Downtown View The Everywhere Trend: Walkable Neighborhoods

March 1, 2013
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Recently I attended a meeting focused on how Americans could reduce their carbon footprint by re-arranging their neighborhoods. (And it’s not only I who am drawn to such nerdy topics—the room was full.)

The speaker talked about sufficient density, public transportation, sidewalks, intersections, easy access between home and work—in other words, all the advantages we enjoy in downtown Boston. We don’t have to remake our neighborhoods like some cities do.

During the question and answer period, one member of the audience spoke up. “You’re forgetting one important factor,” he said. “Schools are an important vehicle for reducing your carbon footprint.”

Then he told his story. He and his family were living in the Back Bay long before the phrase “carbon footprint” had been invented. They wanted to stay there and not depend on a car. But they couldn’t. There was no public school they could walk to. So they left.

I talked with the man later. His name is Neal Glick. His story, not surprisingly, is similar to many who have left Boston.

Glick is a lawyer who worked downtown for decades and whose firm is now located in the Seaport District. When he lived downtown he could walk to work or take the subway. “It was appealing and tremendously rewarding to live in the Back Bay,” he said, “and not just for environmental reasons.”

But he has four children. Living in a city without public schools one could walk to was not going to work for this family. “It’s not just the space to accommodate your children in your home, “ he said, “but you have to go the next step, and we couldn’t afford private schools.”

So they left. Not only did Boston lose another family because of the lack of a nearby school, it also forced that family into a car. So much for the Mayor’s green initiatives.

“It’s the elephant in the room [of reducing one’s carbon footprint]—education,” said Glick. Urban planners extoll neighborhoods such as those in downtown Boston, and they highlight neighborhoods in other cities that are moving toward density and walkability. But if you can’t rely on public schools, such neighborhoods are way stations for most residents, not a lifetime commitment..

The Glicks moved to the suburbs, first to Cohasset and then to Wellesley. And they liked the suburbs. Cohasset was a lovely town, but Glick had a terrible commute. Wellesley is ideal, he said, with three commuter rail stations. “You can live in several areas and walk to the train,” he said Since he lives in Lower Falls, he can even walk to the Green Line as well as two Chinese restaurants, a CVS, a convenience store, a Dunkin’ Donuts and a Starbucks.

It all sounded pretty urban and dense to me.

Gilded and privileged, was what he called the kind of neighborhoods we have with no public schools, the kind he and many others have had to leave—the kind that usually only people who don’t yet have children or whose children have grown can manage.

“Having public education options in the city would go a long way toward making walkable neighborhoods more attractive,” Glick said. “It would attract people in their 20s and early 30s and keep them there through child-rearing years.”

Places like Wellesley, with good schools that many children can walk to, ironically cause transportation headaches in other areas of a family’s life. Glick’s kids might or might not walk, but he can’t. He says he often drives to work, especially if he has an early meeting. Most days the train takes longer than driving and every day Green Line certainly does.

If he were living downtown and if there were schools here for his kids, he wouldn’t have had to make that trade-off.

Neal Glick’s story reminded me of Governor Patrick’s plan to raise taxes to invest in education and transportation infrastructure. A good education within walking distance was what this family wanted for their children, and they found it in Boston’s suburbs. But their move made the transportation piece of their lives more complicated and important. So transportation and education go together.

But strategic investment in education and transportation can reduce everyone’s carbon footprint if done well. Fill the potholes for the cars but spend most of the money on transit, trains and urban trails for people and bikes. Make every school good so that Boston parents will tolerate those they can walk to. Build walk-to schools in the downtown so that downtown residents don’t have to move. Taking such steps will make us greener than if we lowered our thermostats, changed our light bulbs and installed double-paned windows.

Karen Cord Taylor is a journalist who founded, edited and published the Beacon Hill Times, The Back Bay Sun and The Charlestown Bridge, now known as the Patriot-Bridge, for many years. She can be reached at karen@bostoncolumn.com. Past columns are posted onwww.bostoncolumn.com.

  • Anita

    This is an excellent point to bring up, and one that the New Urbanism movement consistently forgets as it designs dense, café- and shop-packed sidewalks with walkups for the twenty-somethings stacked on top. And, of course, it’s yet another reason to readdress busing in this city.