Promoting Smart Growth in the Pioneer Valley

By Laura Fitch Gazette Contributing Writer

I’ve been working as a “green” architect in the Pioneer Valley for 30 years and have had the good fortune to work for many clients interested in green, energy-efficient design. While these projects have helped reduce my clients’ energy footprints, they have done little to change the area’s overall development direction. We lament sprawl while driving everywhere. We’re dismayed by the proliferation of malls and the loss of our local businesses, but our zoning often dictates this type of growth.

Even if we support smart growth—emphasizing revitalized town centers, public transportation, open space, walking and biking—in our own towns, other kinds of development in nearby municipalities can have negative effects on the economic and environmental health of the whole region.

Luckily, things are beginning to change. The Pioneer Valley Planning Commission (PVPC), the planning body for our 43-town region, is encouraging smart growth. In the fall of 2009 the PVPC, along with the Valley Development Council and the Western Massachusetts chapter of the American Institute of Architects, co-sponsored a “Smart Growth Ideas Competition” with the aim of developing model projects that envision possible alternatives to sprawl. The time is ripe for promoting smart-growth design through competitions such as this one. For example, the Town of Amherst is currently considering rezoning within three identified village centers. This comes out of a master planning process in which local residents said they wanted to limit sprawl and make the village centers more vibrant.

Twenty-seven firms, including my own, Kraus-Fitch Architects Inc. in Amherst, entered the competition. The sponsors chose three locales as sites for the competition: an old mill in Palmer, a site near the malls in Hadley and several parcels within the Southampton village center. Their goal was that various design professionals would demonstrate how development can be “sustainable, equitable and smart.” Our project is one example of how these ideas played out.

We chose to work with the Southampton site, where Route 10 cuts through what was once the village center. Southampton has been losing small farms, businesses and community buildings, and has become a car-dependent, bedroom community. I was very interested to see how a village center might be reintroduced and invigorated.

Thriving New England villages, which were inherently smart-growth before the concept was named, have civic, commercial and private components, and a sense of place rooted in a geographical, historical and social context. Our design concept built on the opportunities Southampton presents—with existing stately and historic buildings and open space—to create a vibrant, walkable and distinctive New England village center with a prominent common.

Establishing the town common as a visible, open and uncluttered public gathering place was an important first step. We proposed to do this by enlarging and better defining the existing green space around their town hall. To make the Common usable and central to the community we recommended slowing and calming the through traffic on Route 10. By dividing the lanes, our plan provided visual cues to drivers, an opportunity for landscaping and a refuge for pedestrians to cross the street safely.

The design marked the actual center of town by a strong intersection, created by reconfiguring the poorly aligned East and Maple streets, which visually connected important civic buildings and many of the historic homes.

To reinforce the sense of place, provide sufficient density to enliven the center and make business investments more viable, we recommended re-zoning to allow for mixed-use infill (converting vacant lots and underused buildings into mixed commercial and residential space). Commercial establishments, promoting day and evening vitality in the center, could include a general store, café, pizza parlor, diner or pub. We also suggested a range of housing types within view and easy walking distance of the common, with logical bicycle and pedestrian connections.

In addition, we recommended protection of nearby natural resources, particularly those involving water, to create a discernible edge or boundary to development. And we included a network of trails and footbridges to encourage local use and activity.

Practicing architects don’t often have the opportunity to work “outside the box.” We had a lot of fun working collaboratively on this competition—challenging assumptions about existing roadways and zoning, and reintroducing what we feel really works: a traditional New England village.

Laura Fitch is a partner in Kraus-Fitch Architects, Inc. in Amherst. 

Earth Matters, written by staff and associates of the Hitchcock Center for the Environment at 845 West Street, Amherst, appears every other week. For more information, call 413-256-6006, or write to us.

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