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Smarter Use Of Resources Should Guide Plans

Regionalism: Blessing Or Curse?


October 26, 2008

I grew up near Hartford, and while I'm now an urban designer and city planner in North Carolina, my interest in Connecticut has never waned. The state has a problem that needs a solution.

Connecticut must learn to focus on its problems holistically and examine which regional environmental, land-use and transportation planning practices and mechanisms will maximize fiscal efficiency and yield the greatest return for citizens.

I believe society is better-served when all students are given equal access to educational opportunities. Growing up in Connecticut, my high school in a wealthier suburb had its own planetarium. Meanwhile, in poor cities such as Hartford, the schools failed. This was largely a function of the movement of middle-class people to the suburbs. Why this happened is a complex subject, involving such things as transportation, land use and lending practices, among others.

The movement was competitive, not cooperative. It meant former agriculture-based communities could attract wealth. This translated to better schools than Hartford could ever afford, given the multitude of problems facing an aging urban core with greatly diminished revenue-generating resources. I know a major effort is underway to improve the city's schools, but it has taken too long, and it has taken a toll on the region.

One thing that amazes me whenever I return to Connecticut is to see a city like Hartford with infrastructure in place roads, sewers, water, parks, police and fire stations, hospitals; infrastructure that represent initial public investments already made.

Then, travel to the suburbs and see new houses being built in places where the roads can't handle the traffic but the only way to get around is by car. New schools and fire and police stations have to be built, new water and sewer lines laid.

Meanwhile, in the core cities and older sections of smaller cities, the schools, shops and workplaces are shuttered, the streets empty, the housing collapsing, and water and sewer systems built to accommodate greater numbers of inhabitants are underutilized. Who pays for the new infrastructure in the green fields of the outer suburbs? This is fiscal efficiency?

One thing you will hear is that "smart" planning is "social engineering" and that Americans have a right to choose where they live. Flip that around and you'll see that the current automobile-dominated pattern of development involves a minimum of choice and is very much a product of public and private sector "engineering."

Yes, Hartford has to think regionally, and the thinking should not stop at state borders.

I believe the economic health of Hartford does not end in Enfield. A truly remarkable, dynamic and economically significant regional city-state exists in theory between Springfield and New Haven with Hartford as its core. It's time to make it a reality, starting with strong leadership and regional cooperation on environmental, land-use and transportation planning.

Michael Ciriello, who grew up in Enfield, has been an urban planner in Raleigh and Charlotte, N.C., in both the public and private sectors. He now works for a private development firm.

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.
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