Bridging the gap: overcoming infrastructural obstacles in neighborhood planning

By Tania Bronsoiler

Seemingly overnight, but actually a generation in the making, the Rindge neighborhood in Cambridge has experienced significant growth and development, with an influx of thousands of units of residential development and new commercial activity. The growth is due, in part, to the proximity to the MBTA’s busiest subway train, the Red Line, as well as the wealth of recreational amenities in the area. Danehy Park – a former landfill and now 50 acres of recreational areas – Russell Field, and the 155-acre Fresh Pond reservoir and park are treasured and well-used gems, but the pedestrian connections between these places are lacking and span a host of 20th century infrastructural barriers. Vehicular infrastructure is dominant and oppressive and train tracks, fences, surface parking fields and dead-ends stymie the linkages which would result in a safer and healthier community.

The Alewife Connectivity Study for the Cambridge Redevelopment Authority focuses on negotiating the barriers between destinations and advancing a more coherent and connected network. The proposal is divided into several phases, scales and modes of movement to complete a network and generate a realistic plan of action.

Physical barriers and solutions

The parking

The absence of intentional areas for biking and strolling results in an unsafe relationship between cars and wheeled recreational transport. Minor modification to oversized parking aisles provides an opportunity without diminishing spaces.  The solution weaves a continuous walkway between the existing residential towers, replacing an existing chain link fence with a multi-modal path that differentiates properties but brings them together through public space. A barrier becomes a boardwalk.

The tracks

The MBTA commuter rail forms a southern barrier between the residential and commercial/recreational areas. The solution leverages the existing topography to span the tracks at a strategic location, providing safe overhead passage for cyclists and pedestrians that link to the Minuteman Bikepath, a popular ten-mile multiuse rail trail.  With a safer and more accessible route, residents are far removed from Route 2 car traffic.  A barrier becomes a bridge.

The highway

As with many neighborhoods, Alewife is lined with a major transportation corridor. Route 2 is constantly congested with more than 80% of the traffic moving through the community. Its elevated trajectory contributes to the disconnection and isolation of the area. The urban design solution takes advantage of the arterial’s sloping elevation change to occupy an underutilized space below the highway and give it a purpose. Currently closed to the public and used as laydown space for nearby construction, the new connection forges another missing link to the Minuteman Bikeway.  A barrier becomes a bikeway.

The Rindge neighborhood deserves a more superlative public realm, one in which moving between places is easy, at all times of day and for people of all ages and mobilities.  While Alewife Brook Parkway/Route 2 will continue to serve as a primary arterial for the region for a long time to come, and the MBTA commuter tracks represent a significant physical barrier, there are improvements that can be made to pathways and street intersections in the near term that make a difference and foster the growth of a network.  Investment in just a few concentrated areas signal that the distance between assets are much closer than they appear. The more well-defined network also delineates development parcels for future growth as the neighborhood continues to attract residents and amenities.

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