Northampton should accept design help from Notre Dame

Reprinted with permission of the Daily Hampshire Gazette. All rights reserved.

Northampton should accept design help from Notre Dame


Thursday, June 19, 2008

I was disappointed to learn that the Northampton Planning Board decided last Thursday night not to take the lead in inviting Professor Philip Bess and the Notre Dame Urban Design Studio to do its fall project in Northampton.

I think that this would be a great tool to bring the community together in a truly open process, giving visual content and meaning to the Sustainable Northampton plan. However, it is not too late for the citizens of Northampton to extend this invitation in some other way if there is enough interest in doing so.

Professor Bess, who spoke here on June 2, neglected to mention a singular achievement. He was a leader of the successful effort to save Fenway Park from the wrecking ball. This link tells that story and his role in it: http://www.savefenwaypark.com/news_detail.cfm?ID=305&SORTBY=ID%20DESC.

It should be noted that the "Save Fenway Park!" effort went forward with a coalition of support from citizen groups, against the opposition of city of Boston officials and Red Sox management. Fortunately, Red Sox management changed, and the public brought sufficient pressure on city officials to alter what had been the foregone conclusion that Fenway was doomed.

Philip Bess masterminded one of the great victories of citizen participation, with very practical results, in a city that has far more complicated politics than we have in Northampton.

Our city, which could benefit greatly from an infusion of urban design vision, still has the opportunity to develop such a vision and move forward in a positive direction. The effort would cost the city nothing, as it would be supported by donations raised from various civic-minded individuals and organizations. It would enable us to implement the Sustainable Northampton plan with a common understanding of urban design and with clear graphic images to guide us as we make crucial choices for the long-term future. It would teach us how to distinguish between infill that enhances the community and infill that just adds density to our neighborhoods - or even detracts from them.

Professor Bess would still like to work in Northampton if citizens want him to come. He is a figure of national stature who could make a unique contribution to our public dialogue. In the aftermath of the Planning Board decision, he said, "I am disappointed but not discouraged by the Planning Board's decision; my students and I still would like very much to come to Northampton if there is sufficient interest from citizens in Northampton in having us come."

The Planning Board, at the urging of staff, has suggested that other avenues should first be explored for a similar purpose. The Notre Dame program is recognized as the best in the nation for teaching its students and client communities how to develop sustainably using traditional urban design principles, at a fraction of the cost of hiring a professional firm. They not only do the drawings, they also draft suggested form-based code provisions to put these drawings into action on the ground. No other school program does that. Why shop around when the best is knocking on our door?

I hope that Northampton can still pull this together as a citizen initiative, with the participation of the Planning Board and Office of Planning and Development. We would need to act soon to bring this about by next fall. If you would like to support this effort, please indicate your interest by replying to NotreDameNorthampton@gmail.com.

Joel Russell is an urban planner and land use attorney with a national practice based in Northampton. He has participated in numerous professional and student design charrettes and has written extensively on sustainability and urban design.