Month: October 2015

Brownfield Revitalization as a Community Development Catalyst

Brownfield redevelopment has become a hot topic of late. The issue can be examined through a number of different lens. A project in Middletown, Connecticut will focus on the health outcomes of brownfield conversion in inner-city neighborhoods. Middletown’s Department of Planning, Conservation and Development has been awarded a grant from the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (ATSDR), a division of the Center for Disease Control. One of the aims of this initiative is to increase recreational opportunities on unused brownfield properties in order to address health disparities including childhood obesity and associated illnesses in several of Middletown’s urban areas. This is a very interesting take on the subject, and the process of creating playgrounds from brownfields can serve as a powerful symbol of neighborhood revitalization. The Middletown initiative also seeks to educate community residents about the potential hazards posed by contaminated buildings and land. This latter task is also being done in Waterbury through the Waterbury Environmental Health Fund.

As Hugh Bailey, a journalist for Hearst Media and urban planner who has researched brownfield revitalization in many communities across the nation and in Germany, points out, a paradigm shift is necessary when dealing with brownfields. It is not enough to see them in economic terms, but in how they can be redeveloped for the benefit of their communities. In his presentation, “Ruins Reborn”, developed from the short film and series of articles that were the product of his research, Mr. Bailey described the difference in how the Germans approach the issues of brownfields. The Germans have a more holistic view of the problem, unlike the case-by-case assessment typical of American brownfield redevelopment. Mr. Bailey discussed Landschaft Park in Duisburg, the focal point of a network of greenways and revitalized brownfields in the Ruhr Valley. This re-appropriation of the post-industrial environment is notable for its aesthetic and cultural significance. The Germans have taken what was once one of the most heavily industrialized regions of Europe, nearly rendered a wasteland by the departure of the manufacturing base, and transformed it into an area with a strong sense of place and community. This was achieved by tapping into the industrial heritage of the Ruhr Valley, which was not seen as a liability, but an important component of the region’s identity. The Germans were able to keep many buildings intact but gave them new purposes, ones that serve the greater good of the community and environment. Mr. Bailey noted that preserving buildings in place is a better solution than demolition, which releases large amounts of toxins into the atmosphere.

Mr. Bailey proposes something similar for the Route 8 corridor, and spoke of Knowlton Park in Bridgeport as a beachhead on that city’s beleaguered waterfront. He stressed the importance of connectivity, a theme frequently invoked at the Let’s Talk Trails event. If all the elements of the project are not united by a single vision or master plan, the prospect for success and overall effect of redevelopment will be much lower. Mr. Bailey brought up the necessity of using available state and federal funding to leverage private monies, but acknowledged that in-demand locations such as Boston and New York are seen as lower risk to developers than communities like Bridgeport, despite the latter city’s harbor and transportation access. Towns like Ansonia and Waterbury are considered even riskier, and the issue of connectivity is of great importance in this regard. Mr. Bailey spoke of the catalytic effect, the process by which one successfully redeveloped property changes the complexion of the surrounding neighborhood and spurs further revitalization, and hoped that Knowlton Park and O’Sullivan’s Island in Derby, in conjunction with the Naugatuck River Greenway, would have this effect in starting the transformation of the post-industrial landscape in the Route 8 corridor.

 

-John McDonald, Extension Intern

Let’s Talk Trails Write-up

The Let’s Talk Trails event held yesterday at Torrington City Hall was arguably a gathering of the most important people involved in trail development, construction and maintenance in the state of Connecticut. Bruce Donald, Chairman of the Connecticut Greenways Council and President of the Farmington Valley Trails Council, Clare Cain of the Connecticut Forest and Parks Association (CFPA), and Laurie Giannotti of the Department of Energy and Environmental Protection (DEEP) all participated, offering their collective experience in a series of brief presentations. Other panelists included Bruce Dinnie, Director of Vernon Parks and Recreation, a 30-year veteran of trail construction and maintenance, and Beth Critton, an attorney who sits of the Board of Directors for the Appalachian Trail Conservancy. I must provide the caveat that the following synopsis does not offer a comprehensive account of this event. Readers who wish to learn more should consult our trails resources page which should be up and running very soon.

Bruce Donald’s overview of the various benefits of greenways set the tone for the morning’s proceedings. Some of what he discussed, such as economic impact and preservation and amenity value, were examined at length in the recent literature review drafted by the UConn Extension. Important topics not covered by the review but explored in detail by Mr. Donald included the role of greenways in the transportation network and in pollution and noise abatement. As Mr. Donald reported, one important new development is that biking and pedestrian activity are now considered viable transportation alternatives by the Connecticut Department of Transportation and bike/ped projects are eligible for funding as such. A balanced transportation system is now seen as one in which biking and walking play a significant role. This is reflected in such programs as Safe Routes to School and Complete Streets. The pollution and noise abatement properties of greenways are directly related to their role in the transportation system, as every trip taken by bike or on foot equates to one less trip by a motor vehicle.

Clare Cain, like Mr. Donald, emphasized the importance of trail connectivity as she discussed how the state Blue-Blazed Trail System has evolved since its inception in the 1920s. While suburban development has severed existing trails and makes it difficult to connect others, the end goal of the CFPA is an interconnected statewide network of hiking trails. Ms. Cain talked at length about the volunteer cadre that is the backbone of the CFPA, a sentiment that was later echoed by Bruce Dinnie of Vernon Parks and Recreation. Ms. Cain discussed important new technological developments that have changed the way CFPA works. All new trailhead kiosks feature a QR code, enabling smartphone users to download trail maps, access the CFPA website, and report trail conditions to the CFPA. These user-generated trail condition reports can then be used to direct trail maintenance activities. The trailhead kiosks serve as the CFPA’s public interface as well as a partial trail user counting system. The CFPA’s mapping database has also been overhauled. Much of this data is publicly accessible through Google-based interactive maps. These maps indicate trail locations and length and parking information such as location, type of parking facility and number of parking spaces. These maps also alert users to trail closures and restrictions and provide a more up-to-date accounting of the trail system than the CFPA’s traditional guidebooks, the latest edition of which came out in 2006.

Laurie Giannotti gave a specific presentation about constructing trails on DEEP property, but she also discussed the benefits that being recognized by the Connecticut Greenways Council can confer upon a designated trail. These benefits include official greenway signage at all trailheads and road crossings, a higher profile for grant requests, and inclusion in the Connecticut Plan of Conservation and Development. Most importantly, Ms. Giannotti stressed that providing ease of access is perhaps the best marketing strategy for a trail or greenway.

Bruce Dinnie discussed his lengthy experience in trail development and maintenance as Director of Parks and Recreation in Vernon, a community with three designated greenways, numerous town-owned hiking trails and a portion of the CFPA Shenipsit Trail. Mr. Dinnie praised his greenway volunteers and talked about the role of sponsorship in trail maintenance. He also discussed some of the technical aspects of trail construction and maintenance. Mr. Dinnie veered into environmental psychology topics when he mentioned how removing trees to improve visibility along trails led female trail users to feel safer, how signs should be welcoming and not a list of do-not proscriptions, and how a mural project led to a decrease in graffiti at an underpass tunnel on the Vernon trail system.

Beth Critton’s presentation centered on the potential risks for trail users and the liabilities assumed by trail owners and organizations. After listing, in an often-humorous fashion, most of risks trail users could face, she discussed the differences in liability between non-profit and for-profit trails organizations and mentioned several key court cases and the Connecticut General Statutes with relevance to trail construction and maintenance.

I was not able to stay for the following roundtable discussion.

 

-John McDonald, Extension Intern

On the Training of Community Observers

We have all heard or perhaps spoken the phrase “a fresh set of eyes”, meaning to obtain a second viewpoint or return later to a situation to see what has been missed due to fatigue or overstimulation. Geographer Yi-Fu Tuan makes the distinction between visitors and tourists, for whom a landscape is novel and usually provokes an immediate response, and residents, who may be dulled by familiarity or are too deeply invested in their environment to remain objective. As Tuan (1974) discusses “generally speaking… only the visitor has a viewpoint; his perception is often a matter of using his eyes to compose pictures. The native, by contrast, has a complex attitude derived from his immersion in the totality of his environment” (Tuan, 1974, p. 63). Jacobs (1984) also recognized the primacy of the visual modality when he explained that by simply looking at the built environment it is possible to realize “something of its history, the social and economic changes which have taken place, who lives there now, whether there are major problems that may exist, and whether the area is vulnerable to rapid changes” (Jacobs, 1984, p. 32). However, visitors are often bound for a specific destination and notice little beyond their narrow route, and tourists’ viewpoints can be skewed, as they are on the lookout for places of historical significance or entertainment value. All too frequently, cityscapes become a collection of theater props, as the large-scale environment is reduced to a simplified orientation schema known as a cognitive map in which landmarks figure prominently but lesser elements are usually eliminated (Lynch, 1960).

Everyone, visitors and residents alike, can become purposive observers and gain a deeper knowledge of the communities they investigate. The best mode of transportation for this sort of inquiry is walking. When we step outside of our cars, we are struck with what amounts to a sensory barrage. Stilgoe (1998) refers to what lies beyond our technological cocoon as “unprogrammed awareness that at times becomes directed serendipity” (Stilgoe, 1998, p. 2). It is a valid point to ask how it is possible to move from our initial confusion to the state of mind which facilitates a more thorough exploration of our environment. Hiss (1990) offers an explanation in what he refers to as simultaneous perception, which he describes as “the only internal mechanism… that can combine the responses of all our sense [including] any change in our surroundings which our senses can register” (Hiss, 1990, pp. 13-14). Simultaneous perception, then, involves all our senses working in conjunction. Sounds and smells can be as powerful cues as visual stimuli when navigating the built environment as anyone walking past a musical festival or bakery can attest. The process of using our senses in concert requires effort at first, but becomes increasingly automatic with practice. The combination of simultaneous perception and mental focus promotes the greater awareness which can allow us to see both familiar and unfamiliar landscapes in a new light. We cease to become informal observers and become students of our communities.

While the senses and mind are to be focused, it is essential that the journey be relatively unscripted. Machen (1924) notes the bipolarity of the workaday mindset and the state of idleness which facilitates the process of wandering, or the casual and curiosity-driven engagement of the environment that often serves a prelude to a deeper form of exploration (Machen, 1924, pp. 12-13). One of the central concepts of psychogeography is the derive, or “drift”, a day-long pedestrian odyssey in which individuals travel at whim through the urban landscape, guided subconsciously by the city’s form, the goal of which is to arrive at a novel and genuine experience (Debord, 1956). Observers should be encouraged to wander their target communities, the only directive being a brief manual instructing them to make note of infrastructure, amenities, and public services. This minimally directed approach has been used with the First Impressions program, created in 1991 by Andy Lewis and James Schneider of the University of Wisconsin-Extension, which has been applied with great success in a variety of communities (University of Wisconsin-Extension, 2015). It stands to reason that maintaining a certain level of spontaneity while offering a framework for analysis can enable each observer to record their personal vision of the town or city, while still retaining some objectivity.

In order to achieve a fuller understanding of the environments which we study, we must reflect upon what our senses record. It is the individual and unmediated product of these reflections that can be of great value to community developers. Although qualitative data will be tabulated and quantified and the aggregate output will be studied, it is nonetheless true that each unique perspective has something to offer. Service learning is a trend in education wherein students are encouraged to reflect upon their experiences of performing community service activities. Eyler (2002) states the case that reflection can have many benefits. Particularly, students are able to link their experiences to previous knowledge, creating the basis for a more in-depth analysis (Eyler, 2002, p. 520). Ong (2000) further suggests that knowledge is constructed in context (Ong, 2000, p. 5). In this sense, reflection in situ is most effective for community observers. Observers should be prompted to reflect upon the nature of their experiences in the target communities and to make connections between the various characteristics that they have observed, thereby arriving at a more comprehensive account of these places.

 

-John McDonald, Extension Intern

 

References

Debord, G. (1956). Theory of the derive. [K. Knabb, Trans.] Internationale Situationniste, 2.

Eyler, J. (2002). Reflection: Linking service and learning – Linking students and communities. Journal of Social Issues 58(3), 517-534.

Hiss, T. (1990). The experience of place. New York, NY: Random House. Print.

Jacobs, A. (1984). Looking at cities. Places 1(4), 28-37.

Lynch, K. (1960). The image of the city. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Machen, A. (1924). The London Adventure. New York: Alfred A. Knopf. Print.

Ong, R. (2000). The role of reflection in student learning: a study of its effectiveness in complementing problem-based learning environments. Centre for Educational Development.

Stilgoe, J. (1998). Outside lies magic. New York: Walker and Company. Print.

Tuan, Y. (1974). Topophilia: A study of environmental perception, attitudes, and values. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall. Print.

University of Wisconsin-Extension. (2015). About the First Impressions program. Center for Community and Economic Development.

 

Leadership for Civic Renewal: Reinvigorating America’s Civic Life

You are invited to the 2015 Martel Lecture by Peter Levine titled “Leadership for Civic Renewal: Reinvigorating America’s Civic Life” on Wednesday, October 14, 2015 at 4 p.m. in the Konover Auditorium at Dodd Center- UCONN Stors.

Peter Levine is the Associate Dean for Research and Lincoln Filene Professor of Citizenship & Public Affairs at the Jonathan M. Tisch College of Citizenship and Public Service at Tufts University.  You can find out more about him here:

website: http://peterlevine.ws

New! Literature Review – Economic Impact of Multi-Use Trails

Screen Shot 2015-10-08 at 9.53.47 AMThe Naugatuck River Greenway (NRG) is a planned 44-mile long regional greenway and trail that will extend from Torrington in the north to Derby in the south, passing through eleven communities.  In Spring of 2015 the Naugatuck River Greenway Steering Committee, with members from each of the eleven NRG communities, and the Naugatuck Valley Council of Governments approached the University of Connecticut to assist to better understand potential economic impacts of the proposed trail as well as best practices for helping local communities capitalize on the trail when it is completed. To date, a literature review regarding trail impact studies and background on the NRG has been completed and partners have co-designed the economic impact analysis and trail user survey that will be assessed this fall. Read the newly public literature review here.

Let’s Talk Trails, Thursday, October 22 at Torrington City Hall

It is exciting when community partners, municipal officials and universities have an open dialogue regarding projects that will affect the towns and cities in which we reside. The proposed Naugatuck River Greenway has become a focal point for governmental agencies, non-profit organizations, and the University of Connecticut. Interest in greenways and multi-use trails has been growing in recent years, and many studies of their potential benefits have been conducted, usually from an economic perspective. The economic impact study of the proposed Naugatuck River Greenway which was initiated over the summer is a collaborative effort between UConn and the Naugatuck Valley Council of Governments and is partially funded by the Connecticut Community Foundation. The Naugatuck River Greenway Steering Committee members represent the eleven communities through which the completed greenway would pass. They hail from a variety of backgrounds. Some are parks and trails professionals while others represent organizations working toward the economic and environmental well-being of the Naugatuck Valley communities.

On Thursday October 22nd from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. at Torrington City Hall, trails professionals will host the Let’s Talk Trails event, a panel discussion on the benefits that trails can provide the communities through which they pass. Presenters will use existing Connecticut multi-use trails and the blue-blazed hiking trail system as examples to discuss best practices for trail design, construction and maintenance. The panel will include John Monroe, the Director of Rhode Island and Connecticut projects for the Rivers and Trails Program of the National Park Service; Clare Cain, the Connecticut Forest and Park Association Trails Stewardship Director; Bruce Dinnie, the Director of the Parks and Recreation Department of Vernon; Beth Critton, an attorney who serves on the Board of Directors of the Appalachian Trail Conservancy, Laurie Giannotti, the State of Connecticut DEEP Parks, Trails and Greenways Program coordinator and DEEP liaison to the Connecticut Greenways Council; and Bruce Donald, who is President of the Farmington Valley Trails Council, Chairman of the Connecticut Greenways Council, and Chair of the Connecticut Committee of the East Coast Greenway Alliance.

I will be attending the event and will post a complete summary afterward.

 

-John McDonald, Extension Intern