Standing at the intersection of Bennington, Marion and London Streets Director of the Neighborhood of Affordable Housing’s (NOAH) Community Building and Environment Department Chris Marchi asks if anyone know where Clark Square is?
“Here’s a hint, it’s 200 feet long, 115 feet wide, it’s in Eagle Hill and you’re standing in it,” said Marchi smiling. It’s okay, very few residents would recognize this public place even though it is right in the middle of the community.”
Of course, it’s no surprise that even lifelong East Bostonians wouldn’t be able to identify Clark Square on a map..
“It’s basically just a big flat paved triangular stretch of road,” said Marchi. “In fact, if anything, Clark Square is a public nuisance–confusing and frustrating to drive through and dangerous for pedestrians.”
NOAH hopes to change how we look at these small squares that dot Eastie.
“East Boston’s streets were laid out in 1834, before the automobile was even imagined.” said Magdalena Ayed a community organizer at NOAH. “The way the street grids intersect produces large triangular intersections along White, East Eagle, Bennington and Meridian Streets. And while once upon a time, people might have taken leisurely strolls across these large public streetscapes, not today; in the age of the automobile, these squares are difficult at best for pedestrians.”
Not only are these large unstructured traffic flow areas difficult to traverse, they may potentially be responsible for a ripple effect, acting as barriers to walkability. The Boston Alliance for Community Health (BACH) believes that hostile pedestrian environments such as these may contribute to adverse community health outcomes, blocking urban residents from accessing healthy exercise areas and prompting them to choose to drive rather than walking.
To encourage safer, more walkable communities BACH and NOAH’s Community Building and Environment Department and Youth Organizers are teaming up with expert traffic planners to look at these small squares and how to improve them for the future. Traffic planners from the Metropolitan Area Planning Council (MAPC) will conduct a “Place-Making” project in Eastie aimed at improving traffic flow in areas with low walkability.
Place-Making is a relatively new idea that uses temporary changes to create new perceptions about places. Through place-making, residents and planners can try out new uses and traffic patterns using quick and inexpensive techniques such as setting up tables and chairs, or adding benches and planters.
By testing new ideas out quickly and inexpensively, a new sense of “place” can be developed.
“Image if we could recover some of that open space in Clark Square and use it for seating for all of the restaurants and pastry shops in that area.” said Ayed.
To learn more about how residents feel about walkability and safety, the NOAH Youth crew conducted three studies and found that; more complicated intersections felt less safe, especially for young children and elderly people; that mid-block average high speeds easily reach into the upper 30’s and lower 40’s on our small city streets; that shoppers using the Bennington Street business area walk to shop 78 percent of the time; and that 80 percent of pedestrian shoppers agree that the area needs to be made safer to walk.
“We know we need parking in this community and the best thing is that based upon the initial ideas MAPC has shared with us, it seems like we will be able to make some interesting improvements without losing any parking.” said Marchi.
Working with the professionals at MAPC through a process they call PhotoVoice, a group of Eagle Hill residents spent parts of the past two months photographing the things they like and want more of, the things they disapprove of and their traffic concerns. Through this process the group identified Clark Square as an important opportunity for improvement and came up with a preliminary list of the types of things they’d like to see more of including seating, flowers, art, shade and small businesses.
“Our MAPC partners explained that traffic patterns could be altered to simplify intersections like these, by bumping out the sidewalks and taking away the option of cutting through the square. Instead, these changes could organize the traffic flow so that motorists would turn off and onto streets like London, Havre and Paris at more of a right angle,” said Marchi. “This would greatly simplify and slow down these complicated intersections while creating new public open spaces in front of Peaches and Cream Bakery extending the sidewalk out and adding as much as 600 – 700 square feet of safe dining and sitting area and another 1,200 square feet of space along the London Street sidewalk area.”
While Marchi said the project is still in planning phase, NOAH has created a concept drawing showing this idea to help residents imagine what the future can bring.
“While we have a lot of leg work to do with the city, Boston Transportation Department, the business owners and most of all, the residents in the area, it is amazing to see what a little expert advice can do,” said Marchi. “To think that a space like Clark Square could go from being a problem area, to an active, useful and safe place is really cool. If we can test it out through place-making, working hand in hand with the city, the businesses and the residents, we could really make a difference. That Bennington Street business area is a treasure, full of great little restaurants and Bodegas and adding some circulating space to the district could be a great benefit.”.