I Refuse to Believe that Northampton is Suburban

I remember when I was a Freshman in high school living in Lexington, KY, I had a major chip on my shoulder for being a “boring middle-class suburban kid.” I basked in the Sturm und Drang of this, and in fact wrote a short poem called “Suburbs” when I was 14. As luck would have it, I still have a copy of that cathartic masterpiece:

by 14-year-old Price Armstrong

A bursting dam of lunacy engulfing the premises
Insanity shrouding the land like the smell of homemade biscuits
a madhouse of a town we call suburbia
a misspent youth of misspent money of misspent power
handed down to you on a silver platter
thoughtless spending all on the things you’ve never wanted but need to have
a blindness inflicted by your own ignorance
a judgement clouded with material possessions so thick
you can’t see your hand.
Oh look! A tree! You must care about the environment!
look! He gives to the poor!!
Nothing but ratty old shoes and shirts promoting last years fad
no thanks, I think I’ll stick to downtown
where the people don’t care
but at least they don’t pretend to

Good Lord, this poem hits all the usual critiques of the suburbs: conspicuous consumption, environmental devastation, hypocritical judgmental neighbors, and it ended with a shout-out to downtown. I’m cringing as I read this for so many reasons. First, the pretense that I spent any amount of time “downtown” when I was 14 is hilarious; when I wrote this poem, I spent 99% of my time miles from downtown Lexington, mostly because downtown was so dead back then (things have gotten better). Second, the scorn that I dish out is so laughable, as if I were doing more than just trying copy the cool kids’ angsty rejection of the mundane middle class. 

lexington neighborhood
My childhood neighborhood growing up circled in red, downtown Lexington starred in blue. I guess I used to live in the suburbs…

Nonetheless, my antipathy toward the ‘burbs never really changed – it just got deeper. The movie American Beauty became one of my favorite films; I loved the commentary on the banality of suburban living. My distaste for the auto-dependency, the social isolation, and the environmental devastation of suburban sprawl only grew, albeit in an incoherent, intuitive way. Until I became an urban planner, that is. 

Who knows, maybe those adolescent rebellions against the status quo (in this case, this suburbs) were what led me to the urban planning field. Most planners today recognize the value of human-scaled architectural design, of mixed land uses, of transportation options. They agree with Kunstler’s criticism that most post-war residential development is the “Geography of Nowhere.” These values tend to be urban values, and – as much as I hate to admit it – jibe with my angst-filled adolescent scorn for what I considered “suburban.” 

So you can imagine my displeasure when someone referred to my current city of residence, Holyoke, as a “suburb.”

Suburban vs. Urban

One of the reasons that my wife and I ended up in Holyoke had to do specifically with not wanting to end up in, what I referred to as, “The middle of nowhere.” Downtown Holyoke has a lot of multifamily housing, indistinguishable from what you’d find in the Allston/Brighton or Jamaica Plain neighborhoods of Boston. In fact, even though we live in a single family home, just around the corner from us are two- and three-family homes.

allston vs holyoke
Can you tell which one is the Allston neighborhood of Boston and which is Holyoke?

Furthermore, Holyoke has excellent transit service, is extremely diverse, and has an entire district dominated by heavy industry (admittedly a lot of it sitting abandoned). If you go downtown on a summer evening you will see people out in the streets, keeping cool while their kids run around and play. 

Finally, not that this is a desirable thing, Holyoke has a lot of the problems that bigger cities have – a high poverty rate, drug trafficking, property crimes, blighted structures, etc. When I think of a “suburb,” basically all of the attributes I just described don’t fit the mold.

So why would someone refer to Holyoke as suburban?

As much as I don’t want to, I can think of a few reasons: 

  1. As the Pioneer Valley has deindustrialized, more and more people commute elsewhere to work – especially Springfield and Amherst, even down to Hartford. Northampton, Holyoke, Chicopee, etc., are no longer the employment destinations they once were. 
  2. The population has only modestly grown over the last fifty years, but the urban footprint is much bigger. While brick multifamily residential structures downtown have burned down or been neglected to the point of collapse, single-family housing has spread ever further into the country.
  3. Much of the new commercial growth in the region has been around the malls and highways, and malls and highways are perhaps the most defining features of a suburb. Recent new businesses near the Holyoke Mall include a car dealership, a Chipotle, and an Applebee’s.

So, despite my best efforts, did I end up accidentally living in a suburb?

Defining the Suburbs

As with most things, people smarter than I am have already thought about this issue. I found a meta-analysis reviewing how the suburbs have been defined by other researchers, with most using some combination of the following:

  • Location – Where the suburbs are located
  • Built environment characteristics – Development patterns, architectural style
  • Transportation – How people travel
  • Land use and zoning – How land uses are integrated or segregated (e.g. single-family residential zone, commercial zone, etc.)
  • Political boundaries – Whether the area is a separate community
  • Socio-cultural – Class, race, cultural heritage, etc.
  • Styles of building, design, and planning – Who is building what and how the development process takes place
  • Time – How new is the development relative to other parts of the metro area
  • Critical assessments – Value judgment critical of the suburbs and implicit values and sensibilities that led to their development
  • Indices – Quantitative analysis resulting in some index, like a Sprawl Index.

Reading this paper made me realize the incredible challenge of defining whether Holyoke, or Northampton, or even parts of Springfield can really be called “suburban.” One of the challenges is that suburbanization typically is thought of as a post-World War II phenomenon, but the Pioneer Valley was developed well before this period. Holyoke was incorporated in 1850 and reached its zenith in 1920; Northampton was established in 1653 and, like the rest of the region, had its heyday during the pre-war era.

Each community developed with its own city center, its own economic hub, its own identity. Transportation was difficult and expensive before highways, and even more difficult and expensive before the trolley. By necessity, most Pioneer Valley communities developed with their own economic base, their own sense of identity, and had transit-oriented, mixed use centers. Holyoke and Northampton and Chicopee have a history beyond being just suburbs of Springfield, whereas Levittown could not have existed without New York City.

PV cities
Represented by stars, each community had its own economic base and its own identity. 

New England is really old compared to a lot of the country, and urbanized earlier than the rest of the eastern seaboard. It is probably this unique history which throws a wrench into the dichotomy of urban/suburban.

Sure, it’s just semantics. Sure, a rose by any other name smells just as sweet. But as a matter of pride, as a matter of identity, and in order to live up to the standards set by the 14-year-old version of myself, I want to state for the record that I do not live in a suburb. I refuse to believe that Holyoke or Northampton are suburbs of Springfield! 



Are Goals to Reduce Car Use Racist?

A couple of weeks ago, I was at a public meeting regarding a project to totally redo Cabot St. in Holyoke, between Race St. and the Willamansett Bridge. This is a major commercial strip with a grocery store, liquor store, and pizza place along it, in addition to numerous apartment buildings. On-street parking lines both sides of the street, and there are no bike lanes.

cabot st
Cabot St looking north; Capri Pizza on the left, C-Town grocery store on the right. Source: Google Maps.

The presentation showed that bike lanes were not going to be added, but rather “bike-accommodating shoulders,” and in other parts just sharrows. They were even narrowing the sidewalks to create more width for these “bike-accommodating shoulders,” but didn’t remove any of the on-street parking.

My blood started to boil, because I had seen it happen too many times before. A roadway improvement project is developed, and bike facilities are left out or inadequately provided for. If we are going to have true Complete Streets, then we must include separated bicycle facilities – all but the most fearless bicyclists refuse to ride in anything that mixes with car traffic.

cabot st vision
An alternative vision for Cabot St: Parking on one side, buffered bike lanes, and plenty of width for sidewalks. Source: Streetmix.net

I suggested that we could just eliminate one side of on-street parking to accommodate wider sidewalks and two buffered bike lanes. When I suggested there might be enough off-street parking, I was really surprised at the push-back. The mostly Latino neighborhood residents spoke at length about the importance of parking, and how scarce parking is in the project area. I was told that in other projects in the neighborhood, a furor was sparked when it was suggested that we remove on-street parking.

I stood my ground. I noted that these are the neighborhoods in Holyoke that have the lowest rates of car ownership (between a third and half of all households own zero vehicles), that this is exactly where we need to be steadfast in implementing our Complete Streets Policy.

Number of households with zero cars. Source: 2014 5-year American Community Survey

I noted that this street is never going to be redone in our lifetimes once this project is complete, and whatever decisions we make today will stick around for decades. And, importantly, I noted that ample car parking is not in the recipe for truly great urban spaces, and Holyoke could be a great urban space.

I don’t think I captivated any hearts or minds with my pleas.

“VMT Reduction Goals are Racist”

I remembered a talk that I attended at a transportation conference some years ago (don’t remember which one, but I think it was TRB). There was a panel of experts arguing for and against VMT goals. For those unfamiliar, VMT stands for Vehicle Miles Traveled, and some states and cities have set goals for lowering the amount of driving as measured by VMT. Massachusetts has a goal of tripling biking, walking, and transit use by 2030, though not any explicit VMT reduction goal.

One of the panelists made a bold assertion against VMT reduction goals. He said something to the effect of, “We spent half a century building infrastructure that was too expensive for most minorities to use because they couldn’t afford a car. Now that minority car ownership is rising, we’re starting to tell people that, ‘Oh, no, actually, we need to drive less.’ VMT reduction goals are the very definition of racism!”

I was floored. There are so many negative impacts from the tremendous amount of driving we do as a society, ranging from 40,000 traffic fatalities per year, to feeding the obesity epidemic and asthma rates near highways, to contributing about a third of all greenhouse gas emissions. Less driving could only benefit humanity, couldn’t it? How in the world could it be racist?

Aspiring to Driving

I’m reminded of the conventional wisdom that poor people don’t like the idea of soaking the rich through taxes because they, too, could be rich some day (for a more nuanced article on that, see here). At the risk of making too broad an assumption, it makes sense that neighborhood residents at this meeting – even non-driving residents – would defend parking. After all, even if they don’t own a car, they sometimes get rides from people who do, and they hope to own a car as soon as possible.

So of course my pleas would fall on unreceptive ears. From my perspective, I grew up with cars as my primary means of transportation until I was about 18 years old. Cars are nothing special, taken for granted, and so it’s easy for me to eschew them. However, for a kid who grew up riding the bus and was “transportation poor” – always scrounging for a friend or relative to get her to places the bus didn’t go – a car could be an aspirational sign of having “made it” and a crucial part of a safety net.

Maybe some of these residents don’t drive, but they also don’t necessarily identify as “bicyclists” or “pedestrians.” Rather, I wonder if they think of themselves as people who are on foot or on bike until they get a car. And to hear some guy who they’ve never seen before say that not only do we not need more parking, but really they should just give up that goal of car ownership and keep biking and walking and using the bus even though it’s really inconvenient and maybe even embarrassing to boot… well, I can understand if that message might not resonate.

Balancing Fairness and the Public Good

So is it racist to try to reduce driving in a mostly minority neighborhood where residents put cultural and aspirational value on car ownership? Is it projecting my values onto a neighborhood that doesn’t share them? Is it fair?

I’m reminded of a common argument about international climate change agreements (I’m restraining myself from going into a long tirade about the US pulling out of the Paris Accord). Now that industrialized nations have been contributing to climate change for 150 years, we want developing nations to just cut out all the fossil fuel use pronto. We’ve done our polluting, now it’s your turn to pay the price for it.

In the end, though, as with climate change, we all pay the price for our love affair with the car. Hampden County is the least healthy county in Massachusetts, and lack of exercise is one of the reasons why. Economic development does not spring from ubiquitous parking, but rather a vibrant streetscape with pedestrians and businesses and greenery and mixed land uses. And Cabot Street has seen a number of crashes over the years, some of them fatal, some of them with pedestrians and some with bicyclists.

My hope is that as this project rolls forward, we can balance the public good with the values of the neighborhood residents. Ultimately, they must live with the project in a much more immediate way than I (however, I should note that I take Cabot Street every day on my bike trip to/from work). I’m hopeful that as the projects gels, we can find a solution that the neighborhood can embrace, while at the same time creates a vibrant public space conducive to healthy living and solid economic development.


**Author’s Note: I realize I’m diving into a lot of charged issues here, and welcome feedback!

Why I Left Boston

It’s official – the last of my ties to the Boston area have been cut, as our lease on the apartment in Belmont expired on June 30th. I have some mixed emotions about leaving the Boston area, but overall am delighted with the change. I thought I would take the opportunity of my newfound rent-free existence to reflect on the reasons why I left.

It’s all about the Benjamins

When thinking about the long-term viability of living in Belmont, the aspect most fatal to staying was simple – housing is exorbitantly expensive. The 2-bedroom, ~900 square foot apartment where my wife and I lived cost just under $1,900 per month, and rose to $2,100 once we left. That’s over $25,000 per year just in rent!

It’s also worth noting that our rent went up between 3% and 5% every year, which admittedly was less than the 15 – 20% rent increases seen just down the road in Cambridge. Those kinds of rent increases are several times the general rate of inflation, and certainly outpaced the growth in our household income. When costs inflate at a higher rate than income, that’s a long-term path to financial hardship.


rent heat map
Slightly dated rent heat map of the Boston area – I was living in the yellow-ish area west of Harvard Square. Source: WBUR

The prospect of stabilizing our housing costs by buying a home was also fraught. We really didn’t want to have to dive into the fray of endless open houses, bidding wars, and exhausting our savings, especially when the hard-fought prize would be a condo no better – and possibly worse – than the apartment we were already renting in Belmont.

I won’t get into what I think are the causes of or solutions to the shortage of affordable housing in the Boston area (cough cough zoning reform sneeze wheeze build more housing). I am only pointing out that housing affordability by itself was the main reason why my wife and I left Boston.

Green Acres

One of my favorite pastimes, when I have the time to do it, is cycling. I love getting out on the road and winding down country roads lost in thought. Unfortunately, biking from Belmont would take me at least 45 minutes to get out of dense suburban development, and then another hour to get into anything resembling “rural.” That’s two hours of pedaling to get into the real cycling territory.

I contrast that with Holyoke, where it seems like I live in a city on nature’s doorstep. A great example of this is the Mount Tom State Reservation, just up the hill from our house. There is amazing hiking, beautiful vistas, and a real feeling of seclusion. And if you go more than 5 or 10 miles east or west of the Connecticut River valley, it quickly gets pastoral and hilly. The mix of urban amenities and nearby natural areas is deeply gratifying.

Picture of me with my friend Andrew and his buddy Nigel in a big abandoned rock quarry on Mt. Tom.


Finally, one of the more intangible things I love about Holyoke is something that I can only call potential. It is a city with amazing resources being underutilized. It has gobs of industrial space just begging to get turned into something – anything – productive. It has pocket parks and scenic overlooks that, sure, need to be spruced up and maintained, but are primed to be activated. And it has a core of citizens who have stuck with the city through the bad decades of arson and urban decline, and are committed to the city’s nascent resurgence.

But more than that is the potential Holyoke is unlocking in me. Frankly, the Boston area doesn’t need another civic-minded bicycle enthusiast. The Pioneer Valley, on the other hand, might have a place for a guy with a laptop, free GIS software, and no shortage of opinions. And a blog.

As I said, I have mixed feelings about leaving Boston – there is a wealth of culture, a critical mass of very smart people, and is the political and economic engine of the Bay State. As I spend more time in the Pioneer Valley, though, I recognize how clearly right my decision was. All of the economic incentives were there for me to vacate the Boston area, and my wife and I were so lucky to find a place waiting for us in Holyoke.

S’Thievin Stetson and the Mortgage Interest Deduction

10403247_818327637918_449473574942174590_nMy wife and I recently closed on our new home in Holyoke, and we couldn’t be happier. We had been wanting to purchase a home for a long time, for a variety of reasons:

  1. I am a firm believer in the notion of building equity rather than paying rent.
  2. We were tired of the annual rent increase haggling with our landlord.
  3. We couldn’t really personalize our living space, since it wasn’t ours.
  4. Owning a home makes me feel more invested in a community, which as a civically engaged kind of guy, is important to me.

And on and on. But the biggest reason to buy a home for many is strictly monetary – we can now deduct our mortgage interest from our federal income taxes. On top of that, we can deduct municipal property tax from our federal income taxes. All told, according to a tax calculator I used at bankrate.com, we’re going to end up saving over $1,200 per year on our federal taxes on average for the next 30 years.

Wait, what?

Introducting S’Thievin Stetson

robin hood
Source: A.V. Club

We in the Anglo-American tradition tend to venerate the figure of Robin Hood, who stole from the rich and gave to the poor. This is reflected in our income tax policy, which progressively taxes higher incomes more than lower incomes. Well, I want to introduce “S’Thievin Stetson”, Robin Hood’s alter ego. S’Thievin inspired the Mortgage Interest Deduction (MID), one of America’s most regressive, costly, and (unfortunately) sacrosanct tax policies.

The MID was codified into the beast that it is today in the 1986 tax reforms that eliminated many specific deductions and exemptions, in addition to lowering the overall tax rate. For whatever reason, the MID survived those reforms. Today, the deduction costs American taxpayers over $70 billion per year in lost tax revenue, with the majority of the benefit going to households making over $100,000 per year.

regressive tax policy
Source: Center on Budget and Policy Priorities

The argument in favor of the MID most commonly used is that home ownership is a fundamentally good thing that we as a society should be supporting. It encourages community cohesion, promotes investment in the built environment of the town, and is a tool for investing wealth into a stable market (er… forget about that period between 2008 – 2010).

Except that research has shown other countries, like Canada, have similar home ownership rates without the MID. Whoops!

The Political Third Rail

So why do we have it? And why is it so sacred?

I suspect it has to do with who benefits: a whole lot of upper-middle class households.

income bracket
Source: The Atlantic

Much of the current political debate has to do with the 99% versus the 1%. Sure, that seems cut and dry enough. But what about when it’s the 80% versus the 20%? And what does it mean if that 20% produces many of the elected leaders who ultimately make these policy decisions?

I suspect that the MID is going to continue being a “political third rail” (ie touch it and die). Brookings proposed an interesting solution that would seek to shift some of the benefit away from the very wealthy and toward the middle class, but I doubt anything will come of it in the current federal political atmosphere. That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try anyway.

Why You Should Care

Ultimately, this matters because when the wealthy pay less in taxes, the rest of us have to pay more. When a household making $200,000 decides to buy a home for $750,000, the renters making $40,000 have to pick up the slack in the federal balance sheet. Medicare, Medicaid, Social Security, roads and highways, education – all of these public goods fall increasingly on the backs of those less able to shoulder the burden.

Put differently, renters in Holyoke are subsidizing home owners in Longmeadow. That just doesn’t seem right. Lousy S’Thievin.




The Pioneer Valley’s “New Irish”

We’ve all put on our green shirt and socks, clasped the shamrock pin to our lapels, and downed our green beer. Today is the day that, as the saying goes, “We’re all Irish.” Now that I’m in the Pioneer Valley, and Holyoke specifically, St. Patrick’s Day holds special significance. Holyoke has one of the largest St. Patrick’s Day parades in New England, inflating the population ten-fold this coming Saturday. But even without the parade, St. Patrick’s Day should hold special meaning in the Paper City.

The Great Hunger

To be Irish must include understanding the potato famine of 1845-49. We all know about the blight that destroyed the potato crops on which the Irish depended, but what may be more surprising is the magnitude of death and suffering the Irish endured. Out of a population of around 8.5 million, 1 million people starved to death and another 2 million immigrated. Birth rates plummeted. By Irish independence 70 years later, the population of Ireland was only half of what it was in the 1840s.

Continue reading “The Pioneer Valley’s “New Irish””

Why Northampton Is Expensive And Holyoke Is Not

I was chatting with a coworker who grew up in Northampton about how the city has changed over the years. He was sort of shaking his head in shock and disappointment, saying, “It’s just gotten so expensive. I don’t even know who can afford to live here anymore.”

It’s true. My wife and I have been looking at buying a home in the Pioneer Valley, focusing on Northampton, Easthampton, and Holyoke. We found that for $300,000, you can get a mansion in Holyoke, a nice-ish 3 or 4 bedroom in Easthampton, and a 2-bedroom that needs updating in Northampton – if you’re lucky.

Same Price, Two Vastly Different Homes

Here are two examples I found: Continue reading “Why Northampton Is Expensive And Holyoke Is Not”

The Geography of Somewhere

The inevitability of moving to the Pioneer Valley was by no means a given. My wife and I knew that we wanted to leave the Boston area (for a variety of reasons, the cost of housing being first and foremost among them), but there were a lot of different places we could go.

My wife grew up in New Mexico, and I was born and raised in Kentucky. We have lived in New England and the Pacific Northwest, and so had experienced many different parts of the continental US. Each part of the country has something to offer: climate, or culture, or affordability, or agreeable politics. But in the end, a crucial factor for both of us is something lacking in a lot of the country: place.  Continue reading “The Geography of Somewhere”

Obligatory Bike-Related Post

If you know me, you know that I am a habitual bicycle user. In fact, bikes were what got me into urban planning to begin with. Back in 2003, I started working with a scrappy group of folks at the Hampshire College Yellow Bike Project. It was a community bike program that fixed up a fleet of bicycles and put them around campus. Anyone was free to pick one up, ride to class (if it worked), and leave it for the next person (hopefully). I’m the long-haired, overalls fellow on the right.

yellow bike

It really snow-balled from there. I ended up fabricating a frame and building my own bike at the Hampshire College Lemelson Center (which I guess is now called the Center for Design):


I went to grad school with the intention of eventually heading up a bicycle-related nonprofit. Once at the University of Oregon, I helped start the Bike Loan Program (now the UO Bike Program):

bike loan program
Pictured with Dave Villalobos (University of Oregon) and Briana Orr (Cascade Bicycle Club)

My interests zig-zagged in grad school, as they should, but I did end up becoming a manager at a bicycle nonprofit. Here I am during my time as Programs Director for the Massachusetts Bicycle Coalition (MassBike):


So it was only a matter of time until I started feeding my addiction (Or is it passion? Is there a difference?) and got involved in the bike scene in the Pioneer Valley. I went to my inaugural public meeting dealing with bikes on Monday night, the Holyoke Bicycle and Pedestrian Committee. I even grabbed a shot of public participation in action!

From Left to Right: Rep. Aaron Vega, Dillon Sussman (PVPC), Marcos Marrero (City of Holyoke), Sean Condon, Elbert something, Colby something, Liz Budd

The hot topics in bicycle planning in the Pioneer Valley seem to be:

  1. How do communities access the $12.5 million that MassDOT set aside for Complete Streets projects?
  2. Should there be a regional bike share network?
  3. Can Northampton even further cement its position as the #1 Massachusetts city for biking outside of Route 128?*

Meanwhile, the topics in Holyoke in particular are:

  1. The city has no money for planning or preliminary design of any bicycle or pedestrian facilities. As the sage of our times Sean “Puffy” Combs said, it’s all about the Benjamins.
  2. The Pioneer Valley Planning Commission has generously allocated a very small budget toward putting together a strategic bicycle implementation plan. But we need to contribute sweat equity in order for it to really pay off.
  3. Meanwhile, there are only three streets with dedicated bike lanes on them and a short section of path along the canals. We can do better.

To put things in perspective, let’s compare Holyoke and Northampton. Here is the map of the two cities with some annotation:

holyoke_nton bike map

As you can see, Northampton has this amazing off-road network that Holyoke lacks. Indeed, there is a really big mountain in the way of connecting to it.

Now let’s look at commuting patterns. Here are the two communities in 2009:

2009 commute
Source: 2009 American Community Survey 5-year estimates

You can see that Holyokers are much more likely to drive (either alone or in a carpool) and Northamptonites are more likely to bike or walk.

The difference in bike rate is even more pronounced in 2014:

2014 commute
Source: 2014 American Community Survey 5-year estimates

Of course, there are a lot of reasons people commute the way that they do, and whether or not there is a bike lane or a multiuse path may not make that big a difference by itself. For example, another major difference between the two cities is crime rate and, perhaps more importantly, perception of crime; conventional wisdom is that Northampton is a safe Bohemian “Cambridge in the country,” while Holyoke is a dark scary city with urban blight and gang violence. In that context, of course more people walk to work in Northampton than Holyoke.

However, infrastructure matters. In both communities, trends are (more or less) heading in a favorable direction for my line of work – more walking, biking, and using transit. But I want Holyoke to shift up into the big ring and really ratchet up the number of people using active transportation. The city has got to either connect up to that amazing off-road network just north of us, or build some of the best on-road facilities this side of Walden Pond. We can do it, and I’m looking forward to helping out.

*Northampton recently received a grant to put together a Bike/Ped/Complete Streets Equity Plan. I mean, come on already! We get it, you’re an active transportation advocate’s dream!