April 30, 2017

Mandell: Five great ideas to nurture the Worcester Renaissance

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A view of downtown Worcester.

Joyce Mandell has worn many hats – mom, community organizer, sociologist, community development specialist, urban studies professor. She has lived in Worcester more than 20 years and first moved to the East Side when she served as the economic development director of Oak Hill Community Development Corporation. She believes in the potential of Worcester, the power of praxis and the truth to be found both in stories and stillness. [From Jane Jacobs in the Woo]

Last May 2016, people around the world celebrated the 100th birthday of Jane Jacobs, the famous urban theorist and activist who wrote the classic book, “The Death and Life of Great American Cities.”

Jane Jacobs’ groundbreaking work, first published in 1961, shook up the world of modernist urban planning the same way Rachel Carson, author of “Silent Spring,” forced us to address the impact of pesticide use on the environment; and Betty Friedan, author of “The Feminine Mystique,” gave voice to the shackled lives of women holed up in mind-numbing, golden prisons in 1950s American suburban homes.

Jacobs was not a trained planner. She based her theories of effective city building on her simple observations of the streets below her fixer-upper home in New York City’s Greenwich Village.

Find a calendar of events for Jane Week in the Woo here

According to Jacobs, an urban neighborhood would be safe, economically healthy, fun, diverse and active if it satisfied these four conditions:

1.) Mixed Use: Great neighborhoods must support a mix of residences, businesses, cultural offerings to make it a 24-hour happening with a variety of reasons for people to be out and about on the streets. She celebrated small, human-scaled buildings with storefronts on the street level and apartments above.

2.) Aged buildings: Great neighborhoods need a combination of old and new buildings. Old repurposed historic buildings play an important role in providing the space for creative and unique businesses. Think Crompton Place in the Canal District, Deadhorse Hill on Main Street and the former Edward Buick dealership building on Shrewsbury Street, now the site of Volturno pizzeria and Sweet Kitchen & Bar!

3.) Small blocks: Reflect on places where one wants to be and they will tend to be places where one can turn and find the unexpected around the corner. Small blocks encourage walking, bringing more people out into the streets.

4.) Population Density: The more people living and working in an area, the more populated and activated a space. The key to activated streets is to provide a variety of activities in a small area.

I celebrated the 100th birthday of Jane Jacobs by taking a field trip to New York City for the Jane Walk celebration during the first weekend of May. I had a pick of more than 200 Jane Walks, volunteer-led walks spread over all five boroughs of the city that focused on everything from architecture, activism, food, small businesses, art and history.

I also initiated a one-year project in honor of Jacobs’ 100th anniversary year called Jane Jacobs in the Woo to stimulate community discussions about building a vibrant Worcester.

The project was formed to answer two important questions: What would Worcester look like through the eyes of Jane Jacobs? And, how could we be inspired by her deep thinking to plot out the course of our future development?

At the outset, I had no preconceived notions of how the project would unfold over the year. All I had was a computer, a well-used keyboard and a website account.

I began to write blog posts. The roster of readers grew. Conversations blossomed. Ideas were debated. Friendships formed. By far, the most exciting development was the organizing of a public policy group that started to translate some of the posited theoretical ideas into potential policy initiatives on a citywide level.

This group brought together people who had different interests (historic preservation, open space, urban design, walkability, neighborhood development) and hailed from different parts of the city (Main South to West Side to Canal District).

Even though most of the group members work in their own particular areas of interest, we broke down the walls of our own silos to form a collective vision of a Worcester renaissance. Consequently, members could link their own work to the work of others in the group. For example, WalkBike Worcester endorsed the campaign to save and reuse Notre Dame des Canadiens Church, which is in danger of soon being demolished by its current owner, Hanover Insurance.

[Editor’s note: City Square II Development Co., which is controlled by the Hanover Insurance Group, is the property owner].

The link is clear. Neighborhoods with historic buildings tend to be more pedestrian-friendly landscapes. Over the course of the year, this group thought deeply about a statement of principles and proposed these five great ideas that could guide the energy and momentum that is currently happening in the revitalization of the city:

1.) Preserve Worcester’s unique attributes: We support the creative reuse of our historic properties and advocate the development of locally owned stores and restaurants.

2.) Build walkability into our street design: We want streets for people and bicycles, not just for cars! We support Worcester’s adoption of a Complete Streets policy providing equitable street use for walkers, cyclists and car drivers. Additionally, we advocate for the strategic design and placement of parking lots and garages.

3.) Practice excellence in building design: We encourage mixed-use, compact development with windows and doors linking buildings to the street. We support the creation of guidelines, regulations and processes that promote high-quality architecture and best practices in urban design in Worcester.

4.) Improve the Public Realm: Well-designed sidewalks, street trees, public art, high-quality parks and green spaces make Worcester vibrant and fun, and encourage more people to be outdoors in the city, participating in civic life.

5.) Welcome Civic Participation in the Development Process: We advocate for increased opportunities for the public to participate in planning processes and comment on proposed projects. Information on projects before the Conservation Commission, Historical Commission, Planning Board, and Zoning Board of Appeals should be made available electronically for public review. Moreover, public notification by the Department of Public Works & Parks of upcoming maintenance or construction work on streets, sidewalks and street tree removals should be made to affected parties well in advance of such work.

Our policy group of interested Worcester residents is not alone in its ability to carve out a vision for where Worcester should be heading.

Each of us living or working in the city has an important voice in shaping Worcester’s future development. Jane Week (May 1-7) is designed to prompt deep discussions and debates on our urban design and to give people a chance to think about the variables that make Worcester come alive.

Jane Week primarily encourages people to experience the city streets and neighborhoods on foot and to engage in walking conversations about our built environment. All 20-plus events are free and open to the public.

With more than 15 walks; a public forum on design; a film screening with community conversation on urban renewal; and a pop-up parklet party on North Main Street complete with the cutting of a Jane Jacobs’ birthday cake; there is bound to be at least one event that “calls” to each person.

Worcester Sun is a proud partner of Jane Week in Worcester.

One thought on “Mandell: Five great ideas to nurture the Worcester Renaissance

  1. Great article .I ve been preaching parks ,open space,and street tree planting make for a vibrant city and encourage people to move here since I was parks commissioner since 1976 retired in 1997 ,but still preaching.Also I have been preaching transparency in city government which is severely lacking.Their web site is terrible.You never here of anything done until after its voted and a done deal.


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