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

 

Reflections from the Southern New England APA Conference

Paeter Kageyama 9-15Anyone who’s been in this field will attest that community development takes grit.  Sometimes the day to day work is monotonous, exhausting, and trying.  We’re challenged by conflicting personalities, politics and bureaucracies and given the charge of changing the status quo when the tides seem turned against us.  That’s why a couple of times a year I make it a point to get together with colleagues, to reflect, and zoom out of my work work and world and learn about amazing things happening around the state and beyond.  Almost without fail when I make the effort to get out of my routine, I find myself utterly in awe, humbled, and reinvigorated.   The Southern New England American Planning Association Conference held in Hartford last week did that for me, even if my time there was short.

The Thursday keynote speaker, Peter Kageyama has written several books about community place-making.  I haven’t read any of them but we got a good feel for his approach to place-making through the bits of advice he shared using examples from cities like Detroit, Michigan and Greenville, South Carolina.  Not having read the book I can’t say how much of this advice is based on actual research versus anecdotes but the stories from communities across the country were compelling and inspiring.  I’ve always found this kind of storytelling, viral education, between communities to be one of the most effective ways to share community development. Here are a few of the tidbits I took away:

  • We should ask ourselves are we asking more from our cities other than to be safe and functional?  We should be aspiring for cities that are safe and functional but also interesting and comfortable.
  • Cities will give us back what we put it- we can think of these as “love letters” 
  • Sometimes you have tho break the rules to get where you want to be.  Rule challengers can help us think in new ways and explore what might be if things were different.  Peter gave the example of a spectacular lantern release  in Grand Rapids that involved thousands more lanterns than were approved originally by the city.
  • Think easy- garden hose solutions work.  Some times I think we tend to overthink the issues we face in our communities- assuming that we need big complicated solutions to simple problems. Simple solutions, like a garden hose sprinkler in a park, can make our communities better places to live and work, even if they don’t require thousands of dollars to implement.
  • People need to play– We love to be surprised and delighted by our cities. The Mice on Main campaign inspired people to look for tiny mouse sculptures all over Greensville, South Carolina. Anther fantastic example involved an artist in Seattle who painted this “graffiti” on sidewalks that only appears when it rains.
  • We cant look at everything through the lens of cost- Those of us with a bit more analytical than creative brain love to crunch numbers.  While there is certainly a financial realty to every project Peter inspired the audience to consider “what is the cost of ugly and boring cities?”  My artist husband has taught me that there is immense value in beauty and inspiration- if only that it makes the heart sing.
  • We usually get the big stuff right- we need to focus on the small stuff– In my mind this meant really engaging change makers; new people, unique minds, in thinking about our communities and the issues we face.

– Laura Brown, Community & Economic Development Educator, UCONN Extension

“Ruins Reborn”, Hugh Bailey offers revitalization strategies

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Former Bristol Babcock complex in Waterbury, photo by John McDonald

 

Hugh Bailey, urban planner, columnist for the Connecticut Post, and member of UConn class of 1999, will be speaking on the issue of the post-industrial challenges posed by the numerous abandoned buildings in Connecticut’s urban areas. His presentation, “Ruins Reborn: Revitalizing Post-industrial Cities”, scheduled for 10/28 from 12:30 to 2:00 pm at the Waterbury campus of the University of Connecticut, promises to tackle this issue in a fashion which would integrate historical preservation and community economic development. I am looking forward to hearing Mr. Bailey speak. The harsh realities of the post-industrial decline hit Connecticut’s cities in the 1970s. Many communities have never fully recovered. The legacies of our reliance on heavy industry have included fiscal insolvency and environmental degradation. While underutilized, polluted buildings and land abound, it is important to remember that the scale of the problems we currently face are lesser than they once were.

I was born in Waterbury in 1973. My first inkling of the post-industrial decline came with my father’s layoff in 1980. Food stamps soon supplemented our meagre income. We bounced back somewhat during the Reagan years, but another recession was around the corner. I left high school in the thick of it, with no concrete plans for my future. I became a college student only recently, after a lengthy odyssey that included Job Corps, an apprenticeship, and many low-paying service jobs. My memories of post-industrial Waterbury are vivid and my experiences in this landscape shaped my environmental attitudes, in this case meaning my enduring orientations to the physical environment. I remember riding in my parent’s minivan along Silver Street, en route to the Naugatuck Valley Mall on Wolcott Street. I looked out the window in awe at the derelict Scovill Brass buildings. This massive complex covered nearly 200 acres. I remember some ten years later, walking down East Main Street, still in the shadow of the Scovill buildings.

Waterbury’s landscape has already been greatly altered. The Brass Mill Center currently occupies the former Scovill site. True to my blue-collar roots, I worked as an apprentice electrician, wiring a few of the stores in the new mall which was completed in 1996. Other industrial sites in Waterbury have since been demolished. There are similar instances throughout the Naugatuck Valley. Naugatuck has also been transformed as the former U.S. Rubber complex has largely been razed. Those familiar with the region’s industrial heyday are no doubt surprised to see how much of the built environment has been changed. Mr. Bailey advocates a different sort of approach than widespread demolition, which sometimes results in polluted lots sitting vacant for years, or conversion to retail space, which would further dissipate the area’s limited consumer base. In his article, which has been published in UConn Magazine, Mr. Bailey discusses other ways to deal with the problems posed by abandoned factory buildings.

One of Mr. Bailey’s suggestions is to link the proposed Naugatuck River Greenway with factory complexes restored as industrial heritage sites. As Mr. Bailey reports, this strategy has worked well in the Ruhr Valley of Germany, one of Europe’s most heavily industrialized areas. Mr. Bailey also discusses instances where factory complexes have been converted into successful mixed-use developments. Mr. Bailey believes that these type of developments can help post-industrial cities regain their lost identity by connecting their rich past to their uncertain future. In this sense, these cities can be reborn, as the title of Mr. Bailey’s lecture suggests.

From my experience assisting with the economic impact study of the Naugatuck River Greenway, I understand that these sort of projects can be costly and may not provide the type of economic boost Naugatuck Valley municipalities are looking for. They are long-term solutions to a pervasive problem whose benefits will accrue over time and ultimately create stronger communities. The Naugatuck Valley cities and towns must be made aware of such concepts as amenity value, preservation value, and social capital; intangibles that are often difficult to quantify. That may prove to be as big of a challenge as restoring factory buildings that have been abandoned, in some instances, for nearly 40 years.

 

Event information: http://events.uconn.edu/event/41793/2015-10-28

Mr. Bailey’s article: http://magazine.uconn.edu/2015/04/ruins-reborn/

 

– John McDonald, Extension Intern

Spirit and sense of place in relation to the Naugatuck River Greenway

The Romans advanced the concept of the genius loci, or protective spirit dwelling in a certain place. The same idea, minus the superstitious trappings of polytheism, is today reflected in the notions of spirit and sense of place. Spirit of place is more often used with unspoiled or rural locations, and references the aesthetic properties of these locales. Romantic poetry and landscape paintings attempt to convey these qualities. Sense of place refers mostly to domestic and urban sites and their psychological and social significance. It is important to understand how we are affected by the spirit of the places that we cherish and how we come to develop a sense of place through residency and habit. Many places in rural, suburban, and urban areas are under constant pressure of being redeveloped or otherwise changed due to fluctuations in the economy. In fact, it is important to realize our environment as a palimpsest, or canvas that has been painted and painted over many times throughout the course of history.

It is not necessary to look too deeply into the surrounding landscape to see vestiges of former patterns of land use. The rocky fields that broke the backs and hearts of Connecticut farmers have been reclaimed by second growth forest or transformed into pretentiously titled suburban developments. The industrial complexes that once brought money pouring into municipal coffers stand forlorn and affronted, weather beaten and vandalized, if, in fact, they have not already been torn down to make way for malls and shopping centers. I have explored the Connecticut landscape at large and chronicled my investigations into the past and present spirits of the places that I have found. I have examined my own sense of attachment to the places where I have lived, worked, and played. I have connected these experiences with what I have learned as a student.

From all these studies, both informal and academic, I have taken away the notion that changes to the landscape can be positive if well-directed and funded. True to New Urbanist principles, we can have a smoothly functioning relationship between our urban centers and their peri-urban and rural hinterlands. Open space preservation and infill development have been two of the most promising trends in modern planning work. Greenways and multi-use trails fulfill both these missions. This can be witnessed across Connecticut, but most emphatically in the Naugatuck River valley, where the interplay between the newly restored river, the abandoned industrial and transportation infrastructure, and the health and aesthetic needs of the residents of the distressed Valley municipalities has created a situation where the completion of the proposed 44-mile Naugatuck River Greenway should be seen as an imperative.

The forthcoming environmental impact analysis of the Naugatuck River Greenway has, by intention and design, a directed focus. Preservation values, health benefits, and aesthetic values are difficult to quantify. Measures such as recreation expenditures, property values, and jobs created make more sense to the municipal governments of the strapped Valley towns. It is important to note, as many researchers have pointed out, that greenways and multi-use trails are not “a panacea for economic growth” (Bunting & Briand, 2003). Unfortunately, this is how the proposed greenway must be pitched. The literature review portion of the study attempts to situate the Naugatuck River Greenway within the regional history and the history of greenways themselves. It is necessary to make these connections in order to get the full picture of how the proposed Naugatuck River Greenway will affect the Naugatuck Valley cities and towns. By considering this information and supplementing it with survey data, it is possible to capture the genius loci of the Valley and to understand how area residents may positively identify with the greenway, creating a stronger sense of place and community.

 

References

 

Bunting, D. & Briand, G. (2003). Impact of trails and greenways in Spokane’s Great River Gorge. Eastern Washington State University Institute for Public Policy and Economic Analysis. Retrieved from http://friendsofthefalls.org/documents/EWU-ecostudy.pdf

 

– John McDonald, Extension Intern

Assessing the potential value of the Naugatuck River Greenway

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Naugatuck River in Waterbury, photo by John McDonald

 

Greenways are multi-use trails that act as linear parks, often following the course of a river or former right-of-way such as a canal, railway or trolley line, or abandoned road. The Greenway movement gathered momentum in the United States through the 1980s and ’90s, and in 2001, the Naugatuck River Greenway was conceived. As of September 2015, there are only four unconnected, short segments totaling 4.1 miles in length. Completion of the greenway requires buy-in on behalf of the Valley municipalities and, with this in mind, an economic impact analysis was proposed by the Naugatuck River Greenway Steering Committee. The economic impact analysis will be a collaborative effort between the University of Connecticut Extension, UConn’s Connecticut Center for Economic Analysis, and the Naugatuck Valley Council of Governments.

This study will be the first economic impact analysis of a Connecticut greenway or multi-use trail. To date, a literature review has been drafted examining similar studies and situating the project within its historical and regional context. Trail user intercept studies are planned for fall 2015, and focus groups with administrators of existing Connecticut trails will follow in the spring of 2016. The data gathered by these methods will supplement the formal economic analysis done by CCEA and the end result will be a comprehensive evaluation of the impact that the construction of the Naugatuck River Greenway will have on the Naugatuck Valley. It is hoped that the findings will encourage Naugatuck Valley municipalities to invest in the construction of the greenway, which has the potential to be beneficial in many ways to the communities it will pass through.

Potential monetary benefits include jobs added, increases in property values and, by extension, property tax revenue, and recreational expenditures by trail users which is hoped will stimulate more purchases in the Naugatuck Valley. CCEA will conduct a formal economic analysis using existing economic data and an economic simulation model called REMI, designed by Regional Economic Modeling, Incorporated. This analysis will examine regional trends and the impact that the construction of the Naugatuck River Greenway will have on the regional economy. This, however, is only one part of determining the value of the greenway. Non-monetary benefits include health benefits due to increased physical activity, preservation value due to the conservation in perpetuity of the greenway as open space, and the sense of the greenway as a community resource with aesthetic and social significance.

 

– John McDonald, Extension Intern

 

The role of greenways and multi-use trails in Connecticut

The concept of a network of trails in the state of Connecticut dates back to 1929, when the Connecticut Forest and Park Association established the blue-blazed hiking trail system (CFPA, 2006). In many cases, these trails follow steep ridgelines in their quest for the most commanding views. They are accessible only to those who are able-bodied and reasonably fit. The relationship between the blue-blazed trails and Connecticut’s municipalities centers on the essential compromise between development and conservation. They are not urban trails and do not function as unifying elements in the built environment.

Greenways and multi-use trails are gently graded and often paved or surfaced with gravel. These trails are widely accessible, often to the handicapped. They often follow obsolete rights-of-way such as disused railway lines, trolley lines, roads and canal beds as they wend their way through the rolling hills typical of Connecticut’s landscape. Many greenways follow the course of rivers, as did the old railways. As rivers, railways, and canals have served and, in some cases, still serve as transportation networks, they connect cities and towns. It stands to reason that greenways and multi-use trails can link communities in a manner that hiking trails cannot.

In 1995 the Connecticut General Assembly passed Public Act 95-335, which institutionalized Connecticut’s greenways program, and the Connecticut Greenways Council recognized the state’s first greenway in 2001 (DEEP, 2015). This governing body acknowledges that greenways allow for the preservation of urban and suburban open space and provide connections between these. The linear nature of greenways and multi-use trails offers multiple points of access. Greenways provide a truly public place in areas where open land is hard to come by. They can and do function as urban parks, and encourage passive recreation.

Outdoor recreation has recently seen an overall increase in participation. Jogging, biking, and hiking are among the top five recreational activities nationwide (Outdoor Industry Association, 2013). Greenways and multi-use trails are mainly used by walkers, with bikers and joggers making up a smaller percentage of users. Many researchers have examined the relationship between greenway-related user expenditures and local economies and their findings are varied. Many studies do not differentiate between types of trail users, and caution is needed when estimating the sales revenue generated by multi-use trails and greenways. These trails may not provide the economic infusion desperately needed by many Connecticut communities.

Perhaps the most optimistic view of these trails is that through the provision of a physical connection between communities they will encourage individuals to explore their surroundings and give them a safe place to walk, jog, and ride, which in many areas is sorely lacking. Greenways and multi-use trails can also take their users back in time. In the Ruhr Valley of Germany, planners have tapped into the industrial heritage of the region. They have added to a greenway network that has been in existence since the 1920s, providing links to former industrial sites that now serve as museums and cultural centers (Bailey, 2014). In a once heavily industrialized state such as Connecticut, this strategy could be quite successful.

 

References

 

Bailey, H. (2014). Seeds of the future in icons of the past. Connecticut Post. Retrieved from http://www.ctpost.com/local/article/Seeds-of-the-future-in-icons-of-the-past-5940386.php.

 

Connecticut Department of Energy and Environmental Protection. (2015). Connecticut greenways. Retrieved from http://www.ct.gov/deep/cwp/view.asp?a=2707&q=323858&deepNav_GID=1704%20

 

Connecticut Forest and Park Association. (2006). Connecticut walk book: West. Rockfall, CT: CFPA.

 

Outdoor Industry Association. (2013). Outdoor participation report. Retrieved from http://www.outdoorindustry.org/images/researchfiles/ParticipationStudy2013.pdf

 

– John McDonald, Extension Intern

 

Save the date – Wed, Aug 19: 10-11:30 am/eastern Evaluating the Effectiveness of the First Impressions Program in the Northeast

Save the date! Join us for the final webinar in this series:  

  • Wed, August 19: 10-11:30 am/eastern Evaluating the Effectiveness of the First Impressions Program in the Northeast:  A Discussion of Scholarship

This webinar series is made possible through a  “Regional Collaboration of Successful CRD Extension Programs Planning Grant”  from the North East Regional Center for Rural Development.