Today’s Urban Planning Debates Echoed in Northampton’s Near Past

Debates about infill and urban land use have lately become hot topics, spurred by the Sustainable Northampton Plan and the prospective Hilton Garden Inn. Some of the underlying issues have been in play for many years. On the eve of Design Northampton Week, let’s revisit some of the voices from Northampton: Reflections on Paradise (1988), a book of photos and interviews by Lionel Delevingne and Faye S. Frail.

John Szawlowski, with son, John, Jr. farmers (p.19)

“People are fortunate in this area, that’s some of the best land, we grow some of the best vegetables in the area. It’s too bad when you see people selling all this land for buildings… You look around now, you drive through the Industrial Park, when we were kids, we had cows and vegetables–it’s gone, and nobody even knows it was there.”

Brinkley Thorne (speaking below) and Maisie Cox, architects and co-owners of Thornes Market, with their children (p.20)

“A town like Northampton should be careful. Now for the first time in a long time, people want to build new buildings downtown. It could be done badly. What really intrigues me is that the most sophisticated thing is informality. That quality is so easily lost as things get more prosperous.”

Ricardo Barrientos, bilingual teacher and bilingual coordinator, Northampton Public Schools, and Teresa Barrientos, Hispanic parent resource person, Holyoke Public Schools, with their children (p.22)

“Northampton is a very healthy environment to raise kids in. The kids love it–they’re Northampton natives. Comparing it to New York City, where I [Teresa] grew up, this is Paradise–trees and green…”

Randall Diehl, painter (p.59)

“Northampton used to be small-town America, now it seems to be trying to imitate New York, which it can never be, and I don’t know why it would want to be… I think it’s important to preserve the old buildings that give the town dignity…”

Thomas Lesser, attorney at law (p.75)

“What does Northampton need? It could have used a city government that made more demands of the developers. We never extracted our due, not like a city like Boston. The Center for the Arts, it’s not equipped. We should have demanded $100,000 for equipment. People have the perception that the city has been given away…”

Herbert and Robert Ross, owners of Ross Bros. (p.87)

“Holyoke’s sad because they’re renovating it and it’s too homogenized. In Northampton, it’s been individualized–people grab a building, put their own selves into it. In Holyoke, it’s people buying whole blocks and fixing them up without having any tenants in mind for them. I worry about that happening in Northampton now, I think that growth should be looked at carefully. It looks like such a sparkling little jewel to these outside investors, they just want to jump on it without any real perception of what is going on…

“Now, we’re in Florence. Florence is the movie-set small town… Florence is more of a community-service business area, more so than Northampton. It’s all the basic services that you need to keep this community going. We have people coming in who say, ‘I don’t want to go downtown, deal with all the traffic, and King Street, forget it!'”

James Brooks, City Councilor, Ward Six (p.105)

“What does the city need? First of all, we should have our ordinances so that they can be enforced. Second, because I have seen so many new people, I say that we should stick to our present zoning requirements for building lots and houses on those building lots. You can’t stop people from moving in…the best way to control it, as well as we can control it, is to make sure we abide by our zoning ordinances, without variances and without special permits… I disagree with the Mayor completely and absolutely when he says that we should fill the open spaces with houses…”

See also:

CommonWealth Magazine: “Urban greenery can bring better health, more attractive neighborhoods, and even safer streets”
[A study in Baltimore by Morgan Grove of the US Forest Service]
found that neighborhoods with higher tree cover had stronger social
connections, and residents had a significantly lower desire to move
away, presumably because trees increase the attractiveness of the area.

landmark Harvard University study of a dozen Chicago neighborhoods
found only one variable that explained lower crime rates in otherwise
virtually identical communities: the extent of social cohesion…

Greening Smart Growth: The Sustainable Sites Initiative
presence of natural elements has several implications for personal and
community security. Shared green spaces, particularly those with trees,
provide settings for people to interact and strengthen social ties.
Residential areas with green surroundings are associated with greater
social cohesion in neighborhoods, and neighbors with stronger social
ties are more likely to monitor local activity, intervene if problem
behaviors occur,[48] and defend their neighborhoods against crime.[49]
Residents of buildings with greater tree and grass cover report fewer
incidences of vandalism, graffiti, and litter than counterparts in more
barren buildings.[50] Likewise, a study comparing police reports of
crime and extent of tree and grass cover found that the greener a
building’s surroundings, the fewer total crimes were reported.[51]

UMass Press: “Natural Land: Preserving and Funding Open Space”
Protected open spaces are essential for human health and well-being.
From the founding of the first urban parks, planners and landscape
architects have recognized the recreational benefits of open space as a
place for physical activity and restoration in crowded urban
neighborhoods. The need to provide places for people to recreate is
just as important today, especially as the sedentary lifestyle of many
Americans including children has led to record levels of obesity and
other health-related problems (Wilson 2002; Trails and Greenways
Clearinghouse, undated; U.S. Department of Health and Human Services
1996). Parks and trails provide opportunities for people to improve
their physical health…

Preserving areas of nature, open space, and trees and other vegetation
can have psychological as well as physical health benefits for local
residents. There is a growing body of research which points to the
power of nature to restore people from the stress of modern life,
including mental fatigue (Kaplan, Kaplan, and Ryan 1998; Frumkin 2001).
The positive benefits of nature have been found in a range of settings
and populations, including hospital patients’ recovery from surgery,
office workers’ productivity and job satisfaction, children’s ability
to concentrate and do well in school, especially those with Attention
Deficit Disorder, and even prisoners’ health and behavior (Frumkin
2001; Ulrich 1984; Taylor et al. 2001; and Moore 1981). Urban trees can
also have a positive impact on building community in inner-city
neighborhoods (Kuo et al. 1998). Many residents do not need these
scientific studies to persuade them–people appreciate nearby green
spaces as places to enjoy after a hectic day at work.

New York Times: “Advocating an Unusual role for Trees” (8/11/08)
Trees…absorb pollutants from the ground, comb particulates from the air and house beneficial insects…

recent study by researchers at Columbia found that children in
neighborhoods that are tree-lined have asthma rates a quarter less than
in neighborhoods without trees… Trees are also used to remove mercury
and other pollutants from the ground, something called
phytoremediation. And, of course, trees store carbon dioxide, which
mitigates global warming.

Springfield Republican: “Victory gardens fight price wars” (6/24/08)
In Northampton, which has a community garden of more than 400, 20-foot
square plots on the grounds of the former Northampton State Hospital,
competition for the few spots that come open each March is intense. The
waiting list is currently 30 to 40 names long and growing, said
Christine Kostek, who maintains it for the city’s Recreation

Gazette: “As food, other costs rise, more stake hopes on home gardens” (6/14/08)
According to the Associated Press, W. Atlee Burpee & Co., the
nation’s largest seed company, has sold twice as many seeds this year
compared to last year…

For [home gardner Sigalit] Tornovish of Leverett, reducing her family’s
food and gas expenses is a serious goal. ‘I had to drive often to the
food stores, so by growing my own things I save money on gas and I
don’t waste,’ Tornovish said…

Among those trying to be more resourceful and experiment with backyard
gardening is Karen Bellavance-Grace of Northampton and her neighbors.
[Eds: Bellavance-Grace is an aide to Mayor Clare Higgins.]

The group of six families, 20 people in all, is tending a new plot in
Bellavance-Grace’s backyard at 19 Church St., a small street that runs
west from King Street above downtown…

…group members are strengthening their street’s sense of community and producing food…

The New Draft Sustainable Northampton Plan: Balancing Compact Growth Against Taxes, Urban Greenspace, Homeowner Preferences
objective of the Plan is to “implement ideas for maximizing density on
small lots”. (p.16) It calls for the City to “consider amending zero
lot line single family home to eliminate 30′ side yard setback”. (p.69)
It suggests the zoning laws be changed to “encourage single family
homes in Urban Residential zoning districts by significantly reducing
minimum frontage/lot width, for projects meeting form-based coding”.
(p. 71)

These changes have the potential to reduce or eliminate
the yards that separate homes from each other and from streets. This
loss of greenspace may well entail a loss of privacy, attractiveness,
flood protection (through an increase in impervious surfaces), and an
increase in the heat island effect, noise and congestion. If fewer
trees are shading homes, cooling costs are likely to rise…

Our Column in Today’s Gazette: The Hidden Risks of ‘Smart Growth’
Steven Greenhut, a columnist for the Orange County Register, is critical of [Bozeman’s] Portland-style growth controls:

Creating unattractive and high-density projects in a place
awash in open space only pushes people farther out into the
countryside. In Belgrade, eight miles away, one finds market-driven
suburban-style subdivisions. That city does not have many restrictions,
and those who cannot afford Bozeman or who want a bigger place simply
move away, thus promoting the sprawl that Smart Growthers are trying to

New York Times: “Vibrant Cities Find One Thing Missing: Children” (3/24/05)
interviewing 300 parents who had left the city, researchers at Portland
State found that high housing costs and a desire for space were the top

Berkeley, California: Cautions on Infill
…propelled by their
simplistic “smart growth” philosophy, [the Planning Department] encourages developers to
build the largest possible projects over neighborhood objections…

The Planning Department is
well on its way to building a high-density downtown Berkeley that has
almost no parking… could rapidly become a problem for our business

In 1990, 60 percent of New Yorkers said they would live somewhere else
if they could, and in 2000, 70 percent of urbanites in Britain felt the
same way. Many suburbanites commute hours every day just to have “a
home, a bit of private space, and fresh air.” But unfortunately,
running off to suburbia or to the wilderness to find contentment is
becoming environmentally and economically unviable.

We must draw
people back into relatively compact urban areas. Showcase cities that
have managed to attract would-be suburbanites into increased core
densities have done so through neighborhood revitalization and by
giving priority to quality of life, not density. This is the opposite
of what Berkeley is doing…

Condo Monotony: The Future of Ward 3?

Portland: A Photo Tour of Spiraling Densification

Portland, Oregon Voters Sour on Densification Over Time

Portland Suburb Successfully Staves Off Densification

Scrape-Off Redevelopments Provoke Backlash in Denver Neighborhoods

Vancouver Sun: “Call it EcoDensity or EcoCity –either way it’s a hard sell”

An Update from the Ward Three Neighborhood Association (5/20/08)
…Our second committee, the Sustainability Committee,
is charged with reading the city’s new Sustainability Plan and keeping
the board updated on issues relating to Ward 3. The committee has
focused on the proposal to rezone many neighborhoods throughout the
city (including many in Ward 3) for much denser development, and this
has the potential to become a really hot potato. We’re ahead of the
curve on this issue and will make sure Ward 3 residents have ample
notice of any proposed meetings and/or zoning changes. Jim Nash and
Owen Freeman-Daniels have been instrumental in forming the committee
and are looking for more residents to join.

New York Times: “Report Says Public Outreach, Done Right, Aids Policymaking” (8/22/08)
…a growing body of evidence suggests that [public participation],
done correctly, can improve [environmental] policies and smooth their
implementation, according to a report [link] issued Friday by an expert panel
convened by the National Research Council.
Though critics often assert that members of the public are too ignorant
to weigh the science involved in environmental policies, “public
participation can help get the science right and get the right
science,” said Thomas Dietz, the director of the Environmental Science
and Policy Program at Michigan State University, who headed the panel.

“A lot of science has to be applied to a very local context,” he said in a telephone interview. “Local knowledge is essential.”