BOOTHBAY HARBOR, Maine — The basic design of most towns is pretty much permanent, but that doesn’t stop groups like Friends of Midcoast Maine from imagining a day when the most basic form of transportation — walking — becomes a higher priority in downtown designs.
Jane Lafleur, the group’s director, said foot traffic in a downtown benefits everyone from retailers who want people walking past their shops to the physical health of those people to the environmental benefits of keeping a few cars off the road. She said recent “walkability audits” in Boothbay Harbor and Rockland by a nationally renowned consultant showed that while large-scale road and sidewalk projects are expensive, there are a lot of relatively inexpensive ways to make a big difference for pedestrians.
“We don’t want to stop traffic and we don’t want to reduce the capacity of a place to handle traffic,” said Lafleur. “We just want everyone to share the road, so to speak.”
Lafleur said Friends of Midcoast Maine partnered with the two communities recently to hire Dan Burden, a consultant with the Walkable and Livable Communities Institute who travels all over the country helping towns and cities with pedestrian issues. In late October, Burden and dozens of members of each community took a stroll through downtown Boothbay Harbor, which at times is as congested with people and vehicles as anywhere, and Rockland, particularly Route 1/Camden Street at the northern edge of the downtown.
In Boothbay Harbor, some of Burden’s recommendations were large-scale, such as the installation of sidewalks and turning lanes for vehicles and landscaped median strips. But his report also focused on numerous small investments that could be accomplished without major work, such as reconfiguring parking spots and adding style to items with basic functions.
“Boothbay Harbor embodies the quaint charm typical of a New England seaside community,” wrote Burden in his report. “As such, amenities like trash cans, light fixtures and benches should reflect a more sophisticated appearance, rather than merely serving as functional devices with a homemade look.”
In Rockland, where Burden focused on Route 1 north of Maverick Street, he recommended a variety of measures that would help pedestrians feel more comfortable walking next to one of Maine’s busiest roads. Burden said the road itself could be narrowed in some areas to accommodate a buffer between the street and sidewalk without reducing the road’s capacity. He also saw signs and utility poles in the sidewalks and what he thought were too-wide entrances to some businesses — all factors he said negatively affect the walking experience.
He also suggested that the city rethink its zoning ordinances if it wants a village feel in the area. Among the areas he flagged as missed opportunities for the city were a green space in front of a church, a restaurant without a street-side entrance and a waterfront car wash that Burden said has “the best view from any car wash in America.”
“Think about how we honor the most important places in our town and our community values of ‘access to the water,’” wrote Burden. “Become a place that sizzles, not one that stutters. A car wash at one of the best view sheds does not make sense.”
Lafleur said though Burden’s suggestions are specific, the goal of the audit and Friends of Midcoast Maine is not to tell any town what it should do, but rather to offer specific suggestions that might help those towns accomplish their goals. The friends group, which was formed 12 years ago and helps municipalities on a range of issues, is supported by grants and contributions, though Rockland and Boothbay Harbor helped with the walkability audits with either financial contributions, in-kind services or both.
“In both of these cases it’s a really bottom-up, grassroots process where we listened to what the communities want,” she said. “Then they decide what they want for their own communities. The ball is in their hands. These audits were really an effort to inspire them and for them to take charge.”