Exactly what do we mean when we say crazy stuff like “center of gravity,” “critical mass” and “transit village” when describing whether a neighborhood or transit station area is successful? Good question. I said those things last week in Eric Roper’s insightful Star Tribune piece about the progress of development around the Lake Street station in Minneapolis. Most urbanists know our little code words; we nod and wink about good urbanity, but what do we mean? Well, I guess it boils down to “would you want to take a walk there?” and “would you want to live there?” Setting aside the complicated issues surrounding development at Lake Street that Roper describes, let me take you on a little travelogue to demonstrate. Today’s destination: Eastern Market in Washington D.C.
Eastern Market is a neighborhood centered around a Metro station and marketplace of the same name less than one mile southeast of the capitol. It is a place I enjoy walking and would consider living. My family visited there last spring, and we chose a vacation rental in a lovely stretch of rowhomes on South Carolina Avenue, a stone’s throw from the Metro station with a walk score of a bazillion. And with a six- and two-year old, walk we did.
The sidewalks are plenty wide for mothers pushing a double-wide stroller to pass commuters on their way to the Metro station in the morning.
Boulevards are tree-lined and the relatively calm streets have plenty of on-street parking; as the first provides shade and both of these things provide protection for pedestrians. Homes on our South Carolina Avenue are set back with larger front yards, but other streets in the neighborhood are set back less but still have pleasant private front yard space.
The owners of our vacation rental have three kids, and they pointed us in the direction of the playground in Marion Park, one block to the west.
As you can see, both kids had a splendid time, and the playground clearly is a huge magnet for neighborhood kids.
On market days, Eastern Market is buzzing with people, indoors and outdoors, as 7th Street is closed to vehicles. It is a wonderful place for people of all ages. The history of Eastern Market is rich, and it took considerable work for it to be the bustling marketplace we know today.
The pleasure of a vacation rental when traveling with children is having a kitchen, which allows for meals without the hassle of going out. For that a grocery store is a prerequisite, and a Harris Teeter was located less than one mile southeast along Pennsylvania Avenue.
Of course, we ate at a few restaurants as well. Just around the corner, 8th Street is full of shopping and restaurants, plenty of which are family-friendly. The street itself is family-friendly, well-scaled with a lot of stuff in the way that is effective at slowing traffic, including back-in diagonal curb parking! Both street and sidewalks are pleasantly congested.
Pennsylvania Avenue is the largest street in the area, with multiple lanes and a large center median. Yet while it moves cars, crossing is very pedestrian-friendly, even with kids. Crosswalks are large and very clearly defined, and crossing signals have sufficient countdowns, clearly calibrated for people.
Whereas there are plenty of cars in the area, there isn’t a single spot in the entire Eastern Market neighborhood where walking is actually unpleasant. We didn’t walk across streets with our eyes closed like Hans Monderman, but walking was a distinct pleasure. My kids’ favorite place to walk was past the fire station.
Being literally across the street from the Metro station makes Eastern Market an excellent jumping-off point for touring the city. The kids loved the subway, and we were able to easily visit the National Gallery, Spy Museum, Chinatown, and even Foggy Bottom (Shaw’s favorite word) and the hike over to Georgetown.
By the way, because of the required distance one must cover, perhaps the best way to see the sights of the National Mall is by bicycle.
Eastern Market is a great urban neighborhood for a lot of reasons, some related to excellent planning, others luck, and still others simply an attitude that puts pedestrians first. It wasn’t always the wonderful place it is today as it has followed the arc of many city neighborhoods since the 1950s. But strip away all of that and you will find the fundamental building blocks of good urbanism – walkability. Yes, there is an art to walkability, but it boils down to something pretty straightforward. Sidewalks are wide enough, traffic is tamed, there is transit service, housing is attractive, retail lines the sidewalk, and front doors abound. Bottom line is Eastern Market is a great place to walk. And I could see myself living there.