It’s the places between the places that matter. I wouldn’t go so far as to say that they matter more than the places themselves, but they matter quite a bit. In the suburban model the places between the places you go don’t matter, there’s a time quotient which comes into play and perhaps individuals take into account the number of people they are traveling with and the quality of the vehicle in which they are traveling, but the quality of the space is insignificant.
In a city people care about distances and the visual interest the streetscape creates along the way. “Safety and security” are taken into account, I suppose, somewhat more than motorists might take them into account in determining a route, but that has a lot more to do with media hype than reality: Stranger danger is much higher on the road than on the street.
In many a downtown there are the coolest places you can imagine, so much more real, so much more interesting and beautiful and significant than the pseudo-architectural plastic crap that passes for a built environment in our (What does Kunstler call it? The American Automobile Slum?) sprawling wasteland of parking lagoon infested corporate chain restaurants and entertainment. The problem, with the cities, not with the asphalt strewn horizontal cultural desert of suburbia, is that they’ve allowed the cancer of suburban design to metastasize within them enough to ruin the dynamic interplay of places such that critical mass has been lost.
The places between the places were destroyed randomly by combinations of market forces, governmental regulation, and large scale attempts to “revitalize” what, to a tremendous degree, government subsidy had destroyed. I would point any interested reader in the direction of Chuck Marohn and his Strong Towns website for a thorough, mathematical, and irrefutable explanation of why and how the Ponzi scheme of horizontal expansion was created by (so called) federal subsidies and is destroying our economy…but I digress. The point is there are still great places downtown, but in many cases getting from place to place has been impeded, actually or apparently, physically or psychologically, by barriers thrust up in an effort to “help” cities compete with the suburban Frankenstein created over the past seventy years.
The point is, the damage was done randomly, but it needs to be repaired strategically. In Springfield, Court Square, the Quadrangle, Mattoon Street, the Springfield Armory National Historic Site, Main Street from the arch to Red Rose, State Street, and the entrance to the Riverfront Park are beautiful places to be, but the horrible Dwight Street, lower Union Street, the Apremont Triangle, Pynchon Plaza’s labyrinthine stairs, the Columbus Avenues, Interstate 91, three railroad underpasses, blank walled telephone buildings (What’s with AT&T and terrible architecture? There’s got to be a story there.) and parking garages, a few stretches of broken up sidewalks, and the occasional vacant building and parking lot make for a metro center in which everything feels disconnected and distant.
I treasure my walks through the city, so I have routes that inspire preprogrammed in my head such that I only rarely find myself, for example, walking north or south along Dwight Street. A city, however, cannot survive if it can only be enjoyed by aficionados. The natural connections, the straight line connections, between the most important resources, the resources which combine the most readily with others and which will require the least intrusive and least expensive interventions need to be enhanced first, and then (inexpensive) design features need to be added which will push pedestrians naturally toward the most enjoyable routes.
Right now, today, at this instant, without doing anything, Springfield would easily be the most dynamic place in the region circumscribed by Montreal, Hartford, Albany, and Worcester if its best places were unified and walkable; The Basketball “Halls” of Fame, old and new, with their half a dozen restaurants and the sports museum itself, the impressive LA Fitness complex, the Riverfront Park and bikeway, a handful of history museums and art museums, a science museum, all of the bars and restaurants which make up the entertainment district, a dozen or so other bars and restaurants scattered about the downtown, a civic center with two professional sports teams, at least 3 large (1,000 or so seats) venues for the performing arts, the Italian specialty shops of the South End, stunning architecture, diversity, public art, public radio and television stations, and a convention center. If these things were connected the lack of retail and cinema would be problems which would resolve themselves for certain. American International College and the Springfield Technical Community College are perhaps too distant (in the case of the former) or too limited in ambition (in the case of the latter) to bring the dynamism of a the university which many cities harness to great advantage. Umass has a limited presence in the downtown, but its ambition to expand in the city, specifically downtown, could work wonders.
I wish I could go back in time and situate Springfield College, AIC, and Western New England University in areas closer to the downtown. A lively center city, even a successful “University of Massachusetts, Springfield” could actually help make AIC and Springfield College, in particular MORE attractive to undergraduates. My guess is those institutions will be nervous about a competing institutional giant moving in and taking a bigger slice of the pie, but it is much more likely to make the pie larger than anything else. If that were to happen it could make a public transit link to the downtown from the colleges viable, which could then not only have a multiplier effect in the center city, but it could also create a true University District along the corridors which connect the schools.
Therein lies the ultimate prize. The thousands of university students who leave, who flee, who fly at the speed of light, away from the City of Homes after they get their diplomas might even start to consider staying here, on purpose, intentionally, as part of a life plan. I love my hometown, but I get why a young person from Pennsylvania who chose Springfield College for his undergraduate education wouldn’t put staying here as a priority after graduation. The bits aren’t aggregated, critical mass hasn’t been achieved, the dynamism that the best cities create by way of fine grained interconnectedness doesn’t yet exist. We have the parts, we need to unify them.