Columnist Sarah La Cour: Amherst has its own Royal Mile

Thursday, June 07, 2018

It’s called the Royal Mile. It’s a destination in Edinburgh, Scotland, that attracts thousands of people, both visitors and locals, every year. It is a vibrant and vital streetscape that stretches from Edinburgh Castle, a 14th-century fortress, to Holyrood Palace, the sometimes home of British monarchs.

Along that mile is an exciting juxtaposition of shops, restaurants, offices and housing. There are sections that are pedestrian-only and are accented with street performers, artists and retail carts. There are sections that contain interesting civic and cultural organizations. It is a vibrant, walkable and fun place to be and be seen. It is also a prime economic generator for the city.

Why do I mention this? Because minus the castle and palace (which I admit is a pretty big minus), Amherst has its own royal mile. Yes, if you measure downtown Amherst along North Pleasant Street from Amherst College to the University of Massachusetts, you are at approximately 5,280 feet, which is a mile. Within that mile are shops, restaurants, offices, housing, civic and cultural organizations and much, much more. I realize that it does not, and will never, mirror Edinburgh’s mile, but I think it’s an important way to look at it.

Edinburgh created that dense, active and pedestrian-friendly avenue to link two great attractions that reflect its history and are bookends to a mile-long connection of culture, economy and community. Here in Amherst, Amherst College and the University act in the same capacity as critical institutional terminuses to our mile of creative, economic and residential activity. Although there is an extreme difference in scale (and age), the concept is the same.

Looking at this linear geographic area as a holistic unit allows us to envision a broader scope of programming, infrastructure and visitor and resident experience. One linear mile is also a great way to address walkability. That is a manageable distance for students, locals and visitors to amble comfortably.

Once you look at the “Amherst Mile” as a comprehensive area, you can begin to see patterns for what is important to protect and preserve and where it is critical to assess further the potential for growth and development capacity. You can also then study any particular aspect as a subset of the whole, such as the fabulous parks and gardens that link through downtown in a green network bringing a natural landscape feature to the urban core. That is one component that we have a wealth of over Edinburgh’s cobbled streets and plazas. Both provide character to the downtown fabric and help create the sense of place and cohesiveness.

Although Edinburgh has had a few more centuries to develop its Royal Mile, Amherst has done a good job over the last few decades with the establishment of our “mile.” We have more residential units, a relatively new park at Kendrick, better traffic and pedestrian circulation with the new roundabout and planned improvements to our crown jewel, the North Common.

And in between all that are our shops, restaurants and beloved cultural icons including the Amherst Cinema, the Emily Dickinson Homestead and the Jones Library. And with programming and events through the BID that offer live music, street festivals and more, we’ve created the energy and excitement that provides a reason to come and enjoy.

While Amherst isn’t Edinburgh, embracing our “Amherst Mile” as a destination for housing, commerce, green space and civic pride is valid. It is a special and unique place.

We also have the opportunity to continue to improve on this important feature of our town and ensure that it remains a pivotal place for all who want to come and experience its history, beauty and pride of place. From one end to the other, come “walk a mile” with us in downtown Amherst.

Sarah la Cour, of Amherst, is executive director of the Amherst Business Improvement District.