Guest columnist Cheryl Latuner: Redesign with our ideals in mind

  • A waitress brings drinks to customers in a restaurant, Monday, June 15, in Paris. Paris is rediscovering itself, and its joie de vivre, as its cafes and restaurants reopen for the first time since the fast-spreading virus forced them to close their doors March 14. AP

Published: 9/14/2020 9:25:05 PM

I was glad to read in Saturday’s Gazette that Mayor David Narkewicz held a town hall meeting with the owners of downtown businesses to hear their concerns with the new Main Street parking/pedestrian mall/bike lane redesign.

All processes need to have as full transparency as possible and the voices of all stakeholders must be heard in order to reach the best and most fair solutions to problems.

But I was very dismayed to read that the mayor has decided, without further process, to reverse the design decision and simply restore things to the way they used to be. What a missed opportunity!

Much needs to change, shift, and grow in our American culture. Now, when we are espousing the advance of the fights against climate change and for social justice, how do our own small cities have to reimagine themselves? It seems to me we have a great opportunity in Northampton to redesign our city in the image of our best hopes and ideals — for commercial spaces that are also social spaces, for a reconsideration of our use of cars as our means of transportation, and for addressing our lack of significant public transportation.

For the past two years, my daughter has lived and worked and now is attending graduate school in Paris. I have visited and spent time with her in Paris in all seasons, and can say with unbridled enthusiasm how thrilling it is to walk the streets of Paris at all times of day and well into the night, where the lights of the ubiquitous sidewalk cafés invite people to be on the streets, to cheer them as they walk along between work and home or stop in their shopping to have a coffee, a drink, a dinner, a dessert.

All those lights, all that outdoor activity, breed other activity, lure people to spend time on the streets in places that might otherwise be dark and abandoned. It is so much a part of the Paris culture that the sidewalk cafés spill out from the bodies of the edifices housing them, and space heaters run all winter on these porches so that clients can continue to eat “outside,” as they prefer.

On one visit in November, I marveled at the outdoor tables filled with Parisians, and, likely tourists, dressed in coats, laughing and enjoying their drinks and meals. The availability of parking is negligible in relationship to the number of people on the streets. In many of these areas of narrow and twisting streets, there are no spaces at all for cars. Most Parisians, like most New York City and other big-city dwellers, rely on public transportation to move them around the city. Cars are not the factor in how people arrive at their preferred areas for shopping, dining, and strolling; it is the lure of a vibrant inner city.

In March, my daughter had an opportunity to wait out the pandemic visiting with a friend in Munich, Germany. Nearly daily she has something to tout about the vibrancy of that city, though it is vastly different from Paris. Munich has all the congenial outdoor dining spaces, and also vast green spaces amidst the most central parts of the city. And every road that leads anywhere — from residential to downtown areas, from commercial centers to green spaces — is lined with a distinct lane for bike travel.

Munichers use their bikes to get to and from work, shopping, dining, visiting. There is a predictable bike “rush hour” every morning and evening, and throughout the day, bikers traverse from one part of the city to another. It is a dedicated bike culture, even though Germans, I’m pretty sure, are fond of cars. Cars take them out of the city. Bikes bring them in.

I would like to know just how many parking spaces were actually lost in the redesign — and how many parking spaces in the parking garage went unused. What ideals are we giving up on in order to provide for a very small number of additional parking spaces? How are we closing down our imaginations in order to preserve the status quo? Surely we are more creative as a community than that.

It is interesting that in Saturday’s paper there was also an article reporting that the Silver Spoon restaurant in Easthampton is moving tables outside into parking spaces to accommodate clients who prefer to eat outside. It’s a sign that a vibrant downtown is good for business, a saving grace in this time of COVID, and a hallmark of the way forward to a progressive and sustainable redesign of our beloved hometowns.

Cheryl Latuner is a resident of Florence.

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