Guest columnist Sarah Metcalf: Whose streets? Our children’s streets

  • The upper end of Main Street, Northampton, in June. Gazette file photo

Published: 9/28/2021 3:00:04 PM

I’ve been haunted lately by two remarks. One was made back in 1960, by John F. Kennedy, a president I’m old enough to remember. He was making an argument in favor of bilateral nuclear disarmament: “In the final analysis, our most basic common link is that we all inhabit this small planet. We all breathe the same air. We all cherish our children’s future. And we are all mortal.”

The other was made recently, by the climate philosopher Alex Steffen: “The world we’ve built is not ready for the planet we’ve made.”

I think of these remarks as I read about the world’s struggles to grapple with the climate emergency, which the latest Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report calls “code red for humanity.” Here we still are on our small planet, having added a second existential threat to the nuclear one, because we failed — or refused — to imagine the consequences of our fossil fuel economy. We’re still failing now.

The problem is, it’s very hard to imagine the future, especially in times of such rapid change. We tend to expect things to remain recognizably the same. Yet they don’t. Even 20 years ago, the internet, search engines, smartphones, social media and online shopping weren’t forces in our lives. Now they’ve profoundly reshaped society, and we can hardly remember what we did without them.

But maybe it’s a little easier to plan ahead on a small scale than on a big one. We each contribute only a tiny increment to the decisions that will determine the future of human society, which depend on government actions at the highest level. But our local choices are significant too, even those no bigger than a parking space.

This brings us to our beloved Northampton, where we’re planning the redesign of our downtown. Local officials tell us they’ve considered everyone’s competing interests to find the best layout. But infrastructure lasts a long time. What will be important to the people who will live here in 30 years? We have to consider their interests too; their well-being is in our hands.

We know it will be hotter. By 2050, average temperatures in Hampshire County will have risen from 2.2-2.8˚C over those of 1970. It will also be stormier. The region has already experienced a 70% increase in heavy rain events in recent decades, and is projected to face at least a 40% further increase by the end of the century. These changes will present new, pressing safety issues. How do we plan for them?

With trees! Lots of them. Take a look at the “Benefits of Urban Street Trees” article on the Main Street for Everyone website ( Trees cool the pavement and the air by as much as 15˚F. They absorb precipitation through their leaves and roots, reducing storm runoff by as much as 60%. They absorb volatile compounds and improve air quality. They define and shelter public spaces, improve our mental health and beautify our city. And they attract shoppers.

We need to weigh the future value of tree-protected streets against the future value of that additional pavement claimed by angle parking — in a world where resilience is going to call for using cars less and public transportation more. The data tell us that almost every argument that’s made in favor of angle parking — that it’s safer, that it’s necessary to attract shoppers, that it’s the only way to accommodate people with disabilities — is wrong. Sure, it’s easier to slip into an angled space. But it’s not easier to safely back out. To preserve that moment of ease, does it make sense to commit to streets so wide that even a mature tree canopy will never be able to grow limbs long enough to shade it?

Finally, we know that in the near future, many Americans will be looking to relocate away from places at higher climate risk to places that are planning ahead. Many are already moving here. These new residents can be a strength for us, in our walkable, accessible urban center, with lively public spaces and robust arts, dining and retail. The fact is the virtual marketplace is boring and lonely. We all need places where we can be together.

The world we’ve built is not ready for the planet we’ve made, but we can try to build our downtown to be ready for the future we can see coming. And if we do it well, the future will be better for it.

Sarah Metcalf is a 30-year resident of Northampton, a writer and climate activist.

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