Guest columnist Jonathan Wynn: How to make vibrant downtown even better


Published: 10/5/2023 5:01:11 PM

A few Saturdays ago, my son and I took our dog for a morning walk. We crossed over the long width of Main Street at Crafts Avenue and purchased our favorite croissants at Tart. Sitting at a sidewalk table, we said “hi” to a few friends passing by, and then lazily watched workers erect tents for the annual Taste of Northampton.

Later that day, thousands of folks from near and far bounced down the street, sampling our city’s many offerings. The food, music, and activities set our downtown core abuzz, bringing a record sales day for my wife’s business down the street.

As a local of 17 years, and as a practicing researcher of cities, culture, and places for many more, I have read the few-but-angry negative op-eds over the redevelopment of Northampton’s downtown corridor with dismay. The proposed plan is hardly radical. It is a suite of tried and tested best practices, set for sensible implementation by skilled professionals.

It’s disheartening to read such hand-wringing and trumped-up coverage, which threatens the chance of an even more successful downtown core.

For folks who care about how places work, reviewing Jane Jacobs’ “The Death and Life of Great American Cities” is always enlightening. She devotes the first three chapters to sidewalks alone, analyzing how they 1) improve safety; 2) increase contact; and 3) socialize the public.

“Lowly, unpurposeful, and random as they appear,” Jacobs argues, “sidewalk contacts are the small change from which a city’s wealth of public life must grow.” My not-so-simple morning walk highlights these best practices of city places, and touches on how the proposed complete street plan will make everything we love about Northampton even better.

■Improving safety: By reducing the width of the street and improving sightlines, the plan makes crosswalks like the one at Crafts Avenue safer and downtown more accessible for pedestrians, bikes, and cars.

■Increasing contact: By transforming dead space for parked cars into lively places for public engagement and commerce, the plan will generate more outdoor seating for businesses like Tart, and add space for nonprofits to put up tables, buskers to sing, room for pedestrians, and benches for folks to watch it all.

■Greater socialization: By creating lively spaces, the plan builds a more welcoming city, for public events like Taste of Northampton, but also for small-stakes interactions. Sitting at a table or bench, my family always seizes the opportunity to chat with someone we know, and we always see people who are new to us.

Northampton’s downtown has a ton of what Jacobs would’ve loved: Mixed-use buildings, a thoughtful public park, and a bustling “sidewalk ballet.” It is a vibrant place. It is a destination. This plan will make Northampton work even better. There is so much more within it, but these are just three of the ways this plan will create a safe, accessible, and more vibrant downtown.

There’s a lot to say about the harumphing and tut-tutting in recent op-eds against the downtown plan. I’ll mention three points.

First, we must put them in a context of arriving many years into a thoughtful discussion phase of kickoffs, surveys, and forums with business owners and the local community that have been resoundingly positive and community-centered.

Second, the critique of a reduction of streetside parking has already been tested. The summertime Jersey barriers along Main and Strong have reduced the same number of spaces as the proposed plan and it’s been easy to find parking downtown and in the garage.

Third, the few but vocal naysayers should expend their energies joining the yay-sayers, like the Main Street For Everyone group, to work on creative solutions for addressing the temporary strains on our local economy that lie ahead. What about forming a coalition to support and promote local businesses most impacted by construction, or collaborating with cultural organizations to keep creating events and activities that celebrate each phase of the project while also directing people to these local businesses? Let’s call everyone in and get to work.

With $19 million in state money on the table, Northampton should be celebrating this windfall of an investment in our city’s future. Jane Jacobs, champion of great urban places, would see a success in the making. Let’s take the win!

All cities change. Some will decline. Some adapt and thrive. The vision of our downtown leverages the best of Northampton to make it even better. That future city, I am confident, is worth it.

Jonathan Wynn is the chair of the University of Massachusetts Amherst Sociology Department, the author of “Music/City: American Festivals and Placemaking in Austin, Nashville, and Newport,” and a Northampton resident.


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