Celebrating a true Great Place

In September, Lowell’s Canalway Cultural District was recognized as one of the Great Neighborhoods in America by the American Planning Association–one of only five such designated in the entire country this year.  On October 9th, Mayor William Samaras formally accepted the award on behalf of the city in a packed mayor’s reception room ceremony prior to that evening’s City Council Meeting.


The APA describes Lowell as follows:

Lowell has evolved from the nation’s largest industrial center to one of the most exciting cultural centers in Massachusetts, one of 44 cultural districts in the state. Lowell’s Canalway Cultural District is defined by a thriving arts community, daily cultural activities, and an array of dining and shopping destinations. Through partnerships between the city and private developers, the district’s revitalization has resulted in the creation of over 80 new jobs and a total investment of over $4 million. Lowell continues to value its rich natural and cultural treasures, honoring its past while looking ahead towards a more sustainable future.

Generally encompassing Lowell’s downtown core, the Canalway Cultural District is bounded to the northeast by the Merrimack River, running south along Brown and Howe Streets, then running west along the Concord River and Lower Pawtucket Canal, until hitting Central Street.  Bounded by Middlesex street to the south, Thorndike Street and Dummer Street to the West, and then along the Merrimack Canal until returning to the Merrimack River.


Andrew Shapiro gives the overview of the program


Canalway Cultural District: Lowell, Massachusetts

Planning Excellence

Since the 1970s, Lowell has seen a remarkable rebirth and revitalization. The designation of the Lowell National Historical Park in 1978 as the nation’s first urban National Park, along with complementary local and state efforts to promote historic preservation, heritage tourism, and economic renewal stimulated a restoration of the downtown. An early 1980s wave of immigration, especially from Southeast Asia, Africa, and Latin America, enabled Lowell to carry on its proud tradition of drawing upon the vitality of its immigrant communities.  More recently, through the diversification of its local economy, the City’s job base has broadened beyond its traditional manufacturing core.  Emerging technology, education, healthcare, and creative economy sectors have contributed to Lowell’s recent vibrancy and renewed spirit of innovation.

Plans, such as the Lowell Downtown Evolution Plan by urban designer Jeff Speck, and the City’s Sustainable Lowell 2025 Master Plan, inspired projects and initiatives that have helped the Canalway Cultural District become what it is today.  The City of Lowell has utilized City, State, and Federal funding, such as Community Development Block Grant (CDBG) funds, to implement improvements that made the downtown safer, more pedestrian friendly, and attractive.  Streets were resurfaced and painted with bicycle lanes, sidewalks and ADA accessible curb cuts were added, and improvements were made to canal and river walkway, and wayfinding signage was added to increase multimodal accessibility.  These improvements enhanced access to businesses, cultural facilities, and historic sites.  Historic character has been embraced and enhanced through resetting of cobblestone streets, planting trees, hanging planters, installing Victorian-style streetlights, and landscaping around City Hall.

Following the recommendation of the Lowell Downtown Evolution Plan, two-way traffic operations were successfully restored to several downtown streets in 2014, increasing accessibility, wayfinding, and the desirability of retail storefronts.  The vibrancy of the neighborhood is seen in the variety of retail, the embrace of diverse cultures and the arts, the multitude of community events, and the over 500,000 people visiting each year to enjoy what the District offers.  These results could not have been realized without the creative and thoughtful planning by the City and residents.

Defining Characteristics & Features

  • From the nation’s largest industrial center to one of the most exciting cultural centers in Massachusetts, Lowell’s Canalway Cultural District is defined by a thriving arts community, daily cultural activities, and an array of dining and shopping destinations.
  • Lowell has protected canals within the city and has often leveraged them to generate new development or redevelopment. The Merrimack Riverwalk, a $3.5 million walkway along the historic “Mile of Mills” on the Merrimack River connects the University of Massachusetts at Lowell, LaLacheur Park; the City’s minor league baseball facility, and the Paul E. Tsongas Center with the City’s Central Business District in the Canalway Cultural District.
  • Two farmers’ markets operate in the Canalway Cultural District: one at Lucy Larcom Park and another at Mill No. 5. The Lowell Farmers Market (Lucy Larcom Park) accepts SNAP dollars and provides transportation for seniors from the Lowell Senior Center.
  • Millions of square feet of mill buildings throughout the District, which were once home to thriving manufacturing operations, have been adaptively repurposed into residential, office, and mixed-use properties. One shining example of this in the Canalway Cultural District is Western Avenue Studios, which is home to the largest artist community on the eastern seaboard of the U.S. The five acre complex and its varied brick mill buildings are home to over 300 artists in 250 work only studios and 50 live/work lofts.

By the Numbers

  • The Canalway Cultural District of Lowell is one of 44 Cultural Districts in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, all of which were designated through the Massachusetts Cultural Council’s Cultural Districts Initiative.
  • The 158 acre District is host to 100+ free public and private events, performances, and activities.
  • Through the Department of Energy’s “Better Buildings Program,” 500,000 square feet of downtown historic commercial space has been retrofitted for a projected energy savings of 31 percent.
  • Since 2000, the City has worked with private developers to facilitate the rehabilitation and re-occupancy of over 3,000,000 square feet of vacant downtown buildings.
  • Since 2000, over 1,800 units have been added to the downtown’s residential inventory. These projects represent a total investment of approximately $877 million.
  • The Lowell Development and Financial Corporation’s Downtown Venture Fund has financed over 40 new businesses in downtown Lowell, representing an investment of approximately $4.25 million.
  • The Canalway Cultural District includes a 15 acre area currently undergoing redevelopment called the Hamilton Canal Innovation District, which will create nearly 2 million square ft. of new building space (potentially creating 400 to 1,800 new permanent jobs), over 700 new units of housing, up to 55,000 square feet of retail, and up to 450,000 square feet of commercial/office space.


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