Monthly Archives: July 2017

How new urbanism infuses Oswego’s $10 million downtown funding

When I saw the details of the $10 million in grant funding to the city of Oswego’s Downtown Revitalization Initiative, I immediately thought that somewhere Jane Jacobs must be smiling.

In the middle of the 20th century, as America begun sprawling into suburbs and throwing up highway systems, and as planners pondered the disastrous and destructive concept deceptively called “urban renewal,” Jacobs penned a counterpoint that inspired a new look at how to revive cities with the influential The Death and Life of Great American Cities.

Contrary to the desire to (over)stretch city and suburban geography at the time, Jacobs instead pointed to urban density — putting people as well as living, eating and shopping spaces closer together as fomenting vibrancy, citing the likes of Boston’s North End and NYC’s Greenwich Village as examples. She saw “the need in cities for a most intricate and close-grained diversity of uses that give each other constant mutual support, both economically and socially.” Lively downtowns are self-supporting, she adds: “A well-used city street is apt to be a safe street,” giving “people — both residents and strangers — concrete reasons for using the sidewalks on where these enterprises face.”

Her theories were a large inspiration for what is known as “new urbanism,” which rejected the idea of paving paradise to put in a parking lot.

According to the New Urbanist website, its movement:

promotes the creation and restoration of diverse, walkable, compact, vibrant, mixed-use communities composed of the same components as conventional development, but assembled in a more integrated fashion, in the form of complete communities. These contain housing, work places, shops, entertainment, schools, parks, and civic facilities essential to the daily lives of the residents, all within easy walking distance of each other.

While one can kvetch over details of the DRI funding (it’s 2017, that will happen, particularly in the comments sections of media websites), the announced details aim toward making downtown Oswego much more livable, workable, walkable and shoppable.

Building blocks

1924204_38182887343_3361_nMy brother lived in the first converted downtown loft spaces in Oswego, in the Browne-Davis building, and they far exceeded expectations because it easily found a crop of professionals who desired urban living with great convenience. But it becomes a chicken-and-egg proposition: People who live downtown will shop and eat there, but how do you build shopping and eating centers if you don’t know what traffic you’ll get? The DRI looks at these as intertwined.

Ben Kail of The Palladium-Times has started the process of unspooling the funding (subscription required but recommended) and also posted the original news release. While at least one local media outlet looked straight at the shiny (new indoor waterpark!), focusing on novelty is not seeing the forest for the trees.

Among the commendable features that dovetail with new urbanism:

  • Mixed-use developments on West First Street at Bridge Street, Harbor View Square (First and Lake streets), and a redeveloped Midtown Plaza (providing more downtown residences mixed with places to eat and shop)
  • A multi-building development to fill a vacant lot and upgrade structures on West First Street with an eye toward 24/7 vibrancy (also encouraging more foot traffic by better connecting anchor attractions)
  • Renovating the Cahill building to include housing and dining (historic preservation as economic development)
  • River Walk improvements (cultivating natural beauty as another downtown draw)
  • Funds to support additional renovation of the Children’s Museum of Oswego (already an anchor for family activities that positively impacts surrounding businesses)
  • Create a “pocket park” on Market Street (a compact recreational space as an attraction uniting parts of a business district)

While many more details are forthcoming, it’s an exciting box of building blocks.

Back around 2000, when I was features editor at The Palladium-Times, I wrote a series of articles on historic preservation and how urbanism tied into a community’s sense of history and togetherness. But even as I covered very vibrant places, the missing piece of the puzzle was a resolve and a philosophy to dedicate to a city core instead of sprawling strip-mall exurbs. Today’s announcement shows, at long last, a dedication — financial and philosophical — to make new urbanism work in Oswego.

Will the last piece — people to live and revive all the corners of downtown — fall into place? That’s the final question here, but a confirmed commitment to downtown, to say nothing of millions of dollars, gives us hope.

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The Declaration of Independence and Constitution were our original content management systems.

Looking across social media, I see a lot of people a bit adrift on what to do on Independence Day, as they see erosions in the country they love, lawmakers not living up to the promises of their offices, government decrees with which they disagree. But remember that we are the people the writers of Declaration of Independence and the Constitution envisioned — even if they probably couldn’t fathom Twitter or society’s vain obsession with selfies — you could even say these documents are our original content management systems.

If you’re never worked in a content management system, let me define it simply: A CMS is a type of software that allows editors to make changes to webpages. A CMS exists so that almost anybody can update a page without needing to be a computing genius. People get hung up about features in a CMS sometimes, but what’s most important is the content, or the words and pictures and videos and stories that benefit visitors to the website.

In 1776, the Declaration of Independence was the original governance document — they found their current system (government, CMS) wasn’t working, and needed something new (thankfully, they didn’t put it out for bid). The Constitution, in 1787, really established the content management system; it showed how editors (representatives) could write and revise content (pass laws).

It also created a governance structure to go with this CMS — creating the system of representation guiding how the document could be revised in larger (amendments, or software updates) and smaller (regular legislation) ways. It created different permissions levels (branches of government with task lists and authority but also checks and balances). (It did err in one part of not trusting its users, which was the institution of an Electoral College, but that’s a whole different discussion.)

Like a content management system, these initial documents were not as focused upon the content that would need to be created (laws, statutes, amendments) as they were the mechanisms that make these changes happen. Or, as I’ve said many times before, a content management system creates neither content, nor management, nor a system; that’s up to the humans coordinating and maintaining the system.

On this July 4, I can look around and not like a lot of what I see, but this I know: The country’s content management isn’t broke. This is all user error. And it’s on we, the people, to fix it.

So if you don’t like what’s happening, sitting on Twitter and clapping back and people who aren’t listening isn’t the solution. Arguing with people who’ll never agree with you is a waste of time. The representatives (the editors) of this great content management system are not using it for the benefit of all users. If you don’t like the decisions they’re making, let them know. If you don’t think they’re going to carry out the promises of the nation, support people who can.

The Declaration of Independence and Constitution are living, breathing documents, but only if we’re willing to breathe life into it. The pair of documents have been working together for 230 years (or 220+ years longer than the average college CMS) for a reason. That reason is us.

The documents and our founding fathers and our nation might not be perfect. But we are the ones empowered to form a more perfect union. To show that all (hu)mans are created equal. And to uphold the enduring promise of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, by making it user-friendly for all.

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