Valley Advocate Critiques Sustainable Northampton Plan

This week’s Valley Advocate critiques the Sustainable Northampton Plan and contrasts it with the picture-filled work from the recent Notre Dame Northampton Urban Design Charrette. Here are a few excerpts:

Sustainability: Vision or Buzzword in Northampton?
Why Notre Dame’s Urban Design Team’s work matters more than Northampton’s Sustainability Plan

In many ways, what Professor Bess and his urban design team were attempting to do in one week was what the city had been laboring to achieve over the past three years…

Since the [Sustainable Northampton Plan] was released [last January], city officials have peppered their language with the word “sustainable,” and the plan has been invoked often as a reason for whether or not to proceed with a development…

Though filled with photographs, Sustainable Northampton has only one land use map, showing a satellite’s view of the land within city limits and how it might be developed. Otherwise, there are no diagrams in the 80-page document…

…without a clear vision, the document, packed with jargon, undefined terminology, unexplained acronyms, and third-party reports that aren’t properly referenced, is a confusing mess. Far from providing guidance, it raises hundreds of questions and a good deal of doubt that the city’s design decisions are being made by anyone that has a clue where we’re going…

Reviewing the diagram of the planned single-use sprawl [on Hospital Hill] a mile and a half from downtown, the mayor remarked on how well the architect used urban design principles by packing a lot of homes into the design. Density of construction is, of course, only one principle of urban design, but without regard for mixed-use, walkable neighborhoods, packed housing can also be a ghetto.

As they have done with much of the Sustainability Plan, it seems likely city hall will adopt the urban designer’s terminology, twist its meaning to fit their own needs, and add the jargon to the next revision of a plan already crammed tight with words that lack meaning, describing visionless goals.

See also:

Grasping the Sustainable Northampton Vision: We Need Pictures
In all the 78 pages of the draft Sustainable Northampton Plan
(PDF), there is only a single graphic. It’s the Future Land Use Map, an
abstract, top-level view of the city. That’s unfortunate, because
without drawings, pictures and illustrations, it’s difficult to
envision how the Plan will change the look and feel of
Northampton. James Kunstler, an advocate of New Urbanism, discusses this problem in “Home From Nowhere”, published in the September 1996 issue of The Atlantic Monthly:

The object of the charrette [public design workshop] is not,
however, to produce verbiage but to produce results on paper in the
form of drawings and plans. This highlights an essential difference
between zoning codes and traditional town planning based on civic art.
Zoning codes are invariably twenty-seven-inch-high stacks of numbers
and legalistic language that few people other than technical
specialists understand. Because this is so, local zoning- and
planning-board members frequently don’t understand their own zoning
laws. Zoning has great advantages for specialists, namely lawyers and
traffic engineers, in that they profit financially by being the
arbiters of the regulations, or benefit professionally by being able to
impose their special technical needs (say, for cars) over the needs of
citizens — without the public’s being involved in their decisions.

town planning produces pictorial codes that any normal citizen can
comprehend. This is democratic and ethical as well as practical. It
elevates the quality of the public discussion about development. People
can see what they’re talking about. Such codes show a desired outcome
at the same time that they depict formal specifications. They’re much
more useful than the reams of balderdash found in zoning codes.

Video: Third public “in-process” presentation and feedback session for Design Northampton Week
Here is a complete Vimeo video of Design Northampton Week’s third public “in-process” presentation and feedback session that took place on September 11. It’s one hour and 32 minutes long. Notre Dame students presented ideas for revitalizing King Street between Bridge Road and North Street. They also made suggestions about Hospital Hill (Village Hill), particularly the part Kollmorgen is slated to move to. Click to see the existing and proposed designs for Hospital Hill (Village Hill).

The Notre Dame Northampton Charrette – Website Launches
Let it be noted that New Urbanism and the North Street Neighborhood
Association share a great deal of common ground. The North Street
neighborhood has many characteristics that New Urbanists favor:
relatively high density, within walking distance of downtown, mixed use
and mixed income.

NSNA’s desire is to preserve what’s good about
a neighborhood that’s working well. We want New Urbanist principles to
be applied with nuance, a light hand, and an appreciation for local

We are concerned that developers will seize on New Urbanism and Smart
Growth as an excuse to jack up density, erode in-town greenspace, and
build near wetlands. This may feed their profits, but it may also
degrade our quality of life, increase the risk of flooding, and even
motivate homebuyers to prefer homes farther out, increasing the sprawl
that New Urbanists hate.

Video: First public “in-process” presentation and feedback session for Design Northampton Week
Fran Volkmann, Vice Chair, Community Preservation Committee
We would like to concentrate development closer in, we like the idea of
walkability, bikeability, neighborhood center… The thing that happens
to us, however, is that we buy that and then somebody builds some
horrible thing…and then they say to you, “This is infill, you know.
It’s good, it’s infill.” …You know if you walk in European cities,
you very often find little tiny pocket parks, and little bits of green
spaces, mixed in with beautiful buildings… How do we…learn
to…value…respect for people at the same time that we try to fill in
our park spaces?

Condo Monotony: The Future of Ward 3?
To maximize profits, the developers have shoehorned units into their
lots with little regard to the preexisting appearance of their
neighborhoods. The developments feel inward-facing or ‘withdrawn’, not
part of the regular street fabric. These aspects are probably what
prompted the “carbuncle” comment from the planning board member…

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…

LA Weekly: “What’s Smart About Smart Growth?”
Real estate developers have caught on, using the phrase shamelessly to
gain public support for enormous developments, from a hillside
subdivision near Santa Clarita to the Westside’s Playa Vista, the
massive, 5,800-home development near Marina del Rey. In a city where
growth was once a dirty word, smart growth is the spoonful of sugar
that suddenly makes bigness palatable…

Rutherford Platt, “The Humane Micropolis” – Full Text
Northampton has mercifully been spared top-down, macro plans in vogue
from the Garden City era to Urban Renewal in the 1960s. Unlike
architect and developer-driven concepts of urban design, the Humane
Metropolis has few aesthetic preconceptions. Ecology is “messy” and so
are older communities like ours. But who wants to live in an “ideal
community” planned by outside experts when we can live in the “Paradise
of America” (aka “The Humane Micropolis”), a work always in process of
adaptation by its fortunate inhabitants.

Seeing Like a State: Planning Gone Awry in the 20th Century