Monday, September 08, 2008

Local Daily Hampshire Gazette Story

Here's an excerpt from another story in our local paper which might give you a sense of Northampton, Massachusetts.

The 'humane micropolis'
Northampton has evolved on its own terms

From this perspective, Northampton may be described as truly a "Humane Micropolis"- a humane metropolis writ small. It is blessed of course with a congenial physical setting, a diverse housing stock, a broad-based economy, cultural vitality, and a strong sense of community. And Northampton has long been energized and enriched intellectually through past residents like Joseph Parsons Sr., Jonathon Edwards, Sojourner Truth, Samuel Hill, Sophia Smith, E. H. R. Lymon, William Fenno Pratt, Calvin and Grace Coolidge, Mr. and Mrs. Frank Newhall Look, and their counterparts today such as . . . (fill in your favorites).

We are an educational town, an arts town, and a business town, but we are also a tolerant and welcoming community to people of various life pursuits, lifestyles, and life experience. The vitality of Northampton is not confined to its downtown but is discovered in its back streets and hidden neighborhoods like the Montview Town Farm near the Connecticut River levee, the African American Heritage Trail in Florence, the renovated mills along Riverside Drive in Bay State, or Water Street in Leeds. Regardless of neighborhood economic status, our side streets are graced with impromptu patches of wildflowers, sunflowers, tomatoes, blackberries and ferns, overshadowed by iconic oaks, maples, sycamore, white pine, and spruce trees. Our expanding system of rail trails encourages off-street exploration by bike or foot, while promoting fitness and casual neighborly chit-chat.

And this is a caring community, as attested by the faith-based and nonprofit services such as the Survival Center, the Grove Street Inn, the Manna meal program, and the winter cot program, When the Meadowbrook apartment complex was faced with gentrification, a coalition of housing advocates, the mayor's office, and tenants orchestrated a sale of the property to a new owner willing to continue affordable rents for many of its units. Village Hill, site of the former Northampton State Hospital, is now the scene of an ambitious redevelopment effort in which half of its 207 authorized dwelling units will be reserved for individuals and families eligible for "affordable housing."

To suggest that Northampton has evolved organically without a preconceived plan is not to claim that planning is irrelevant here. We have had planning and zoning since at least the 1940s. And we have plenty of planning disputes today such as the proposed hotel near Pulaski Park, the landfill expansion, Village Hill, North Avenue Woods, and a possible new Rt. 91 interchange. But the planning and zoning process essentially is reactive to specific proposals and procedural in setting "rules of the game" for land use changes.

Massachusetts is unusual among states in not requiring zoning to be "in accordance with comprehensive plan" and that has perhaps been to our benefit. Planning here deals with needed infrastructure, including "green infrastructure" like conservation areas, bikeways, improved walkability, and tree planting. But fortunately, the funky pre-zoning neighborhoods in Florence, Bay State, and near downtown have been little affected by zoning which typically ratifies the status quo rather than create nonconforming use problems. Post-zoning subdivisions like the Ryan Road area are more akin to standard suburbs across the country than to the older parts of Northampton.

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.

Rutherford Platt, a resident of Florence, is Emeritus Professor of Geography at UMass Amherst and author/editor of several books on cities and land use.

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