I am haunted by early 20th-century images on hand-colored postcards.
In the pleasing, panoramic, pastel-colored street scenes I see many streetcars, buses and automobiles as well as many, many pedestrians. I imagine that there is controlled chaos, a choreographed movement of people and vehicles going in every direction. What supernatural senses did these people of the past possess that allowed them to move about without being run over by a machine, I wonder?
The peculiar level and diversity of activity on these old streets — these shared spaces between stately buildings — look staged, as if a set from a Frank Capra movie. Are they real? More to the point, why do they haunt me?
I think I am haunted by these images because I know they are real. I am envious of the people of that era because they enjoyed nearly unconstrained mobility and lived in places that were human-scaled and vibrant. They did not prohibit their children from walking to the candy store, they did not have to drive their teenagers to the YWCA, and every adult member of a family did not have to own a car.
Sure, life was tough in many respects, but I imagine that the general level of stress was lower. People engaged in more meaningful social interaction on the buses and trolleys, they bumped into old friends more frequently on the sidewalk, they were not isolated in soundproof personal vehicles and did not have to deal with traffic jams or witness so many horrific motor vehicle accidents. Even crime was less prevalent because there were many more eyes on the street. I am haunted because these images represent a grave loss.
How did we progress to the point where speeding cars have taken over our streets, where our cities have more land area dedicated to parking lots than to buildings and are seemingly devoid of people? There are many explanations, but we should take heart that we are slowly learning from our car-centric planning mistakes of the past 50 years and are turning a corner. A 21st-century innovation in the form of transit-oriented development, known as TOD, is creating places that embody the early 20th-century urban ideal while accommodating current lifestyles and land uses.
The term simply means residential and commercial development that is integrated with public transit. It provides more transportation choices, reduces energy use and air emissions, calms traffic, encourages private reinvestment and, in general, improves the quality of life in downtowns and urban neighborhoods. It is the 21st-century reincarnation of the places that nurtured our grandparents and all those eerily contented people peering out of old postcards while queuing up for the bus or trolley.
TOD is working to revive countless cities across America by encouraging quality mixed-use development along streets that again are pedestrian-, bicycle- and transit-friendly. It is now is poised to work in Connecticut. Gov. Dannel P. Malloy is promoting the idea and prioritizing investment in TOD. Funded by new and visionary state and federal programs, several Connecticut cities, including Hartford, New Haven, Wallingford, Meriden, Stamford and Norwalk, are laying the foundations for TOD.
Sometimes, when I'm not tormenting myself with nostalgic postcards, I think about an urban planner from the future. I imagine that he is sitting in a sidewalk cafe in downtown Hartford. The sidewalks are chock full of people, dozens of cyclists pass on a nearby cycle track, electric trams are zipping silently up and down the street.
He is viewing a vintage YouTube video of city streets in the year 2000. In the video he sees gridlocked traffic in the smog-choked spaces between nondescript buildings, hears a cacophony of honking horns with elevated expressways lurking in the background and thinks, "Where are the people, bicycles and trams?" I chuckle to myself because I realize that it is he who will be truly haunted by images of bygone days —- not because he yearns for them, but because they were so scary.
David Sousa is a landscape architect and urban planner in New Haven. He serves on the board of directors of the Connecticut Main Street Center.
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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