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What's Wrong With 100-Year-Old Plan For Hartford


December 27, 2012

This year should not end without our noting it marks a century since the 1912 "A Plan for the City of Hartford." To today's eyes, John M. Carrère's and Thomas Hastings' report to the Commission on the City Plan — first or among the very first such bodies in the country — was sophisticated, sweeping and forward-looking, but equally naive and blind to some issues, including the problems it might itself create.

The centenary of the 1912 plan offers an occasion to better understand how we are thinking when we think about Hartford and the region today.

Carrère and Hastings, the plan's authors, were New York architects, highly skilled both in architecture and in getting important commissions. When Hartford hired them to look at the organization and development of the city, it was hiring a firm just then completing the New York Public Library, a job not only large and visible but so complicated in the intricate movement of people and books, in orchestrating large and small spaces of differing structure, use and character, that it amounted to designing a small city within the big city. If they could do that job, they could certainly do Hartford, went the thought.

The Carrère and Hastings plan for Hartford is remarkably concise — just over 90 pages, plus a few illustrative plans. It announces its way of thinking and its goals early on: "a city, in the light of modern civilization and modern science and with the help of modern statistics, must be considered as a great machine having a most intricate organism and a most complex function to perform, and it must be so well planned and put together and run, that ...it shall produce the maximum of efficiency ... with the least expense and the least friction."

Hartford, then, was to be bettered by making it work better on a mechanical standard of getting people and goods where they need to go fast and efficiently. Furthermore, it helped the city's people work more efficiently to sort some green spaces methodically around to afford them easy recreation. Civic institutions should communicate their existence and importance clearly, so clearly they should have lots of space around them and be well connected by vistas and axes.

The plan proposed to fire one new boulevard southeastward straight out from the Capitol dome to South Green and Colt Park, another, merely to balance the effect of the first, toward no particular point southwestward. There was also to be a loop boulevard stretching around the city. While not at Interstate scale, it would have been grand enough to make quite an impression. Meanwhile, the Plan also called for dozens of smaller existing streets to be "extended" through the city blocks around them to facilitate traffic movement (most of these ideas were never realized).

In short, the 1912 Hartford plan was actually closer in a lot of respects to 1950s ideas of city planning than it was to many of its City Beautiful contemporary plans. By now we know by heart the litany of problems associated with such ideas in practice. Thinking about the city as a machine led to its being thought of as a city for machines, especially for cars. Hartford and a lot of other places have spent time and treasure the last 30 years attempting to recover from what amounts to the confusion of an analogy, a tool of thought, with societal goals.

Also, the 1912 plan also assumed, as the 1960s Constitution Plaza plan did, that Hartford was so rich it could demolish whole blocks of buildings, create new streets and bury rivers. Times change.

It is striking to look at the current, highly laudable, iQuilt project for downtown, and see it as a kind of gentle, late rejoinder to much in the 1912 Plan for Hartford. The former has three themes; walking, culture and innovation. In essence it advocates the value arising from systematized pedestrian encounters with the "arts, cultural, and landscape assets" of the city, and proposes a variety of actions to get more people walking more often and more easily along the paths connecting Hartford's distinctive places and institutions.

Implicitly, the operative analogy of iQuilt is not to a machine, but instead to a spiritual pilgrimage. It is worth thinking about that change in thinking, 1912 to 2012.

Patrick L. Pinnell is an architect and town planner in Haddam. He worked on the 1998 and 2010 plans for downtown Hartford.

Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant. To view other stories on this topic, search the Hartford Courant Archives at http://www.courant.com/archives.
| Last update: September 25, 2012 |
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