Urban Walkability: Learning from Boston

March 30, 2007 24 comments Open printer friendly version of this article Print Article

Founded in 1630, Boston is one of the oldest and most culturally significant cities in the United States. It?s also a role model for being a walkable city. Despite being nearly 200 years older and many times as dense, this city offers many pedestrian friendly ideas and concepts Jacksonville should once again embrace.


Boston was established on a peninsula called “Shawmut” on September 17, 1630, by Puritan colonists from England.  During the 1770’s it became the epicenter of several early battles leading up to the Revolutionary War.  After the war, the city quickly grew to become one of the world’s wealthiest trading ports, partially because it was the closest major American port to Europe.  Soon it would evolve to become a major textile production center during the Industrial Revolution.

However, like most older dense American cities, Boston began to decline in the 20th Century as the factories became obsolete and businesses moved out of the region for cheaper labor elsewhere.  After a period of racial conflict in the 1970s, over desegregation busing, the city has reinvented itself as a center of intellectual, technological, and political ideology.  Its successful revitalization has created gentrification issues that have transformed this metropolitan area into having the highest cost of living of any in the country.  While that’s a major issue the city faces as it competes for economic development, there’s one thing it truly excels at that we can use a good lesson in.  That’s walkability.


Boston Population 2005: 596,638 (City); 4,411,835 (Metro) - (incorporated in 1630)

Jacksonville Pop. 2005: 782,623 (City); 1,248,371 (Metro) - (incorporated in 1832)

City population 1940: Jacksonville (173,000); Boston (770,816)



Downtown Boston is the site of the financial district, Government Center and Chinatown.  It also is where the "Big Dig" (Interstate 93) passes through the historic city.


The Custom House Tower is one of the historic landmarks in Boston's Financial District. The original building was completed in 1849.  The tower portion was built as an addition between 1913 and 1915.


Downtown Crossing is the urban shopping district in the heart of downtown Boston.  It's easy to see that signage is not an issue in this city.  Neither is getting people out of their cars.


In addition to the signage, bus shelters are also easy to find.  Furthermore, they are income producing due to the advertisements on them. 


Faneuil Hall Marketplace, was the first festival marketplace developed by the Rouse Company.  Its success led to the development of The Jacksonville Landing and a host of other urban marketplaces across America during the 1980s. 


Pocket parks don't have to be actual greenspaces.  This one, near Chinatown, is basically an extension of the sidewalk, yet usable due to the businesses facing and embracing it.



Dating as far back as 1634, the Boston Common is the oldest city park in the United States.  Originally used for cattle grazing and public hangings, today it serves as a central public gathering space for a diverse amount of uses, both formal and informal.

The Boston Common can be clearly seen in this view from the Prudential Observation Deck.  Like Springfield's chain of parks, the Common is bordered by several inner city neighborhoods.  Downtown can be seen in the background, Beacon Hill to the left and Back Bay at the bottom of the graphic.


This image captures several residents and visitors relaxing in the Common.


One thing is apparently clear when walking the streets and sidewalks of Boston.  Expensive pavers are irrelevant.  The next time we plan a public space and the goal is to get the best bang for your buck... remember this. 



Back Bay's beginnings date as far back as the mid 19th century.  Built on top of fill, the neighborhood's design was influenced by Haussmann's renovation of Paris.  Strict regulations produced a uniform and well-integrated architectural scene dominated by brownstones.  Today, the district is one of the city's most desired neighborhoods.  It's known for it's expensive housing and shopping areas.

An image of the Back Bay district, taken from the Marriott Hotel in Cambridge, MA.


Boylston Street shows that vibrant pedestrian activity is best when buildings open up and incorporate their uses onto the sidewalk.  This goes against the concept of demolishing structures for pocket parks that don't interact well with their surroundings.  Instead of "greenspaces", the sidewalk itself becomes the center of activity.


Designed by I.M. Pei in 1976, the sleek 790' John Hancock Tower is Boston's tallest building.


The historic Trinity Church in the background.  It was constructed as a replacement for an earlier building that burned in the Great Boston Fire of 1872.


Copley Square is a lively spot, not because of grass, but because of the diverse amount of uses taking place around it.  Bounded by Clarendon, Boylston, Dartmouth, and St. James Streets, Trinity Church, the Boston Public Library and the John Hancock Tower all open up onto it.


This linear greenway, should give us an idea of what the Hogan's Creek greenway could resemble if more focus is given to making that space a public centerpiece of the urban core.

Another example of building activity embracing the sidewalks, as opposed to turning their backs to the street.

This greenway is a part of the original "Emerald Necklace".  Once again, you don't need to spend money on expensive pavers in public spaces.  The important thing is designing the spaces in a fashion that attract a diverse amount of users on an around the clock basis.


Beacon Hill is a wealthy neighborhood of Federal-style rowhouses, known for its narrow streets, brick sidewalks and gas-lit lamps.  It covers approximately one square mile and is home to about 10,000 people.



Originally settled in the 1630s, the North End is the city's oldest residential community.  In the early 20th century, it became the center of the Italian community of Boston.

Today the residential district is famous for its selection of bakeries, eateries and Old-world feeling.  There are over 100 eating establishments in this 1/2 square mile neighborhood, including one that stays open 24 hours a day, 365 days a year.

Tenement (multi-unit dwellings) architecture is the dominant type in the North End.  If you love SUVs and 3 car garages, this isn't the city for you.  Here the automobile takes a back seat to the pedestrian.


Built upon a former tidal marsh, this district was developed to relieve the crowed downtown and Beacon Hill neighborhoods in the 1870s.  Eventually, it would become a center of black middle class Boston life and culture in the early 20th century.  Today, the South End is North America's largest extant Victorian residential district and is one of the city's main restaurant districts, offering a diverse mix of cuisines.

The South End shows that even with high levels of building density, greenery can still be incorporated into the landscape. 

Here, residential units face the sidewalk, along with parallel parking along the street for visitors.

However, in the rear, or in the middle of each block, enough land has been set aside to accommodate the car, without the need of parking garages.


Other "Learning From" photo tours by Metro Jacksonville