Thoughts on How to Make an Attractive City

March 17, 2015

I’ve been serving on a committee with my little town to try to sort out some design guidelines for our ‘commercial district’. If you’ve ever been to Harvard,MA you might ask yourself – what commercial district? And that is sort of the point. For generations this tiny town has had an area where business related buildings generally hang out (Ayer Road between Rt.2 and the roundabout) but which also includes a lot of residential, conservation, and other general randomness – all of which is pretty unattractive, difficult to access (too many curb cuts) and represents the exact thing you get in design when you don’t try to get anything (a mess).

I stumbled across this fantastic video this morning by Alain de Botton which I plan to share with my cohorts. I think more people should watch it…so please, if you find it interesting too – do share. My only criticism for this is that I would have liked Alain to also have highlight the broad reaching health benefits of these better cities because I think beauty and good design has the ability to substantially impact our lives in terms off quality of living, fitness, stress, and other heath conscious ways we don’t give enough credit to.

So – I do have a question for you related to all of this – I could use some research help. I am looking for cities, towns, hamlets (etc.) that have done a good job (specifically with landscape design) in their commercial districts. We want our commercial area to walkable, social, beautiful, safe, but also in keeping with our small town new england setting. If you know of a place or guidelines for landscapes that would be useful for us to study as we write our own guidelines, I’d be hugely grateful for the lead.
Thanks – Rochelle

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  1. Jan Johnsen says:

    Rocehelle, I got a grad. degree in planning and worked for the Louisiana Urban Technical Assistance Council..we would go to different towns and tell them how to make their ‘downtown’ more livable. The biggest problem? Overhead wires. So ugly and nothing to do to get rid of them….

    Here is a great website and group:

    • The Editor says:

      Jan – would love to see cities remade!! But lots of beautiful european cities have overhead wires…it can’t be the only problem. I personally think a lack of appreciation for the power of art and beauty in our every day lives and the over valuing of cars and their need are among the biggest problems.

  2. Amy Murphy says:

    I saw this video by Alain de Botton somewhere else and watched it. He has a very keen mind and it’s always a pleasure to hear him think. Of course, I couldn’t disagree with his comments about the necessity of more open spaces. Glad you found his video and are sharing it. I hope your compatriots in Harvard, MA think as highly of Alain de Botton as others do and heed his suggestions. Good luck.

  3. Jean says:

    I think Redwood City, California has done a great job developing the downtown. They built a lovely plaza in front of the old courthouse and hold concerts and other events there. Many of the older buildings have been restored and now house new restaurants and shops. While I’m quite sure RWC is much bigger than Harvard, there are some good ideas to inspire.

  4. Kathie says:

    Quebec City, Quebec. Compact, lively (people in the streets all hours of the day and night), sidewalk cafes, lots of narrow streets where you can get lost, many beautiful buildings. Some of the lighting on the buildings at night makes it feel like a completely different city, drawing you out to explore again. It felt safe. Perhaps there are city planners in Quebec City that could help you with your quest to make our New England cities more livable and enjoyable.

  5. Levi says:

    I can’t agree more with this video. Specially when they mentioned that we like to live surrounded by people and not alone and isolated. Unfortunately, not all city development has succeeded in this. Great video, thanks for sharing.

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