Northampton installation focuses on designing healthy communities 

  • Northampton Planning and Sustainability Director Wayne Feiden directs an installation at A.P.E. on Main Street, focused on designing healthier communities, depicted here on Dec. 8, 2016. —Amanda Drane

  • Wayne Feiden, left, the director of planning and sustainability for Northampton, talks with Joel Saxe, of Northampton, Thursday during Feiden’s weeklong discussion series and a show titled “PLAN HEALTH: designing health communities,” at A.P.E. Gallery on Main Street. GAZETTE STAFF/JERREY ROBERTS

Published: 12/9/2016 12:09:11 AM

NORTHAMPTON — The walls of downtown’s A.P.E. Gallery normally boast beautiful works of art, but not often do they depict what could be the city’s future.

Planning and Sustainability Director Wayne Feiden said this week’s gallery installation at the Main Street space, composed of street-level designs and artists’ renderings, is geared at getting residents involved in the city planning process.

The installation will remain up into the weekend, with talks by the Western Mass American Institute of Architects and Re-Energize Democracy at 5:30 p.m. on Friday and Saturday, respectively.

Touring around the gallery, Feiden said Thursday the built environment — or man-made surroundings such as buildings or parks — impacts the health of individual residents, as well as the overall health of the city. Adding more trees, parklets and pedestrian safety features will inspire more residents to get outside, he said. And the more people strolling the city’s downtown streets, the more likely they will be to spend money along the way.

“This is as much about economic development as it is about safety,” he said.

Part of the installation focuses on narrowing Main Street, which Feiden said the city tried for about six hours on a Saturday afternoon earlier this year.

He said that making Main Street one lane instead of two means drivers have to wait less time at the crosswalks lining the way. Plus, he said, the city could use the extra roadway for bike lanes. “It obviously needs more study, but it seemed to work well,” he said of the trial.

Feiden said he’s not trying make people feel guilty for driving, but to inspire those who can to walk by designing the streets to be more appealing and make it easier for those who don’t have cars.

“Anything that gets people outside makes them healthier,” Feiden said. “We want to hear from all voices — we know that environmental health disproportionately affects low-income communities.”

Done right, he said beautifully designed streets spur people to travel more by foot. “What’s nice in a city that’s attractive is you don’t even think of it as exercise,” he said.

The city has a fair amount of pedestrian traffic, but he said that hasn’t come without its problems. He said he’s intent on improving the safety of the city’s streets and addressing the rate at which pedestrians and bicyclists collide with cars. “People know when the risk is there and they’re less likely to walk,” he said, calling the problem “a marker of our success.”

Narrowing Main Street could also address that problem, he said, as it makes cars drive slower. He said studies also show that more trees along the roadways inspire slower travel.

“It’s not about the speed limit,” he said. “It’s about the message the road sends.”

Planning sea change

City planning changes dramatically with the times. When King Street was redone 30 years ago, for instance, Feiden said the work was done without an eye to pedestrians.

“We would never do that now,” he said, remarking how at that time people were almost entirely focused on getting places quickly in their vehicles. “It’s a sea change in terms of how we do things.”

He said the tides of city planning began turning toward walkable cities about 20 years ago, and now public funding has caught up in earnest — the city has seen about $15 million in bike path extension in the past five years.

“There’s a lot more money available than there used to be,” he said, referencing the $2.5 million MassWorks awarded to the city last month for a Pleasant Street overhaul.

Additionally, the “diagnostic” parklet platform on trial near Crackerbarrel Alley last month, he said, was funded with $10,000 in Mass. Department of Health moneys — part of a larger grant aimed at testing ways to reduce the risk of heart attacks, diabetes and stroke.  

City residents and agencies also provide support for desired projects, as evidenced by the $10,000 in matching grant money he was able to raise for the parklet project in an online crowdfunding campaign.

City plans from previous centuries focused on different aspects of developing society. Some 130 years ago Feiden said roads were lowered for the railroad, adding height to curbs between Strong Avenue and Hawley Street.

In modern times, that makes for some twisted ankles.

“It just takes a long time to fix these things,” he said. “You want to get it right the first time because it’s really expensive to change.”

Amanda Drane can be contacted at

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Northampton, MA 01061


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