15 years ago the General Manager of the Boston Red Sox was from western Massachusetts, and he had a vision of a farm system for the team which would have the triple A, double A, and A level franchises in New England. Boutique ballparks were all the rage with Camden Yards being credited for helping to revitalize at least a small section of downtown Baltimore and the then mayor of Springfield found a perfect location just north of the metro center which had been “Le Corbusier-ed” in the 60’s to build a ball park for the AA Red Sox.
At this point many things collided and, as this took place in the late 90’s, I’d be the first person to admit that the details are sketchy in my mind. As I remember it, a citizens group had formed around one of the the controversial issues of the day, calling itself Citizens Against Needle Exchange. As they had locked heads with Mayor Albano’s administration, and won, the group was energized, changing its name to the Citizens Action Network(I think it was), so as to retain their acronym CANE, and then took on the mayor regarding the baseball park issue.
Motives are never easy to discern, of course, but as that, as I hope to illustrate, may very well be the most salient point of this anecdotal exercise, I think it is important to venture a guess. The CANE group, as it had coalesced around the issue of drug use and AIDS, was a somewhat conservative one, at least by Massachusetts standards. By the time the baseball stadium issue was hot it had become a coalition of both anti-tax, somewhat anti-government Randian Objectivists, and the remnants of mainstream conservative anti-drug, anti-gay religionists: Strange bedfellows. Along with that, there were already rumblings about corruption within the administration which were found to be not without merit, and so even the mayor’s supporters on needle exchange and other progressive issues began to look at everything he did with a more skeptical eye.
The sticking point was really eminent domain and the concept of critical mass. The city had plenty of vacant land in an underutilized industrial park which had previously been tabbed as viable for a baseball stadium but, of course, the mayor saw rightly that placing the stadium in an area which was miles and miles outside the downtown would do nothing to create critical mass, would do nothing to harness the pre-existing amenities, activities, and infrastructure downtown to make the ball park MORE than just a place for people to occasionally watch potentially up and coming pro athletes perfect their craft a few dozen times each summer. Isolated and accessible only by car, placing the new stadium in a greenfield would only do for the city what it would do for the region; give us a AA Red Sox franchise within driving distance. For people who hate cities this location was perfect, they would get the advantage of the city in the form of an amenity which required a large population from which to draw potential fans and in which to create a media market for the franchise, but which still gave primacy to their preferred mode of transportation, the car.
Apart from the obvious truth that compact development reduces long term maintenance costs by reducing the linear feet of water lines, sewer lines, roadway, and sidewalk that will need repair, those same lines will not be nodal, but can be part of a network which services other structures, uses, and facilities. Most importantly, placing the baseball stadium within walking distance of thousands of units of apartments and condominiums in the downtown, and dozens of bars and restaurants could, and there is the key word, could, push the downtown over the tipping point, creating critical mass and letting loose a chain reaction of development which would more than offset the cost of the stadium itself. The key point here, is that until critical mass is achieved, absolutely nothing changes, absolutely nothing is harnessed or released and so the greater expense of wedging things together in a tightly packed, struggling urban core pays no dividend, but only costs more. Apart from the sticky issues of eminent domain, with its openly “ends justify the means” mentality, the standardization and short term accountancy related to sprawl development make greenfield development nominally less expensive in the short run and so interest groups complain about what they view as the waste of urban infill.
Unlike the scientific concept regarding fissile material and a nuclear chain reaction from which this development concept takes its name, it is impossible to know how much of what a place needs to achieve critical mass. In urban theory that depends a great deal on what a city needs to overcome. Achieving critical mass in a place which doesn’t need to overcome issues connected with crime, race, poverty and the like is much easier than doing so in a community which does since exactly what critical mass entails is precisely at what point the amenities, usually related to their quality, quantity, and walkability, overcome some combination of the aforementioned issues and the difficulty of motorized movement. Manhattan is a miserable place to drive, and to park, but what a person can access on foot so far outweighs that fact that the city is like the core of the sun in terms of critical mass. A tiny city, like Northampton for example, has less to overcome in terms of negatives, and so achieves critical mass with a minimal quantity, if a high quality, of amenity.
In theory at least, it’s possible for NO amount of development to be enough for a city to reach critical mass. If the people of a given region simply can’t see anything making their urban center “livable”, then any amount of hassle with the automobile to access, say, one given amenity, is preferable to even the thought of living there. It’s also possible for a city to be so close to the edge of breaking through the barriers and exploding with vibrancy that something as small as a grocery store or a cool second hand shop could do the trick.
At this point it’s necessary to return to motives. As a personal observation, I think ascribing malign motives to actions and attitudes isn’t helpful. It’s to easy to do that when confronted with differing opinions, rather than doing the much harder work of determining whether people have the same goals and priorities. In the example of the baseball park there were many who mentioned how distasteful it was to for a struggling city to finance millions for a very profitable business when parks, schools, and public safety were underfunded. From the perspective of someone who doesn’t believe in the concept of critical mass, or who doesn’t see the city as a viable candidate for that kind of rebirth, or who simply doesn’t have the worldview that understanding “critical mass” entails, altering development patterns to accommodate this idea makes no sense.
I have to admit that I think that they’re wrong in the sense that I may want a different outcome from that which they view as desirable, or I may have both a more optimistic or perhaps a more singular view of what I see as the optimal outcome. I know that I want not only for my hometown to be revitalized economically, but that I want it to do so while not just maintaining, but also increasing its urbanity as I define it. It’s certainly too much to ask that everyone have this same worldview and also concur on the most effective means to achieve it.
Where does that leave the idea of critical mass? This idea came to mind when I wrote to my brother who, having retired, may be looking to move back to the area, that I knew that he would be buying a place in Springfield IF we had the Sox AA farm team here in the city. There are so many other things that are nudging him in this direction, but he isn’t over the edge yet. This isn’t an argument that the baseball stadium would have long ago solved all of Springfield’s problems, and that the bastards who stopped it are the ones to blame for the city’s demise. It is simply describing at the micro scale how critical mass works. The aggregate impact is simply that, the accumulated effect of many individual decisions made one at a time, one person at a time. Minor league baseball may not have been that final catalyst for enough people to have changed the city, a casino, or movie theaters, or an improved retail sector may not individually, or even collectively, be enough to propel the city forward, but then again, the whole point is that one of them may.
Successful cities are defined by just that. The whole is greater than the sum of the parts. To not believe in that is to believe that the suburban model of disaggregation is not just possibly preferable in a subjective sense, but that it is in the long run more viable than traditional development because the complexities of traditional development return no benefit whatsoever. Only time will tell if that is so.