its inner workings. I was dismayed at the dismal voter turnout for our last local election. In my precinct, near Coolidge Corner, which includes many condominiums and apartments, the turnout was around 5 % of registered voters. Are we really hearing from those living with less in Brookline? What impact does the more fluid rental population have on our neighborhoods? If individuals care so little for the future of their town that they can't be bothered to vote, will they be involved in other ways? Perhaps they simply believe things are going well enough that they don't need to pay attention, but apathy allows at best complacency and at worse corruption and just plain mismanagement.

Friday, May 18, 2007

The Comfort (and Necessity) of Long Term Thinking

I often find it comforting to contemplate change over a long arching span of time. This seems to have the effect of smoothing out the rough bits. It helps me cultivate patience too, which is something one needs in abundance when trying to affect change to something like the built environment where change happens at a seemingly glacial pace.

I think this is why I love learning about Brookline's history. Great change has occurred in successive waves, brought about by bold visions, stirring endeavors and accidents of fate. Sometimes the changes brought ugliness and new problems, other times they achieved their intended purpose for renewal. As things were happening there were moments of panic and despair, courage and hope, failure and great success, yet all these individual stories blend to yield a picture of a community of people working together, whose lives were touched by a shared sense of place. Understanding all the human endeavor and natural forces that have brought us to the present makes us take very seriously our task as temporary stewards and admonishes us to think long term in our decision-making.

We are finally hearing about the logic of long term thinking for business. Couched in the profit motive and self-interest the argument can still be made that long term success can only be had with strategies that eschew exploitation of both natural and human resources and embrace self-sustaining and nurturing practices. It seems so obvious, and yet these principles, for decades have been the polar opposites of many business decision-making protocol. It has finally become obvious to the many, that we can no longer use up and abuse without regard for the consequences. Of course there have been many among us who have been saying this for many decades, who are now cautiously optimistic about this seismic shift in thinking. The same could be said for government policies, which in the recent past have sadly seemed to be more about getting re-elected next fall than making wise long-term policy. But I get beyond my point.

It's a simple tool really. When your car breaks down, or your plumbing explodes and the phone company's automated voice answering menu doesn't have an option that fits your call and you are about to pull your hair out, take a moment to think about what your neighborhood might be like in 10, 20 or even 50 years. And don't be afraid to dream big, think about all the things that make it a nice place or would make it even nicer. Will you, or those who are still here, even remember this bad day? Those folks back in 1898 had a great many obstacles to overcome too and yet they built beautiful homes and parks that we are still admiring today. When you are contemplating yourself as a part of this human community that inhabits this place we call Brookline gather courage from all those who have walked here before you and will walk here after you.

This Memorial Day there will be a guided tour of our own Old Burying Ground on Walnut St, from 12 to 2 pm. This is a chance to contemplate just how long that span of time is back to the days the first European settlers came to Brookline, and how much things have changed. Others find a similar comfort in contemplating geologic time or our place (speck) in the vast Universe. But for me, I have a hard time really connecting to those more abstract concepts and it seems to take that shared connection to our particular place on the planet to help me live in the broader continuum of time.

Saturday, May 5, 2007

Brookline's T.O.D. perfect for Sustainability

Through the good fortunes of history North Brookline has a land development pattern that in contemporary planning parlance would be touted as Transit Oriented Development. It was the simple fact that much of our building occurred before the 1920's and the dominance of the automobile that dictated a pattern of concentrated development accessible by foot and rapid transit. The idea of T.O.D. today is to build nodes of density within easy walking distance of transit stops in order to minimize our reliance on the automobile. Ideally these nodes would include a variety of land use types to add further trip synergies, such as offices, convenience stores, frequently used services etc. These are not new ideas, but in the face of the real and pressing need to reduce our reliance on fossil fuels and to retool our domestic living arrangements for changing demographics, Brookline stands out as an example of a community with much of the basic structure in place for moving forward towards the sustainable community of the future.

Urban planners around the world are struggling to craft municipal codes that would allow builders to retrofit our sprawling, land and resource wasting suburban environments into nodes of mixed-use density. Most municipal zoning ordinances would not allow traditional town centers or denser transit oriented nodes to be built today. These codes focused on separation of land uses, thus prohibiting the mix of uses that foster street life. Large lots and setbacks set buildings far apart, using up vast tracks of land and in a commercial setting making access via automobile the only option. Concentrating development near transit has the added advantage of leaving valuable open lands for preservation or farming, uses that benefit the public to a much greater extent than do 5 acre private lawns or asphalt parking lots. The planning and zoning tools of the past are primitive and left us with minimal protections, leaving communities vulnerable to the results of short term financial decision making, with little or no regard for context, long term use or the resulting public spaces. In addition to the wholesale reworking of our antiquated zoning codes, planners are becoming aware of the need to address the nuances of designing the public spaces, or as the title of one of my favorite books puts it "The Spaces between Buildings", which are in fact impacted by every design detail of both the adjacent buildings and the other streetscape elements.

A reawakened public and the municipal officials that represent them are coming to understand that they must speak up and ask for the kind of quality development that will be an asset to their community for the long term. Additional requirements are not necessarily a negative for developers. What is a negative is ambiguity. When developers make proposals that the community finds unsatisfactory, the community may try to stall and are reluctant to give their approval, but if they cannot clearly state their objections or preferences everyone is frustrated. Clarity, foreknowledge of expectations and even handed application to all proposals would be welcome by developers. We deserve quality development that makes sense for the long term goals of our community and we have a right to ask for them.

Friday, April 13, 2007

Further Comments on the Proposed Robotic Parking Structure

I appreciate that Mr. Brown took the time to read and respond to my previous guest column in the TAB about his proposed robotic parking garage for Coolidge Corner. Discussion and dialogue are always good things. However, his response indicates that he has fundamentally misunderstood the reasons for my objection to the deck itself and most importantly to its proposed location.

The site in question, an oddly configured piece of property behind the Coolidge Corner Theater is valuable, not because of what it is now, but because of its location and what it could become. Strategically linked to Beacon and Harvard Streets with pedestrian passageways, this piece of land and the adjoining existing parking area could become part of a pedestrian friendly mixed-use retail and public gathering place, something the Coolidge Corner District Planning Council has clearly identified as a priority. I believe the future vitality of Coolidge Corner is dependent upon supporting, expanding and enabling its best features, namely our unique local businesses and relaxing pedestrian environment. These features will draw people from far and near who are seeking authenticity and interaction in an increasingly mediated and isolated world. Customers need to be able to get to the businesses, this is what is axiomatic, not that they must drive an automobile and park it directly in front (or back) of their destination. We need to get creative in looking at how to better support all forms of transportation to Coolidge Corner.

The site now may be a bleak parking area at the back of a building, hardly desirable, as Mr. Brown points out. But joined with the adjacent lot, and through careful design, judicious plantings, pedestrian amenities and linkages and careful control of service vehicles, a uniquely compelling place could be created. Even if the site remains a service drive that is simply screened on the edge of the civic space it is still not an appropriate location for the large imposing deck. Bringing heavy vehicle traffic into this space is not compatible with a public gathering space, and as I stated in my original column there are some serious traffic flow consequences with this location as well. Far from being anti-progress as Mr. Brown suggests, those with an alternative vision are looking towards the future, one that is supportive of community life and in the long term responsive to the challenges of climate change.

For the immediate future, we have existing parking alternatives that have not been fully utilized. As Mr. Brown notes, I am lucky enough to be able to walk to Coolidge Corner from my home, a distance of a little over ¼ of a mile. If he can acknowledge the convenience of this, how is it then that parking at the Webster Street hotel and walking across the street, is too much of a hassle for everyone else? The Transportation Solutions study told us, through empirical methods, not anecdotal stories, that we have additional parking capacity still to use in Coolidge Corner, and that better information and management would maximize its use. While traffic and parking are continuing challenges, they require comprehensive technical study and creative solutions that include both management, and policy solutions as well as possible capacity expansions.

There are many questions to consider about the technology of the robotic parking garage as well. Just a few of them are, is it suitable for short term parking, which is what we need in Coolidge Corner? Are they noisy? How reliable are they? All the decks I have seen are at least 80 ft. tall. Can they be built shorter? In our haste to solve a perceived parking problem, let us hope we do not act in a way that will disappoint the future generations of Brookliner's.

Friday, April 6, 2007

Increasing SUV's Excise Tax - Article #16

Town meeting member Andrew Fischer has put forward Town Meeting Article #16, which calls for a doubling in the excise tax rate for Sport Utility Vehicles and Light Trucks. While I doubt that the financial burden resulting from this change will cause many people to change what they drive, I do agree with the principle behind the proposal. The fact that we have whole classes of vehicles on the road today which continue to be manufactured and sold that are exempt from Federal Clean Air Fuel Efficiency standards is scandalous. As the dire consequences of our binge on cheap, government subsidized fossil fuel consumption becomes ever nearer and more apparent the folly of this policy lapse looks more and more like the pathetic act of denial that it is.

There is not much we can do on the local level to try to correct this policy gap. We can't ban these vehicles from our roadways, or set our own fuel efficiency standards. Instead, by focusing on increasing the taxation on vehicles that are both heavier and more polluting than passenger cars, we are identifying the additional costs to the environment, infrastructure and human health that these vehicles cause and passing them on to the operator of the vehicle. Indeed the basic problem with our current methods of assigning values to economic productivity and worth is that the market fails to account for long term costs and the general costs often born by society at large. Individuals use up and profit from consuming resources that in fact belong to everyone. Therefore, if these vehicles truly cost more than other vehicles in terms of wear and tear on our infrastructure, air quality degradation, climate change acceleration, etc. then those that consume these additional resources should compensate the owners of those resources, the public.

Of course the real goal of these types of pricing mechanisms is not to collect money, but rather to use the pocket book to motivate a change in behavior. I don't think the change effected by this article will be great enough to cause a mass abandonment of SUV's , but it is nonetheless significant in the message it sends. I have heard SUV owners say that they are being unfairly punished, because they have very good reasons (such as a large family) why they have to drive such a vehicle. Of course the many generations of families who grew up just fine without an SUV might beg to differ on this point. I am sure we will see more and more economic incentives of this kind as we struggle to adapt and change to a more durable and sustainable economy. Congestion pricing for instance, has shown itself to be very effective at reducing peak hour congestion. Again the ultimate goal is not to simply force people to buy their right to pollute but rather to put a truer cost on an activity and ultimately to stimulate innovation and behavioral shifts.

This proposal is timely and targeted and deserves our support.

Sunday, March 25, 2007

Public Participation: Making it Work

When I first moved to Brookline (1988), long time Boston area residents kept telling me things like "people in Brookline are so active in their local politics", or "they are so involved". I found this both encouraging and a bit intimidating. On the plus side, it meant that people cared about the place that they lived, enough to speak out and work at protecting or improving it. What intimidated me was the thought of long held political alliances and networks, power structures that were deep and too secretive to penetrate, leaving little room for the new comer to get involved.

Before coming to Brookline, I had worked as a land use planner in Vermont, where the Town Meeting truly is a small group of citizens debating issues grand and petty. While we strive for this level of intimate democracy, we have our unique substitute form of it, which I for one support. For the most part, I have found that there is a very high level of local involvement and concern in Brookline and yet, as the process of planning for the future of Coolidge Corner has revealed, it could be a whole lot better.

A great deal of the problem is the process itself. We have laws and institutions set up that dictate how and when notifications get posted and meetings get held, all to ensure that the public knows that in this case, decisions are being made about the future of development in Coolidge Corner. In an attempt to capture a diversity of viewpoints while developing policies, a committee was formed with representatives of various constituent groups, such as business owners, the GreenSpace Alliance and neighborhood representatives. Working with town planning staff, the group studied existing conditions and attempted to forecast future scenarios. Consultants were hired for special technical analyses, where needed. Meetings were held, some of them public. All of this is as it should be I suppose, but what seems to have happened is you end up with a few strong voices leading the discussion in a certain direction, with the conclusions already formulated. Input, from the public and the consultants both, is accepted and listened to, but may or may not be acted upon.

A draft plan is written. It is long. It is filled with technical jargon. Citizens are told about the plan and asked to submit comments. I am a professional urban planner, and it was an effort for me to read this plan and interpolate what the implications of its mandates were for Coolidge Corner in the coming decades. I can't imagine too many busy people, no matter how dedicated, concerned or intelligent, taking the time to do this unless they perceive some threat to their personal situation. Some do, and they write comments or attend the public meeting and have their say, and if their experience was like mine, they may be asking themselves if they were heard at all or if it made any difference that they came. Because the public involvement is in fulfillment of a requirement of the process, it occurs to you that this was its purpose.

I do not mean to criticize the work of either the planning staff of the Town of Brookline or the dedicated citizens who have made the sacrifice to work so diligently to develop the Coolidge Corner District Plan. They have done a remarkable job given the constraints of time and staffing they have to work with, and they did not create the process I am commenting on, so please do not think I don't appreciate your service to our community.

Nonetheless, if you asked people on the street if they were concerned about the future of Coolidge Corner, I am sure a majority of them would say yes. Yet, they may not even know about the process underway or what the possible impacts of a change to form-based zoning (one of the proposals in the draft plan) might mean to their neighborhoods. Perhaps they don't really need to, until these issues come before town meeting, but I can't help but feel we are missing a great opportunity to engage a diversity of talented individuals, whose combined insights might lead us to unexpected and delightful new solutions.

We witnessed another potential pitfall of this lack of engagement last fall, when a last minute scare letter went out to homeowners telling them false hoods about the dire consequences to the town tax base and their property values of a proposed zoning change coming before town meeting. Turns out the group had their own special interests at heart, but their timing made an informed discussion impossible, and their letter achieved its goal of casting doubt on the proposed zoning change.

There are examples from around the country of communities who have overcome apathy and time constraints to successfully harness citizen participation in the planning process. It can require substantial resources and additional staff, such as in the case of holding "design charettes" such as what is being done in New Orleans in Katrina's aftermath. But perhaps in our case it does not need to be such an intensive effort. Technology being what it is these days, I can imagine a website that could display different development scenarios that people could vote their preferences for. What about the youth of our community? How about an essay contest about Brookline in the future, or a video or short story submissions website about characters and activities in the Coolidge Corner of their dreams? Most of those ideas generated will of course be impractical or illogical, etc. etc. but remember that all of the great creations on the planet started out as a dream. We should find ways to engage people's creativity.

On a less ambitious course, a little more effort could be made to simplify and "translate" the draft plan proposals into examples that people could easily relate to, and comments could be solicited via a website, making it easier to participate, rather than requiring citizens to read a 70 page document and then attend an evening meeting or compose a formal letter, in order to have input.

A great deal more dialogue is needed. It is not enough to say "we want to change the parking requirement to this, what do you think". There are always opportunity costs for choosing one course of action over another. Technology could be deployed here as well, with a blog on the town website posting proposals with explanations, pros and cons and asking for thoughts.

Yes, we are lucky to have so many concerned participants in town government, but we have so much talent in this town, wouldn't it be great to find a way to tap just a little bit more of it when it comes to creating the Brookline of tomorrow?

Saturday, March 3, 2007

Harold Brown's Proposed Robotic Parking

Mr. Brown's proposal for a robotic parking garage in Coolidge Corner is no doubt well intentioned and generous. An effort to minimize it's visual impact has obviously been made by "tucking" it behind the Coolidge Corner Theater. The whole idea of going vertical by deploying the robotic parking technology attempts to accommodate many vehicles without devoting a lot of land area to it, in a sense attempting to let us have our cake and eat it too. If we replace the existing surface parking with vertical parking, we are in effect gaining some land area that could be put to much better use. These efforts reveal Mr. Brown's understanding of the concerns and issues inherent in providing increased parking in Coolidge Corner.

Unfortunately, despite these laudable goals and the application of advanced technology, the resulting negative impacts of going forward with this proposal will far outweigh the potential gains. No matter how small and hidden we try to make a parking garage we are still choosing to give over a key part of our public realm to automobiles, rather than to people, or new businesses and the impacts of this choice go far beyond the site of the garage. The planning process is still underway that seeks to identify the development goals for the town owned land that is currently the Centre Street parking lot. We must take the time to look at the overall site and how it's development fits in with the future we wish to see for Coolidge Corner. It would be premature to decide now to build just one little piece of the puzzle and it would lock us into a scenario from which there would be no escape.

On a very basic level, there are serious traffic impacts if the robotic structure's 130 spaces were built in addition to the existing parking. An additional 130 parking spaces and all the vehicle trips in and out of them. Imagine the driveway at the Centre Street parking lot with twice as many vehicles traveling in and out. The driveway is too close to the Beacon Street intersection and it would become extremely difficult to turn left out of the lot. Then there is the left turn from Beacon to Centre Street, already a nightmare, now double the number of people trying to make that turn. Now imagine you are trying to walk down Centre Street, but you have to wade through all those cars driven by desperate people trying to get out. Then there is the question of where would the cars line up as they wait to get into the robotic deck? With all those additional cars, right next to all those occupied buildings, we have to ask ourselves, do we really want to be concentrating all those harmful emissions here? Functionally there are some really serious problems, but these are not the only or even the most important reasons why the structure should not be built.

I am aware that many are convinced that we need more parking in Coolidge Corner. Part of this perception is tied into the issue of long term parking needs for employees working at Coolidge Corner businesses. This is an issue that is being addressed separately, and employee parking would not be located here. The recent parking study performed by Traffic Solutions concluded that rather than a shortage of parking spaces, what is really happening is we are falling short in terms of utilizing the parking we do have. The study notes that regulations are not being fully enforced that would improve parking turnover, thereby making more spaces available for patrons. Additionally, available parking often goes unused due to lack of driver knowledge. People go to look for parking at the few places they are familiar with and don't bother to find out about other spaces that go unused. Better signage and public education could go a long way to address this knowledge gap.

There is disagreement about parking availability, and people's beliefs are based on perceptions. What is really at the heart of this debate are expectations. If everyone defines available parking as being able to drive and park right in front of your destination, then there is a lack of parking. What people don't realize is that fulfilling this expectation implies a trade-off. If we choose to make providing ultra-convenient parking our priority, we are precluding other uses for the land and making the public realm in that central location more hostile to the pedestrian. It's a question of location.

If we build this structure on our one remaining prime piece of land in Coolidge Corner, we will not be encouraging alternative transportation or the use of the alternative parking lots we already have. If we have learned anything about the automobile and cities it is that places that cater exclusively to cars are not very nice places to walk through or near. If we want a commercial core that has a lively street life, one that is pleasant to stroll through and to window shop, to sit on a bench, or to spend time in our hoped for new civic space, it cannot be successful if all those people have to cross many busy driveways, or walk through parking lots or sit next to a parking garage.

If we can park a block away and walk, or better yet take the T, walk or ride a bike, we can have a commercial core that we will want to visit and spend time in. There is a self-fulfilling aspect to building parking at such a central location. If that parking space is there, people will drive, when they could perhaps have chosen not to drive. With streetscape amenities, vital ground floor retail and civic space, the area becomes one that is nurturing to relaxation and community life. This is what we would be giving up. What we want is to create is a commercial area that is so compelling people will want to come here even if they can't park in front of the store. If convenient parking were all that we had to offer, the customer might as well go to the mall. Shopping has become more than just shopping in our culture, people are looking for an experience and genuine human interaction, along with unique retail offerings. We are poised to provide this. People will come from further away because it will be inviting. Think about the vast number of people with access to the MBTA who are potential new customers.

Lowering our parking expectations is a long term proposition with great potential benefits besides just improved land use. There are the environmental benefits from people switching to the T to get here. New employees will self-select from the pool of those who have good T access for their commute. The Traffic Solutions parking study also showed that Brookline's current zoning dictates parking requirements that are one-third to one-half higher than rates in Cambridge, Somerville and the Institute of Transportation Engineers manual. We should lower the parking requirements. This will encourage use of alternative transportation, and it will encourage mixed use development, which could ultimately reduce auto-dependent travel as well.

Rather than just arguing about whether or not we have a parking shortage, we need to be honest about what we are really asking for and giving up when we want more parking behind the Coolidge Corner Theater. It is tempting to accept Mr. Brown's generosity, especially since the economics of developing the site are so challenging. Nonetheless, I encourage those who are planning for CC's future to keep their eyes on the prize and envision what that space could be, an asset for our community life and a place bursting with business opportunities.

Monday, February 12, 2007

More Than a Garden

For the past few years I have been working to restore a public garden, the Minot Rose Garden, located within Winthrop Park at the corner of St. Paul and Browne streets. Like most things in life, the effort started small and was a simple instinctual response to the situation. The effort has of course grown since then to include a dedicated group of volunteers, the Town of Brookline, The Brookline Community Foundation, the Brookline GreenSpace Alliance, the Brookline Garden Club and many generous contributors. Through much hard work and perseverance, the rose garden is once again a place of rare beauty and a source of inspiration for its many visitors.

On some level, it is a very simple story, one of renewed life and beauty on a little patch of earth, but on the other hand, I can't help reflecting on the larger implications that have resulted from the transformation and to celebrate the spirit that it represents. A flourishing garden in one's neighborhood represents pride and demonstrates nurturing and care lavished on a public resource. What message does this send? It shows a respect and concern for the welfare of others and the world we share, thereby counteracting abusive, degrading and competitive messages that are often thrown at us in our hectic world. By providing a place of beauty and sanctuary for all to enjoy we declare our intent to bypass to prevailing cultural norm that reserves such places for those with the means to provide it for themselves.

It is the fact that this is a public garden that is truly remarkable. The trend towards privatization of public space is pervasive in America today. As the place-less suburbs became ubiquitous, the enclosed shopping mall took over as a substitute for main streets and town squares. But of course they really weren't substitutes because they existed for the purpose of selling and profit. The shift to the malls of the common social functions that used to happen on main street were in some cases unintended consequences, as in the case of their use by displaced teenagers as gathering spots. The mall management, of course, feels justified in exercising their role as regulators and they simply banish those they do not regard as desirable. The public, ultimately have no rights in a mall or restaurant or store. Where than are the basic functions of a free society to gather, discuss and meet to occur? Only in those places where we see others like ourselves? Where we must buy something to justify our presence?

One of the prime motivating forces that propelled F.L. Olmsted to advocate and design public parks was his belief in the benefits of social interaction in a peaceful and free setting. While many have criticized his views of the resulting social cohesion this interaction might bring as being pollyannish, I do believe it is vitally important for our culture to have places we can see and meet people in a spontaneous way that we would not encounter any other way. After all what is it that draws us to lively public places? We enjoy being with our fellows, feeling part of a community. The value of this type of interaction has become more important in the age of the Internet. We are rooted to geography because we are physical beings. We occupy a space and live in a neighborhood and are affected by and effect that setting. Those things, like a beautiful neighborhood park that we share, help us to feel a part of that and go a long way towards dispelling feelings of alienation.

Our public spaces are endangered and precious. As local budgets tighten, maintenance suffers. Several options have surfaced in response to this trend. In New York City, private money has been tapped. Of course this comes with strings that benefit the private funders, often imposing advertising and even buildings within park lands. This is a dangerous and unfortunate trend that does not accurately reflect the will of the citizens and gives away precious resources that cannot be recovered. This is an unacceptable option.

Here in Brookline, we've seen the remarkable spirit of local citizens pledging time, energy and money to protect, maintain and create parks and open space. We understand the value of our parks on a very visceral level and are willing to walk the walk. I have been truly moved by the actions of those who are willing to spend their precious free time working in the garden and by those many families and individuals who have been willing to tap their family budget to contribute to our effort to improve the park. This willingness to participate is a treasure we are blessed with. The personal benefits to be found when working with a group of like minded people in pursuit of a common goal cannot be overstated. I can say with great conviction that for those of us who have labored in the garden, the rewards far outweigh the sacrifices, and we have had many fun and pleasant interactions too.

To find out more about the Minot Rose Garden or volunteer opportunities, please email Linda at

Saturday, February 3, 2007

Can Brookline Adapt?

Recently, The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has issued a report that states that climate change, caused by human activity will bring profound disruptions to everything from rainfall, ocean levels, and food production to plant and animal diversity. Reminding us again that the consequences of our actions are coming home to roost. The ecological imperative for change is upon us as well as we struggle through another winter of painful payments to the heating oil companies. Our cold winters have made us dependent upon what is increasingly seeming like an antiquated technology.

How well-positioned is Brookline to respond to these challenges? What might Brookline as the eco-city of the future look like? One big problem is the age of our housing stock which exacerbates our reliance on heating oil. At my condominium, we have paid extra assessments last year and this to cover our staggering oil heating bills. Calling these fees temporary is merely a form of denial. We are also buying a new boiler and adopting new efficiency enhancing techniques of temperature control, which will yield some small savings. But I can't help but wonder at the folly of investing vast sums in a new oil heat boiler. But what alternatives do we have? How will we heat our homes in the future? Bio-fuels?

Like most buildings in Brookline our building is old and not that efficient. Some upgrades are available that will help somewhat, such as replacement windows. Which are easy to do but expensive. Other energy saving enhancements may require major reconstruction and investment. Unlike new construction, we cannot take advantage of all the new green building materials and techniques. On the plus side, adaptive re-use is ecologically efficient in its own way, avoiding the ecological consequences of manufacture, construction and demolition. Surely adaptive techniques, materials and technologies will be developed as their need becomes apparent.

Our greatest asset is our compact development pattern and the mass transit system that provides for our mobility without the necessity of using a personal automobile for each trip. We are extremely fortunate, unlike most of the rest of the country where widely dispersed development means complete reliance on automobile travel. As James Howard Kunstler writes, "American suburbia represents the greatest misallocation of resources in the history of the world." All sorts of infrastructure efficiencies flow from compact living, and the task for the future is to enhance livability in these settings. With more attention paid to the public realm we could have amenities that would allow individuals to, in essence, expand their living area through use of shared public spaces for recreation, access to nature, transportation and civic functions. The sharing of these resources would achieve benefits to social well being and community life as well.

New housing will need to be accommodated in areas already well served by transit and we will also hopefully see improvements to transit service in those areas that are currently now only served by infrequent buses at best. New nodes of density could perhaps be accommodated in tandem with transit improvements. We are fortunate as well that our existing density means Zipcars are available, allowing for occasional auto use without the burden of ownership. As gas prices spiked, I found myself driving less and less. It was a relief to have that option. I achieved this by seeking my recreation closer to home and relying more on the Internet for shopping. I'm not sure that this shift is really a net energy savings though. Is it more efficient to order a necklace from Canada that is delivered by UPS than it would have been for me to drive around to several stores looking for the item I wanted? It doesn't seem like it. Ultimately, the need to reduce transportation costs would lead to economic shifts away from global markets to a return to more locally produced and exchanged goods. Perhaps more "cottage industries" will spring up in our business districts, where we can imagine that creative reuse and recycling of materials will be employed in the making of useful household products.

Another great asset we have, is our own Allendale farm, and the other open space and undeveloped land concentrated mostly in South Brookline. The ability to grow food locally will become more important as well as the need to be better long term stewards of our arable lands. These trends favor the small family farm and community gardening. Perhaps many more Brookline families will find themselves involved in growing food for themselves and the local markets and restaurants. Will we dedicate more of our park lands for this? Or will we simply accommodate gardens in yards, roofs or containers?

Shifting patterns of rainfall seemed evident last spring. If this trend continues, our flood prone areas will expand, and structures in vulnerable areas will have to be abandoned. We will see changes to the cycles of our plant life, resulting in different growth patterns. The palette of trees, bushes and perennials we take for granted as well suited to our climate will change, perhaps requiring us to replant and plan for continuous change. This additional care and replacement could become too burdensome economically and physically for us to keep up with, bringing unwanted change to our beloved leafy environment.

Surely the future holds many unknowns and will probably be very different from anything we can imagine. One thing is certain though and that is that Brookline will always be home to many individuals with the capacity for creative problem solving and commitment to community, two qualities that have been in evidence since 1705 and will serve us well into the future.

Monday, January 22, 2007

Coolidge Corner's Future

What do we love about Coolidge Corner? I love the fact that I can walk there to take care of my daily errands, with the occasional special treat of taking in a movie or browsing at Booksmith. If I'm feeling cooped up or lonely, I can just walk down and have a cup of tea at Peet's. Everyone has their favorite spots. It's not like everyplace else. It's not the mall. We can talk to the people who own their own businesses.

Coolidge Corner is the social hub of Brookline. It's where we are most likely to run into our neighbors. CC defines our town in the minds of many. But now we have just learned the distressing news that instead of McDonald's and Zeeba's flower shop we are to have yet another bank. How utterly boring. Now, I'm no fan of McDonald's (I have read Fast Food Nation and seen Supersize Me), but at least people of all walks of life could get a snack or meal there. Zeeba's Exotic Flowers had some of the best floral arrangements in town. They will be sorely missed.

A bank does not generate much foot traffic. Their store window does not offer visual stimulation or an inviting setting. They are closed at night, taking away from the life of the street for evening saunterers. It's as bad as another cell phone store. Must we allow any business that wants to set up shop? Can we only have those businesses backed by large corporations with big bucks to spend? We are losing the soul of our town. Why not offer a tax break to independents? When it comes time to permit development in CC why not offer incentives to those developers who will put locally owned retail businesses on the first floor? This is a trend we can no longer ignore. It is not going to fix itself and we can't count on being lucky. The economic forces bringing the chains to our door will not change. We need to address them in a meaningful way.

There has been an ongoing planning effort underway in CC. The goals are two-fold. One to determine what we would like to see built in a few spots that are ripe for redevelopment and two to help protect the surrounding neighborhoods from tear downs that result in overly dense rebuilding and loss of character. Mention has been made of implementing "form-based zoning", which focuses more on regulating the streetscape and building design and scale of new building. It's a way to enforce more appropriate contextualizing of new building. All good. The neighborhoods would gain a great deal by establishment of Neighborhood Conservation Districts.

But what would make CC a great place, a special place that reflects our values and is welcoming and fun to visit? Retaining independent businesses is a good start. Better streetscape design would really help. Keeping in mind that CC is the social hub of Brookline, it becomes apparent that what we are lacking is a public gathering place. Anyone who has experienced the festive atmosphere at the farmer's market understands that it is popular for a lot of reasons, not the least of which is its social function. Why not extend that idea to a year round market? Like the Pike's Place market in Seattle. Part of the market would have to be indoors, and it should include fresh food, prepared food and places to eat in a public setting. It would have to be town owned and administered to help the fresh food providers survive economically, but what an asset for the town!

Some have expressed a desire for "green space" in CC. While I am as much of a tree-hugger as anyone, I think this is misguided. We need a people place. That's what CC is all about. If we think of our public place as a "Plaza" we get the right idea. Of course it could have small ornamental trees, a fountain, even tall grasses in planters, a spot of grass maybe even, but a "nature" area it is not. Not a patch of grass to look at, no, it needs to be a place with tons of seating for people watching. Maybe it could even be a site for outdoors concerts, poetry readings, drama, etc. It could never be big enough to be a true natural area, and we don't go to CC for solitude. Fortunately we have Hall's Pond near to us for that.

CC is at a crossroads. It is up to us to envision the CC of the future. Now is the time to use our imaginations and let the ideas fly. Remember the Brookline 300 celebration? All of those people surging down Harvard Street? There was a palpable sense of shared pride and happiness in our town's success. All of those people would love to come back to experience that type of "street life" again. As we withdrawal more and more into our private domains and the Internet, etc. we need that experience of community and human contact even more.

Why not think about sharing the road with people a bit more? There are plenty of ways to accomplish this, through wider sidewalks, traffic calming, even selective street closings. We need to make CC more friendly to the pedestrian, not the car. It's the walkablity and pedestrian environment in consort with its unique shops, that makes CC special and the better we make that, the more people will come. People are yearning to experience environments that are not the ubiquitous suburban sprawl swallowing much of the rest of our country.

Our history has blessed us with a built environment made before the automobile took over our public realm. Its dense enough to support mass transit, rich in beautiful architecture, and softened with lots of trees, but we can not coast on our laurels and hope for the best. The same threats and economic forces that have created anywhere USA are present and active here too. Only vigilance, regulatory change and a clearly articulated vision of something other will protect us.

What would you like to see in Coolidge Corner's future?

Friday, January 12, 2007

The Future of Public Service in Brookline

I'm disappointed. The trust we have put in our town government has been violated. With no real explanation, a talented and dedicated volunteer has been canned, and the cause of historic preservation has been dealt a blow. I am speaking about Dennis DeWitt, an architectural historian who selflessly gave his time to serve the town by volunteering on the Preservation Commission. In a recent vote the Board of Selectmen demoted him to the position of non-voting alternate.

Through the years the Town of Brookline has recognized the need to protect our vital historic legacy, and the voters have repeatedly endorsed the legal framework created to carry out this mission. Like the zoning board and numerous other boards and commissions, the Selectmen appoint suitable members to these boards. Candidates are chosen (we hope) based on their expertise, skill and willingness to serve and charged with enforcing rules and regulations and advancing the mission of the board. Sometimes difficult decisions are made, and sometimes petitioners are disappointed or down right incensed. This fact makes me all the more grateful and indebted to those individuals who take up the task and accept appointment to these boards.

No one has accused Dennis DeWitt of failing to execute the duties of the Preservation Commission. In fact, it seems that everyone who has ever been before the Commission or worked with Dennis speaks of his knowledge, expertise, and considered fairness. What more could you want? And yet, he gets demoted. Why? Because someone doesn't want the Commission to do its job. But the people of Brookline do. It was his talent that made Dennis a target for those who do not support historic preservation. But the people of Brookline do. And this is where the violation of our trust comes in.

Removing a board member in this fashion is an abuse of power, and we have all learned a hard lesson in the process. That our system is vulnerable to this type of action. That despite what we vote on and declare as the will of the people, we are dependent on those in office to carry out this mandate. Our only recourse may be to simply vote those Selectmen who were party to this action out of office.

A wet blanket has been thrown over all those dedicated citizens who selflessly take up the call to public service by serving on our boards and commissions. They are the troops who get the job done and we need them, and owe them thanks and gratitude, and yet because of Dennis's fate, others must now fear that, regardless of how scrupulously they administer their boards mission, someone may not like that and therefore they could be out tomorrow. How's that for an incentive.

With such a proud history of impassioned involvement in local affairs in Brookline we need to honor and encourage those who serve in order to continue reaping the benefits of their talents and passion. Attracting those individuals whose integrity and dedication to civic life lead them to public service requires our government to be both accountable and transparent. These two attributes seem to be missing in this case.

Wednesday, January 3, 2007

Too Much Litter

The leaves are off the trees and bushes. There is no blanket of clean white snow. In this naked state, an unwanted undergrowth has become more apparent, our sidewalks and streets are strewn with garbage. This is not an issue like global warming that causes us to ponder major policy initiatives or the far distant future. Yet, the sight of all this litter has a profound impact on our psyches and its presence reveals a troubling lack of civility.

One day, shortly after my husband and I first moved to Brookline in 1988, we were standing on the corner of School and Washington Streets waiting for the light to change, when a trio of young people sauntered down the sidewalk and proceeded to drop the paper boxes and wrappers from their convenience store purchases onto the sidewalk, about 10 ft. away from us. Not being inclined to tolerate such behavior, my husband said, "Hey, you dropped something!" The litterers response was, "What's it to you, this isn't your yard or something", to which my husband replied, "No, but it's my sidewalk and it is yours too, do you just drop your trash in the middle of the floor at home?" Eventually, the dour youths picked up their trash. I don't recommend confronting people in this way, it can be dangerous, but I have to admit there is a certain satisfaction in calling people on their bad behavior.

This encounter illustrated an attitude that I simply couldn't understand, but, it explained their careless behavior. This sidewalk was a no man's land, it didn't belong to anybody and therefore was theirs to exploit. Of course the truth is just the opposite, the sidewalk belongs to everyone and therefore trashing it was an affront to the entire community.

During my college years I worked for a summer at an amusement park as a "sweeperette". I walked the paths with a dainty broom and dustpan cleaning up dropped trash. I was stunned and saddened by the continuous act of dropping trash. A fellow worker explained that for a lot of the patrons this was their only vacation and perhaps they felt entitled to be "lord of the manner" for a day. This piggish behavior made us so jaded that by the end of the summer the patrons were no longer guests, they were "the animals".

Back on our home turf, the littering attitude seems to spring from one of entitlement. Kind of like the way people drive. The rules are for everyone else, but I'm more important and can't be bothered. The result is a rag tag looking environment that reflects a lack of care and pride.

I have lived in several different states and visited many cities around the country and I must say the litter problem seems worse here. Granted, it is somewhat a factor of density, and it only takes a tiny fraction of the population to have a big impact, but I've been to many dense urban areas that are much cleaner. What has brought about this state of affairs? Is it simply the lack of a public awareness campaign? Enforcement would be nice, but of course there are other, more pressing priorities. Adults looking the other way or even condoning this behavior? I love Michael Dukakis for picking up trash along the Riverway. This is the practical response. Don't like the trash you see? Pick it up. I am constantly picking up trash in and around the Minot Rose Garden which I help tend, but I shouldn't have to. There are plenty of frequently emptied trash containers.

I propose that all junior and senior high school students should participate in annual clean-up days, going around picking up litter to instill in them the idea that we all are responsible for keeping Brookline tidy. Just think about how much nicer the town would look without all those plastic cups, bags and papers lodged at the base of bushes or alongside the sidewalks.