Where There’s a Neighbor, There’s a Way

neighborwaysYoung Willoughby Street residents at August's mural painting block party. Photos by Alex Fok (alexfokphotography.com).

On a balmy afternoon last August, Mark Chase, Simon Fowler and a few friends gathered at Gerry Cronin’s home on Willoughby Street to toast their success. Chase, a transportation planning expert and lecturer at Tufts, along with Fowler, Cronin and other Willoughby residents, had spent months galvanizing the community around a mural project, and they and their neighbors recently took a Saturday afternoon to paint their road with colorful, welcoming designs—blue and green birds, vibrant flower patterns, a crosswalk at the head of the street reading “Hello.”

This was more than just a public art project; this was a Neighborway, the first in Somerville. The idea behind the initiative is to use community-based activism to beautify roadways, eventually creating a network of low-volume, low-speed streets where vulnerable users, like cyclists and pedestrians, are given priority. If enough Neighborways are built, those traveling by foot or bike will be able to make their way across the city using streets that are intended for them and are often just a block or two away from more car-heavy thoroughfares.

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Chase was inspired to bring the concept to Somerville after seeing it take off in other US cities, especially Portland, Oregon. “I think there are three goals [with Neighborways],” he explains. “One is to create a network that allows kids to get around the city, another is to calm traffic, and the third is to create community. People create community.” In 2013, he started looking for streets in Somerville that might be a good fit for a pilot Neighborway, and he spoke with the Somerville Patch about his ideas. Gerry Cronin saw the story and thought Willoughby would be a perfect fit, so he contacted Chase and began organizing his neighbors. They eventually partnered with graduate students at Lesley University College of Art & Design and started designing murals and birdhouses that would line the street—Chase says they thought murals would be a perfect fit for an arts-based community like Somerville.

Neighborways are intended to make people feel safe along city streets, to show them that the roads belong to them and not just to drivers. “Old-Somerville kids, they played in the street,” Simon Fowler explains. He recalls seeking approval for the project at a meeting with the Department of Traffic and Parking, during which a Somerville police officer voiced his support for the program.

“Immediately following the approval, the police officer basically said, ‘This is great. I used to play in the street with Somerville kids,’” Fowler recalls. “He got the idea.”

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Bob McWatters, Ward 3 Alderman and chair of the Traffic and Parking Committee, gets the idea, too. He was involved in the Willoughby Neighborway in a hands-on sense; when the approval first went through, he took a tour of the street with Fowler and other Willoughby residents to talk design and implementation—where a mural could go, where planters might fit.

But he also helped push through legislation that made it easier for that first Neighborway to get built and that will make future projects like this simpler to construct. McWatters noticed that in order to introduce any traffic calming measure, 67 percent of impacted neighbors, including homeowners, renters and business owners, had to agree to approve it. “I read the rules and regulations and I said, ‘Whoa, the aldermen have to jump through hoops with some of this stuff to help the residents,’” McWatters says. He asked the administration to take a look at that requirement, and he ultimately helped reduce that number to 33 percent. “It’s a new, visual approach,” McWatters says of his reasons for supporting Neighborways. “And I think it’s terrific. Anything like this can help.” (Fittingly, he sees his contributions to the initiative in transportation terms: “I’m a spoke in the wheel,” he says. “I’m part of the process.”)

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McWatters says that the mayor’s office and the Department of Traffic and Parking are always looking for inventive, low-cost ways to calm traffic, and he adds that the city has made some strides like installing flashing speed limit signs and narrowing roadways along main arteries like Union Square.

But seemingly small measures—moving curbs, building a speed table or even planting trees—are relatively expensive fixes. A single raised crosswalk, for example, can cost between $30,000 and $50,000 to install. That’s part of the reason that McWatters and the Curtatone administration have been supportive of the program. It may not work on every street, but it can be one component in making Somerville more bike- and pedestrian-friendly.

The cost savings are just a part of what has made Neighborways a hit with those at city hall, including senior transportation planner Jennifer Molina, who first worked on the initiative when she was a graduate student at Tufts.

“We’re 4.2 square miles. Our streets are kind of…” Molina trails off. “There are some constraints,” she admits with a small chuckle. She knows that Somerville’s roads are notoriously narrow and that making them safer for vulnerable users is a challenge. “We also understand that we’re not meeting the needs of everyone in terms of walking and biking and safety,” she says, pointing to 2015 observational count data which found that 62 percent of total cyclists are male, mostly between ages of 19-40.

Molina wants people of all ages—especially families—to feel comfortable when walking or biking here, and big construction projects like the forthcoming Beacon street cycle track are intended to help alleviate the stress of traveling sans automobile. But there are families who, cycle track or no, might avoid heavily trafficked roads like Beacon Street or Highland Avenue.

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Neighborways introduce another transit option. An afternoon of painting and planting can create spaces that may not be the most direct route from point a. to point b., but are at least safe and comfortable to travel along. Chase would eventually like to see several quiet Spring Hill streets become Neighborways; he envisions someday connecting Somerville High School and city hall to Davis Square, letting families make that trip without setting foot on Highland Avenue.

Still, support from the city and the Board of Aldermen does not a network of Neighborways make. Even before Willoughby, Molina says the initiative had been “on the docket” for about two years, and prior proposals had been made to former director of transportation Hayes Morrison. She explains that there are always a number of transit projects in Somerville, and while city planners supported and understood the concept, they didn’t have the resources to implement it.

What the project needed was a street like Willoughby, full of dedicated residents who wanted to make a change, led by a small group willing to work with the city and the neighborhood and make it happen. “We look to this as a grassroots kind of push, where the city is here to help and guide it,” Molina explains. “But we really want it to come from the residents. We’re really looking at it as a partnership.”

She and Chase know that not every city street can become a Neighborway, and they understand that there are residents who don’t want this on their block. They see the program as a great “street-by-street initiative,” and Chase is working to educate Somerville residents one block at a time, giving locals an understanding of what the program is and why they might want it on their street. “We, often, are trying to think about doing the next great thing, but I think we have a lot of good things on our streets right now,” adds Molina. “It’s just taking advantage of it—thinking outside the box—and I think Neighborways are something that’s pretty basic and pretty practical.”

Because really, it all comes back to that figure: 4.2 square miles. As the most densely populated city in New England, Somerville has a lot of drivers, cyclists and pedestrians clamoring for shared spaces. “You have to coexist, and that’s a really difficult challenge,” says McWatters. “There’s a real dichotomy in the city. We’re trying to move toward being more bicycle and pedestrian friendly … but you also have to understand, there are over 58,000 registered cars.”

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Making Somerville more bike- and pedestrian-friendly is one of the most touted goals of the city’s long-term Somervision plan, but shifting 50 percent of new vehicle trips away from cars toward walking, biking or taking the T will be quite an undertaking—especially as the future of the Green Line Extension seems less and less certain. Molina says that the mayor’s office and other departments across the city are hoping to really delve into mobility issues within the next year, taking a hard look at the long-term strategies that will encourage people to consider other modes of transportation. “There’s no one right way,” Molina says. “But I think Neighborways will be one of the tools in the toolkit.”

“We know that there aren’t going to be cycle tracks down every road in Somerville—that’s just a reality—but at the same time, we can look to ways of more effectively using our streets,” she adds. “We have so many great residential streets that can get us to places … we’re using our streets as a public sphere, where we can create public life.”

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Infrastructural benefits aside, one of the things Molina likes about Neighborways is that they can help build communities. Because the push for the revamped streetscapes stems from the people of the city rather than city hall, residents are personally invested in their upkeep and care. “People feel ownership of it,” she says. “I think … this is another way we can create a better sense of place in Somerville.”

That’s certainly true on Willoughby, where last summer’s mural painting block party united a diverse group of neighbors—a man and wife who sat side by side and spun stories about growing up on the street, an older resident who rarely spoke with anyone but who signed on to help as a carpenter, a family who didn’t speak English but who built one of the most beautiful birdhouses on the block. This is a street full of longtime Somerville residents; Fowler says that even many of the “newbies” on their block have lived in their homes for 10 or 15 years. Others have lived 50-plus years on that street, and some have been there their entire lives, but the community is always growing and changing, the old is always meeting the new.

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Together, they made something beautiful—and impactful. Fowler says they’ve taken initial speed readings and that traffic has, overall, slowed on the street. Anecdotally, he says he’s noticed more people walking down the road. And their commitment to the Neighborway continues; just last month, Willoughby residents spent a day repainting the crosswalks, redecorating the street and enjoying the afternoon sun with one another.

It’s not that everyone agreed on everything—this isn’t Mr. Rogers Neighborways. The project is what Fowler lovingly and diplomatically refers to as “an interesting microcosm of democracy.” There were incidents last summer like the so-called “Great Planter Debate,” which found some residents in favor of adding flowers and plants to the roadway while a few vocal dissenters opposed. “Do you just say … ‘let’s not do it?’” asks Fowler. He and the other Willoughby residents had to learn to work collaboratively, compromising and building this thing as a group while getting to know each other. (“You can do it without the planters,” Chase laughs, “which we did.”)

“This is the neighborhood coming together,” says Fowler. “This is part of why you’re doing it. If you end up with a mural, great. But, wow, look at this: neighbors actually hanging out together.”

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