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Talking Smart, Acting American

July 19 - 26, 2006
Column By KEN KRAYESKE, The Hartford News Staff Writer

The experts came, they talked, they left.

The problems remain.

Last week, important people with answers flew into Hartford to share solutions.

Ken Greenberg, Canada’s urban planning guru, addressed four packed houses in 24 hours about his long-term vision for Hartford, implemented through three phases. The first of which was the presentations and their collection of public feedback.

In his final presentation, staged in a basement auditorium at St. Francis Hospital’s Mt. Sinai Campus on Blue Hills Avenue Wednesday morning, July 12, Greenberg emphasized development of greenways and triangular traffic nodes to connect parks and fractured neighborhoods.
The next day, former governors Paris Glendening of Maryland and Christine Todd Whitman of New Jersey presented their ideas on stopping sprawl with several hundred Nutmeggers gathered in downtown Hartford’s Christ Church Cathedral for a Hartford Courant Key Issues Forum, Thursday morning, July 13.

Smart Growth, Whitman and Glendening said, encompasses intelligent planning policies that stress mixed-use green buildings, walkable, bikeable, livable vital downtowns, and an eschewing of resource-heavy, car-centric developments.
I loved it all. Almost. Glendening had me forks, frame and pedals when he said it was crazy for a 150-pound man to get in a 2,000 pound car to drive two miles to buy a quart of milk.

Greenberg said people in Toronto are proud to give up cars like smoking. Then someone mentioned that the 36 percent of people in Hartford who lack cars don’t see it as a badge of honor. They call it poverty.

Janice Williams, the excellent, concerned resident of Blue Hills, asked how many people aside from her had taken public transit to the meeting. No one raised their hands, and people laughed when I said I carpooled.

Cars? Greenberg said fixing the traffic problems at the half-dozen or so triangular nodes like South Green, Franklin and Maple, Albany and North Main, Farmington and Broad would induce development there. I buy that.

When he suggested the development of greenways, like a proposed one for the North Branch of the Park River, a no-brainer that West End advocate Mary Pelletier is working on at parkriver.org, I was ready to drink the kool-aid.

Pelletier is enthusiastic and a few weeks back, she and I conversed about the Greenway, which I first heard about 8 years ago from Mike McGarry. Pelletier has researched it for two years, and has found it difficult to line up partners to do a demonstration project behind the old Capital Community Technical College at 61 Woodland Street.

She wants to tear up the pavement of the lower parking lot and reconstitute a meadow-type flood plain that would help with the watershed. I asked Greenberg about this, and he said, Yes! Exactly right!

You need to show success in small projects to give people confidence that the larger ones can be done. Minneapolis spent 10 years building its riverside greenway.

Whew! The message from both seminars was patience and time, patience and time. That is the 40 Year Plan. It won’t happen overnight. Patience and time.

But hearing that theme repeated over two days from similar sectors, I wondered what partners we could trust.

Glendening and Whitman seem convinced that America can maintain its middle-class and its prosperity if we just disappear zoning laws and put jobs where people are.

Greenberg and Oz Griebel, his patron from MetroHartford Alliance, promised to spread $1 billion in private investment across neighborhoods. Like manure, I thought, to fertilize Hartford’s economy.

Wealth distribution, in MetroHartford’s eyes, it seems, is when a big, rich employer lands here and doles out jobs like candy. Diverse audience members at Greenberg’s proposal injected reality by demanding to know what the plan’s plan for eliminating poverty was.

Not helping the atmosphere for Greenberg’s good ideas was Roger O’Brien, Hartford’s planning director. He pretty much lied to me about the Hartford Preservation Alliance’s opinion regarding the now-razed 1896 Italianate on the corner of Wethersfield and Brown. He said HPA didn’t care about it. I knew that was wrong because I wrote a column about it based on HPA’s newsletter.

Knocking down buildings is exactly what the Smart Growth people said is bad. Recycle them and rebuild cities. But both governors skirted blight, providing no answers for how we make Laurel Street safe so suburbanites can rehab urban housing stock?

When I scanned the crowd and saw one or two black faces, I queried Whitman about how do we bring cities into the debate, especially the urban core? She punted on the drug war in Camden.

America, I think, cannot continue on its current path. People seem to know that their lifestyles are killing the planet, but we all feel trapped in this auto-centric, consumer culture, and the knowledge that our daily lives endanger our future might be driving us all a little batty.

I left both talks reeling from an empty utopianism. But I hold out hope that the dialogue will soon present words like community empowerment, entrepreneurialism, personal sacrifice and responsibility, unsustainability, and overconsumption.

The experts gave us words and went. The problems are ours to solve.

Reprinted with permission of the The Hartford News.
| Last update: September 25, 2012 |
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