Northampton Redoubt: Urban Ecology, Planting Trees, and the Long-Term View

Daryl LaFleur urges the long view in “Northampton developments: Barrett Street Marsh in Jeopardy”, published yesterday on Northampton Redoubt. We have emphasized certain passages with bold type.

Mr. Kohl is an influential real estate developer in the greater Northampton area. He purchased Thornes Marketplace for $6.4 million in 2006 according to media reports and has helped Northampton move forward on many fronts. For instance recent media coverage indicates that Mr. Kohl has entered into an agreement to sell acreage in Northampton’s outlying areas to the city for conservation purposes, giving the city about two years to raise the funds. His firm, Kohl Construction based in Hadley, Mass., likely works with city planning staff on development proposals prior to exposing them to the public, a common practice…

People in favor of the Kohl subdivision have argued that the North Street area is close to city services and infrastructure plus it’s within walking distance to downtown merchants and Bridge Street School. Since Mr. Kohl owns downtown commercial property it makes sense for him to assist in increasing downtown residential density from an economic development point of view. Proponents reason that if all things were equal, five acres of forest lost to development in-town is better than five acres of forest lost to development in the outlying areas. This seems like a valid view, but are all things equal?

If we remove all of our in-town forested areas and wetlands they will likely be gone forever or at least a very long time. We would do well for posterity to err on the side of caution. For example the cost estimate to restore part of the downtown historic Mill River channel runs into the millions of dollars. Had the river’s diversion in the 1940s been handled differently, perhaps with a sharper eye towards the future, maybe today we wouldn’t be searching for dollars to make its restoration a reality.

There are other aspects of urban ecology that are important as well and we should examine these closely. For instance urban forests provide habitat for birds and small creatures that consume mosquitoes and other insects. Urban forests help to keep our air cleaner by removing pollutants from the atmosphere. They also reduce the size of urban heat islands thereby lessening our need to run air conditioners and fans which traditionally burn fossil fuels.

As well some of our Community Preservation funds could be allocated in order to develop pedestrian and/or bicycle trail systems in some of our conservation lands. This would go a long way toward encouraging eco-tourism in the city while preserving our nature and wildlife. If people are going to, “check their cars at the Hilton Garden Inn” as some assert I would think preserving and developing accessible wildlife sanctuaries within walking/biking distances to downtown would be viewed as extremely desirable.

Personally, I am very concerned about the future of another in-town eco-system as well, known as the Barrett Street Marsh. Located adjacent to a bicycle path, this parcel falls under the jurisdiction of the conservation committee but is zoned for residential development (URA) and Highway Business. If we are serious about preserving the marsh we should move to rezone it as special conservancy land, or something similar. Until then, this parcel’s future use is subject to conjecture, especially with a more permissive wetlands ordinance looming. Since there hasn’t been a formal proposal brought forward for this land that I am aware of, perhaps the future of the Barrett Street Marsh deserves some attention now, before it’s too late.

As a subfield of ecology, urban ecology and its importance to civilization is a developing interdisciplinary field of study. Graduate level course work in Urban-suburban Ecology and Wildlife Management is offered through the University of Massachusetts and I implore subscribers to do a web search on urban ecology and learn more about it. People may disagree as to the importance of our own urban ecology, but I have yet to read anywhere where infill is described as developing existing and vital ecosystems. Each time I read about infill the topics concern redeveloping brownfields or previously developed urban areas that are not utilized to the fullest extent.

For more on urban ecology visit: and note in the bibliography Northampton’s own Rutherford Platt from the University of Massachusetts Press, Amherst. According to the website urban ecology was founded in the 1970’s by Richard Register in Berkeley, California to “rebuild cities in balance with nature.” Urban ecology is defined as the study of the interactions between biological communities and the urban environment and its goal is to achieve a balance between human culture and the natural environment.

Here’s a link to an interesting urban ecology web log:
The May 21, 2007 entry outlines how the city of Boston plans to plant 100,000 new trees by the year 2020 in order to increase its urban forest canopy by 20%. The web log adds that New York City plans to plant one million trees.

Don’t stop there as there are many more sites devoted to the study of urban ecology and it appears that this is a new concept for the city of Northampton to consider as we plan for the future.

See also:

Daryl LaFleur: North Street Area and Urban Ecology
Constructing homes in the downtown area near existing services, infrastructure and public transit makes sense. However, the Urban Land Institute’s report on Springfield [PDF] suggests removing decaying buildings and creating more green spaces in Springfield’s downtown area as a way to enhance that city’s quality of life and lure people back to downtown. Springfield would like to create, on a larger scale, what Northampton currently has and one need only walk around downtown Springfield and observe the lack of urban green patches to understand why. Similarly, despite all of its problems, the Big Dig in Boston aims to add parkland and green recreational areas in an urban environment for the same reason, to improve the quality of life for inhabitants and give business owners a reason to stay put.

Northampton Redoubt: “North Street area citizens join together”
Situated close to a wetland area, the project calls for the creation of five detention ponds to handle the storm water run-off that will be created by adding asphalt and buildings to an area where impervious surfaces do not currently exist. The project proposes to eliminate part of a forest that supports Northampton’s urban ecology. Comprised of three and four bedroom market rate units in the $300 thousand range, the development will add significant traffic to well traveled North Street, a narrow two lane road in poor condition lacking sidewalks along certain stretches and without any crosswalks or lane markings. According to the city’s website North Street carries from 5,000 to 10,000 vehicles daily. At eight vehicle trips estimated per vehicle, if the sprawling single use subdivision averages two vehicles per unit, about 500 new vehicles trips per day will be added to an already congested street. This doesn’t account for service vehicles and visitors…

There was much enthusiasm on display at the barbecue, tempered by concern for the future of the neighborhood. Some questions raised to ponder:

  • How much development is not over-burdensome for the existing neighborhood?…

  • Will the city hear concerns and agree with them?

  • Why does city leadership value open spaces in the outlying areas of the city more highly than open spaces near downtown that add to the quality of life of residents?…

NSNA Featured on Home Page of
Daryl LaFleur has published a blog entry about NSNA on Northampton Redoubt, his blog at The Advocate is featuring this entry on its home page today. Daryl began coverage of Kohl Construction’s plans last month, writing about it on June 15, and providing several good photos of the plans.

In a comment below his June 15 entry Daryl writes:

Often overlooked is the importance of maintaining our urban ecology. Retaining green urban patches is vitally important in order to support wildlife and the ecocycle. New zoning in Northampton is resulting in infilled neighborhoods so we are losing green spaces intown that support birds and small mammals. I think infill is fine when speaking of redeveloping an area that has already been paved over and has no historic significance. Eliminating all intown green spaces however is another matter.