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The Other End of I-90: The Best City For Walking In The USA

2011 July 13
by dan bertolet

There are other contenders to be sure, but none can match Boston’s unique combination of a manageable scale, narrow streets that deviate from a grid pattern, historic architecture, a wide variety of parks, a river, a harbor, and great transit. Boston’s population density is about twice that of Seattle—nothing outrageous, but enough to make it all work.

The photos below were taken during one afternoon walk and only capture a slice of Boston, but they tell the story well.

< Alley near State Street >

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< Brimmer Street >

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< Downtown Crossing >

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< Commonwealth Ave. >

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< Beacon Hill >

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< Newbury Street >

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< North End Park, on the lid of the “Big Dig” >

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< Beacon Hill >

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< Norman B. Leventhal Park >

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< North End >

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< Downtown Crossing >

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< Beacon Hill >

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< Old South Meeting House >

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< Christopher Columbus Waterfront Park >

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< Near Government Center >

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< Beacon Hill >

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16 Responses leave one →
  1. RossB permalink
    July 13, 2011

    Yes, but it’s freakin’ cold in the winter! Heck, it’s cold in the fall (when the wind whips through). Give me San Francisco, when the toughest thing you have to deal with is a little fog (which can be avoided by walking in a different direction).

    • brian permalink
      July 13, 2011

      Yeah. The research for this post wasn’t done in January. Or even October

      • Steve permalink
        July 15, 2011

        Yeah, but since Dan visited in the summer, it was probably something like 85 degrees and humid, which isn’t exactly ideal walking weather either.

        That said, that Newbury street picture gives me serious rowhouse-envy.

        • Jane Jacobs permalink
          July 22, 2011

          No low income housing in that neighborhood.

    • Daniel permalink
      April 22, 2012

      Having lived in both Boston and SF, I’d take the seasonal extremes of Boston over SF any day. SF is a wonderful city despite it’s weather. It’s like Muzak; infrequently noticeably offensive, but really not pleasant if you pay attention to it. And as soon as the sun’s down, you get the damp-wind-whipped-foggy-coat-required-anytime-of-the-year evenings. Comparatively, 85 and humid means it feels wicked hot at times, but wonderfully warm evenings. I’ll take Fourth of July concerns about rain over fog any day.

      Back on topic, Boston is a wonderful walking city, made so by it’s fine grain and extensive transit, both of which I hope Seattle can retain and attain some day. Not that it’s unwalkable here, but the scale and thoughtfulness (thoughtlessness) of a lot of recent development makes me wonder. Work in progress, yes? But one that requires mindfulness nonetheless.

  2. Chris permalink
    July 13, 2011

    Great pics, Dan. Looks nice there

  3. JoshMahar permalink
    July 13, 2011

    Great pics! Definitely a place I have been trying to get for a while now.

    Questions: Looking on a map, the downtown “peninsula” of Boston seems to be quite small. What are your impressions of the neighborhoods outside the central area? Do they generally still maintain a very urban, walkable feel to them or does it get pretty “suburban” pretty fast? Would it be enjoyable/consistent to walk from one of the further out ‘hoods to downtown in the same way that walking the better length of Manhattan is?

    • Steve@GoodyClancy permalink
      March 16, 2012

      Josh: I know I’m chiming in late to this thread (assuming it’s not closed), but to answer your question, the city does not get suburban fast — at least not in the sense we think of “suburban.” A couple of great close-in neighborhoods that Dan missed are the South End (pricy, but beautifully historic) and the Fenway (cheapest of the downtown neighborhoods, for a variety of reasons — but students are bidding up rents and gentrification in the form of a wave of mid-rise, mixed-use projects near Fenway Park will add further pressure). SE dates to 1840-60 with newer infill, the Fenway dates to 1890-1920, and both are entirely urban in form, with rowhouses in the former and 5- to 6-story apartment blocks in the latter (which visitors often comment reminds them of Brooklyn in form and scale). Still potentially walkable, but farther out, are some of the original “streetcar suburbs” like Lower Roxbury’s Dudley Square and Fort Hill; Jamaica Plain; South Boston; and parts of Dorchester. Generally, you have to go as far south and west as Roslindale and West Roxbury to find significant post-war suburban-form development.

  4. Alex Broner permalink
    July 14, 2011

    I lived in Somerville and I found downtown Boston to be too imposing. Sure the narrow streets were nice but the tall buildings made one feel trapped in a well. There is a strong case to be made for buildings about 50 feet high. Jan Gehl points out that any higher and you destroy the relationship between the building and the street as well as crowding out sunlight and creating gusts of wind at the base of the building. Christopher Alexander maintains that buildings more than 4 storys tend to make people crazy.

    In the Seattle context our model shouldn’t necessarily be Boston, but Capitol Hill. We need to allow more density near transit and pay for more transit near density. Light rail, streetcars, and trolleybuses all have their role, as does more exotic options like aerial “trams”. In areas near frequent transit the minimum zone should be LR3. Use Transferable development rights to preserve some of the most beautiful and well landscaped single family homes.

  5. Giovanni Piranesi permalink
    July 14, 2011

    A long time ago, by choice, I almost moved to Boston, but wound up moving to Seattle instead. Although I am very fond of Boston, I am not entirely sure that Seattle should look to Boston as a model either. I agree with Alex (above) that in downtown Boston, some of the relatively narrow streets and tall buildings can make one feel trapped. As for Beacon Hill, (Boston), one of the poshest neighborhoods in Boston, ( I am assuming that it still is), its scale seems to be close to that of Capitol Hill in Seattle – where I currently live, (Piranesi in Seattle! Who knew? Sorry about the name, but when I signed up, “Jane Jacobs” and someone like “Daniel Burnham” were also commentors).

  6. Sarah Tiberi permalink
    July 18, 2011

    You left out one feature that helps make Boston such a comfortable walking city, especially compared to Seattle and many other port cities — it’s flat!

  7. poseur permalink
    July 18, 2011

    Finally – a Dan post I can really get behind!

    I visited a friend in Boston multiple times – in November even! – and got around everywhere via feet or T. It’s such a beautiful, historic place that I entertained the idea of moving there. It never felt claustrophobic: instead it felt cozy and manageable. The importance of topography won out, however, and I stayed here.

    Great post and photos!

  8. Catherine Hillenbrand permalink
    November 26, 2011

    I love Boston and the outlying neighborhoods/cities which are dense and low-rise mostly. It has a fantastic scale, and a great transportation system. It is NOT a high-rise city by and large. IN that sense, it’s a great model for Seattle. And as Alex Broner says above, Jan Gehl and Christopher Alexander speak with great wisdom on liveable, people-oriented places.

  9. Matt permalink
    March 17, 2013

    great pics Dan, boston IS the best walking city!

  10. Mehdi permalink
    July 23, 2014

    Yes! Boston is a great city to walk, live and study.

    I wish to move there.

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