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Designing Syracuse City Needs In-house Urban Planners to Make The Most of Its Many Assets

A letter to the Syracuse Post-Standard by ESF Associate Professor Emanuel Carter*

The City of Syracuse, battered like so many other American cities by a federally sponsored suburbanization process that began in the 1930s, begins 2007 with reasons for hope and optimism.

The institutions on University Hill are growing and aggressively addressing new academic, professional and public service opportunities, building their international reputations while also better serving their host communities. The Connective Corridor project has many Syracusans excited about Downtown and its relationship to University Hill. Downtown Syracuse is once again seen as a desirable place for private investment, with new mixed-use development at Franklin Square and on Willow Street and declarations of intent along West Fayette Street and Washington Street. Efforts are under way to clean up our uniquely polluted Onondaga Lake watershed.

Syracuse is a city with many assets. We have Onondaga Creek and Onondaga Lake, an enviable system of large parks with significant woodlands and great views from the tops of dramatic drumlins, and many viable and nearly viable neighborhoods with populations that define all that is good about American demographics.

It is also a city that engages those assets with an excruciating reticence, not at all due to a lack of will but because a succession of administrations have managed the city without including, at a senior level, professional urban planners with the critical skill sets of planning, design and environmental management.

We are not alone in doing business this way. Cities we like, however, include (in senior positions and as crucial participants) professionals trained in planning, design and environmental management, and they conduct national searches to get the skilled practitioners they need.

These cities are not just the usual special suspects such as Ithaca; Burlington, Vt.; Charlottesville, Va.; Madison, Wis.; Austin, Texas; or Portland and Eugene, Ore. They also include Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, Chicago and Minneapolis.

I am sure that with the inclusion of planners, designers and environmentalists in the city's development processes, Syracuse would look more like some of those cities.

  • University Hill might actually have the best bookstores in the region and housing that is attractive to faculty, staff, families and senior citizens.
  • Downtown would have an Avenue of the Arts or an arts district better than the sum of its parts.
  • The lakefront would have attractive development that actually faces the lake.
  • Onondaga Creek and Onondaga Lake would be defined by a system of bikeways, pedestrian ways, woodlands, parks, gardens and plazas.
  • Our neighborhoods would reflect investment by quality developers willing to take advantage of the more than 12,000 acres of urban vacant land to build critical masses of mixed-income residential and commercial projects.

The cities I mentioned have made much of the disciplines of planning, design and environmental management to develop plans and projects for public investments that attract sustained, private-sector investment; the most talented urban developers; and citizens interested in a strong sense of community and place.

The use of these skill sets in managing a city acknowledges that people live in cities not only to make a living but also to be part of a viable, ever-changing, complex, meaningful and beautiful collective that is physically, socially, economically and aesthetically better than the sum of its parts.

Many will argue that in a city that has only two-thirds as many people as it had in 1950, planning, design and environmental management are luxuries, or worse, disciplines that impede the ability of the market to "naturally" revitalize the urban fabric. My observation, however, is that good planning attracts private and public investment and protects investments made by the community, the developer and the homeowner.

Good planning often results in good design, including urban design that integrates community form, purpose and function in ways that are beautiful, dynamic and inspirational. It includes guidelines that can challenge designers to retain the integrity of our traditional neighborhoods and our historic districts and landscapes while encouraging the bold, the inspirational and the beautiful in our parks, woodlands and waterways, in our streets, buildings and public spaces.

The city that ignores the disciplines of planning, design and environmental management in favor of letting the private sector find its way is a city that even in good times is less than the sum of its parts. It is a city that, at best, is about investment without public vision and, at worst, is about planning only by the private sector, which must primarily be about making a profit.

The skill sets of planning, design and environmentalism should not reside solely with consultants. Expertise that helicopters into a place is expensive, distant and intermittent, however committed the practitioners might be to professional excellence.

Expertise that is organic to the local government process, as is the case with the cities listed above, is expensive, but it is also constantly available, committed to the community, able to recognize subtle nuances that affect the community's viability, and able to coordinate well with other municipal departments in ongoing, complex projects.

It would be instructive for the city's current administration to go to the Web sites of the cities listed above to discover just how planning, design and environmental management are used to make those communities desirable places to live.

Syracuse has a host of natural and cultural assets, including a population and a municipal government committed to improving a city of which we should all be proud. With this in mind, the city should dedicate itself to improvements that include planning, design and environmental management as central disciplines.

It should establish within the Department of Community Development a true city planning division that includes veteran senior professionals in planning and urban design. It should augment the Department of Parks, Recreation and Youth Programs with environmental professionals in forestry and ecology. And it should staff the Departments of Public Works and Engineering with design-oriented engineers who can work with the above-mentioned professionals in developing quality urban infrastructure.

* Emanuel Carter is an associate professor of landscape architecture at the State University College of Environmental Science and Forestry.

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