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Downtown View: The Everywhere Trend – Walkable Neighborhoods

Urban designer Julie Campoli has a new book out called “Made for Walking: Density and Neighborhood Form.”

It’s not about Boston neighborhoods. It’s about sections of spread-out cities such as Denver, Alexandria and Albuquerque. Still, the book explores features Bostonians will recognize.

Typically, these neighborhoods thrived in the early 20th century, then declined after World War II as everyone decided they wanted to live in a isolated suburban house far away from their work and sit in traffic an hour or two each day.

Now the trend has reversed. People are sick of traffic. They’re tired of driving five miles for a loaf of bread. Whenever gas prices rise, they’re strapped. Young people and those folks in that terribly named category, “empty-nesters,” have looked at us living in the walkable downtown, lolling around because life is so convenient, and said, “I want that too.”

Civic leaders have made it easier to accommodate that wish, rezoning and encouraging investment. Smart developers are jumping on the trend, building or converting properties that invite new residents.

The neighborhoods Campoli has photographed and described have other commonalities besides their history of appeal, disregard and now appeal again.

They have unsightly parking lots created when empty buildings were demolished, but these lots provide space for infill housing, offices and shops. Their street patterns, created prior to the automobile, involve short blocks and many intersections, making getting around easier. They’ve got small shops, giving passersby much to look at and many doors to enter. As more people move in, more shops and services appear.

These neighborhoods enjoy public transit, whether it is the streetcars in the Pearl district of Portland, Oregon, or the light rail that runs under a building in Pasadena. And the transit goes to places the neighborhoods’ residents want to go.

One feature of these neighborhoods is that as they increase in density, walkability and appeal, the price of homes increases also. I asked Campoli if price increases are always associated with neighborhood reinvention.

She said prices would stabilize if we had more neighborhoods like the ones she describes. She pointed out that such cities as Cambridge have addressed the problem by stipulating that affordable housing must be mixed with higher-priced properties. Cambridgeport was a neighborhood she featured that had a bit of everything she was analyzing.

In Boston we talk about human scale. This phrase often means rejecting tall buildings. Campoli acknowledges that “the failure to grasp pedestrian scale may be the biggest obstacle to replicating the patterns of our best loved urban places.”

But tall buildings aren’t the problem to her. Any building, tall or not, needs certain attributes to enhance walkability and humanity. Doors—lots of them. Lots of windows with lots to look at provide transparency. Permeability is important. Big buildings that provide cut-throughs and a way to see through to the other side make size inconsequential. When tall buildings step back as they rise to the sky, pedestrians don’t even know the building above is tall.

There is a lot to ponder in this book, and I learned two new things. Campoli described a building type called an “insula“ after its counterpart in ancient Rome. It typically occupies a city block, forming an island surrounded by sidewalks. It mixes uses—retail on the ground floor and residences or offices above. It can be five stories tall, and presumably now with elevators, it can be 15 stories tall. Campoli points out that this building type has been common in America’s cities since their founding and promotes it as eminently adaptable to contemporary city life. Boston has many examples, especially around the Fort Point Channel.

Also new to me was Campoli’s counterpoint that 19th century ownership patterns, with many owners on one block, offers great variety and appeal. Why didn’t I think of that? It also made me ponder the Fort Point Channel and beyond to the Seaport District, where insula-type buildings are being created by one owner filling an entire block, and their downside could be boring repetition.

Had I been mayor when the Seaport District was being conceived, I would have insisted on a few blocks zoned for narrow lots and rowhouses with many owners, rather like the South End or the Back Bay, just for variety. Alas, I wasn’t mayor at the time.

Campoli did not include downtown Boston’s neighborhoods, some of the nation’s most walkable, because she said she intended to help planners and developers see opportunities for increasing density through infill housing in bypassed neighborhoods that had good walkable bones.

But problems exist with these neighborhoods—they are often isolated from other comparable neighborhoods. That needs a remedy. In contrast, Boston neighborhoods are not only linked by transit, they are accessible to one another by pedestrians.

The Lincoln Institute of Land Policy in Cambridge publishes this book. It’s a good read for people who like to ponder urban topography. My only suggestion: next time, make the print bigger. Readers will need glasses.

Downtown View is a regular column by Karen Cord Taylor who founded The Beacon Hill Times weekly newspaper in 1995 and served as its editor and publisher until late 2007. She also founded and served as editor and publisher of the Charlestown Patriot-Bridge and The Back Bay Sun weeklies. Her column appears in those newspapers as well as the Regional Review, which serves Boston’s North End. These weeklies are now owned by the Independent Newspaper Group. She is the author of “Blue Laws, Brahmins and Breakdown Lanes: An Alphabetic Guide to Boston and Bostonians” and the co-author of “The Lady Architects,” a book about three women who practiced architecture in New England and elsewhere in the early 20th century. She lives in downtown Boston and blogs at

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