Chuck Marohn came for a visit last week. No Curbside Chat, no Transportation summit. Just a visit. Chuck and I spoke for hours about many things, but from the perspective of urbanism what struck me was how we arrived at so many of the same conclusions from completely different starting points, world views, philosophies, and attitudes.
Chuck is a professional, I am an amateur. He is politically conservative, I’m a leftist. He is religious and has a nuanced view of spiritual things, I reject both outright and with gusto. His dream home early in life was a brand new cabin in the woods, I’ve always wanted to live in an historic urban home. If suburbia, strip malls, big box shopping, and auto centric design worked fiscally and economically Chuck would be totally on board. I wouldn’t care how much wealth it produced, I’d be against it.
So listening to the podcast he recorded the week after visiting here I was ecstatic to hear a few words that indicated for me that he was, if not reaching a similar conclusion, perhaps forming an hypothesis regarding cities and design which has been similarly germinating in my mind for some time. The rough outlines for this conceptualization are that design plays a different role in burgeoning places versus already established ones. The dynamics are different, and perhaps even the equivalent of the physical laws are different.
I might even go so far as to say that I think I know what was going through Chuck’s mind when he said it because I had experienced something very similar while walking through downtown Springfield with Chuck. It didn’t hurt that it was a perfect October day, but there were people everywhere and as we walked through Union Station and then back around on Main Street it was honestly invigorating to feel how much energy there was, to see how wonderful the buildings were, to hear how coherent the designs were, and yet to notice how unfulfilled the potential was.
It defies the data. It casts doubt on the assumptions.
It’s a walkable downtown in a community with meds, beds, and eds. It’s got most of the right buildings in most of the right places, a great new transportation hub, people friendly architecture, small blocks, residential development, pedestrian amenities, actual pedestrians; but it isn’t taking off, it isn’t quite enough to be transformative even when the playbook says that so many of the bases have been covered.
My belief (but only a belief) is that race, negative framing, and alternative centers create a stickiness to decline that is difficult to overcome. It’s important to understand that the region is thriving, it isn’t “white hot” at the San Francisco or Boston level, but it is performing beyond most MSA’s; it isn’t a case of a metro-center reflecting its region, it’s a case of the center underperforming its region. I am hoping that MGM, Union Station, and the TDI combine to create a magic feather effect for the downtown.
Just looking out my windows, speaking literally, I see half a dozen projects in process: The total renovation of High Street from asphalt on the street, to sidewalks, cameras, apartment renovations, and new windows; a new magnet school for the arts; a resource sharing small business initiative; MGM; pedestrian and bike improvements to the South End; and the I-91 viaduct renovation. Will any of those projects have as much transformative power as the hundreds of children and adults moving here effectively as refugees from Puerto Rico?
As Johnny Sanphillippo writes to conclude his post on the aftermath of the Northern California wildfires it is interesting, given the trope in fiction that people flee the cities for the country during an apocalypse that his home in the city was serving as a refuge for suburbanites fleeing the flames and smoke. I had the same experience here during the Halloween snowstorm of 2011 when every suburban and rural community in the region suffered serious long term (1-2 weeks) power outages and my home in the city, with its underground utilities, proved a refuge.
While San Juan and Ponce recover first and best, if only to a lower grade of normalcy, many suburban and rural folks from Puerto Rico will be fleeing to a city in New England that once housed 20,000 more people than it does today, and at very high levels of service in terms of water quality, roads, electricity, and amenities like parks and libraries. They could do much worse, whether they know it or not. The mayor and others predicted that 2018 would be Springfield’s year, the year when many long foreseen projects would be completed. It looks to also be a year in which the unforeseen plays just as great a role.