Like the really bad song you can’t stop singing I have to give some credit to a fairly corny and terribly lame story I heard told perhaps 40 years ago but which always springs to mind whenever prevention and remediation are discussed. It had something to do with a mountain town that had a windy road and cars were constantly careening off the edge into the valley down below and the townsfolk were debating whether to install a guardrail on the road or to station an ambulance in the valley. Of course, prevention won out and a fence was installed on the road.
(Photos of the Dragonboat Festival on the riverfront)
The metaphor is apt when I contemplate how badly we need to stop fighting battles against people who want to see Springfield experience fiscal stability and economic health but who remain ignorant regarding the perils and pitfalls of auto-oriented development. Knowing that we need some combination of locally focused Congress for the New Urbanism and/or a local chapter of Strong Towns I was elated to attend the first meeting of a nascent Western New England chapter of the CNU.
(Exterior doors of city hall)
In attendance were a remarkable combination of individuals: There were people who clearly had no idea regarding what the CNU was, did, or stood for; and there were others who could quote Andrés Duany chapter and verse. The main presenter was brought into the New Urbanism at the same time and by the same means which I had been, which is to say James Howard Kunstler’s seminal work The Geography of Nowhere. As a Vermonter he brought a nuance which differed from most of the presentations I’ve watched from the annual meetings in some ways which clearly align his concerns with the issues we are addressing here, but there were other differences, primarily relating to the urban/rural divide which clearly separate his focus from what we experience in Springfield.
(Dr Seuss parade)
If the CNU, as a national and even international organization, can overcome the fact that its members come from such different places who puzzle over such differing problems then I am sure that we in Western New England can gain from working together despite our varied challenges. I recall that a decade and a half ago I mentioned the CNU to a planner employed by the City of Springfield and she could not have been less impressed; in her mind New Urbanism was only about green field development. I was shocked at her initial impression, no doubt connected to reality in the sense that as a nascent idea New Urbanism was implemented in places very different from stagnant and stodgy New England. New Urbanism did involve whole communities being developed from scratch, but it was a misunderstanding of New Urbanist principles to think that there was no interest in protecting the existing healthy fabric of pre-war American cities and towns.
(Quadrangle tree lighting)
Which brings us to what it can do for us here and now: In two conversations just prior to the introductory presentation I had remarkably disparate experiences: one was with a realtor who lived within a few blocks of me and who was overseeing the lease or sale of a property I pass by every day but had no idea how harmful surface parking was to center cities; the other was with a cycling centered professional who had actually attended a national CNU meeting. Imagine creating awareness on the part of the ground troops, as it were, of real estate sales, even to a minimal degree, of some of the basic ideas of good urbanism, and then combining that with bringing together educated specialists with interested amateurs (like me) and generalists; having a few more people in the room, wherever that room is and whether the topic is transportation, development, architecture, or parks, who are aware of the knowledge base New Urbanists have “rescued from the dumpster” of history. It could keep us from having to fight battle after battle after designs have been sketched out and opinions, however ignorant, have been formed.
(A well known local celebrity with ‘Boomer, the T-Birds’ mascot)
These are not bad people, they just don’t know any better. Their experiences over the last 20, 30, 40 years have trained them to think that auto oriented stroad development is the way to go because it did make them money in the short run. The broader picture that the whole exercise has impoverished the nation and that the apparent prosperity was an illusion is not obvious without stepping back and looking at larger trends. I’ve said before, but it is important to remember, many people right here in Springfield did many of the “right things” 40 years ago; but they didn’t work. Creating, and restoring, housing in the center of the city, even of the highest quality, mostly failed and became problem areas populated almost exclusively by the poor. Storefronts on Main Street were cleaned up, opened up, and renovated…only to be boarded up or to become home to 2nd storey uses like dental and insurance offices. Meanwhile the strip malls and big box stores in the suburbs were filled with the contents of traditional neighborhood retail, even if that was with chain store after chain store instead of locally owned shops.
(An empty parking deck at 10 am on a weekday in the downtown)
Bad ideas sometimes give positive short term results: People lost weight with Fen-Phen; Lyle Alzedo became all pro with steroids; Some people made big money on Dutch tulips and on pets.com…for a while. Educating people to see that “parking” is not “the problem”, that density is not inherently bad, that design matters, that mixed use creates dynamism, these are the ideas which, once internalized will tend to make every new development improve our community instead of constantly moving two steps forward, but one step back.