Creating Sustainable Urban Centers is Focus of Panel

Creating sustainable urban centers in Utica and Syracuse was the topic of a panel discussion hosted by the Levitt Center on Oct. 27. 


Moderator Peter Cannavo, associate professor of government and director of the Levitt Center Sustainability Program, explained that, after World War II, a significant number of heavily-populated American cities withered away into ghost towns. This was due mostly to “the decline of the manufacturing industry, the suburban exodus investment, deindustrialization, and highly misguided urban renewal programs.” Utica and Syracuse were two such cities that experienced these setbacks. And though we often think of them in terms of their “derelict structures, polluted land, and polluted waterways,” Cannavo said that we often overlook that these two cities are nonetheless comprised of “stunning architecture, richly diverse populations, vibrant neighborhoods and strong local pride of place.”


Cassandra Harris-Lockwood K ’74 spoke first.  She is president of For the Good, an organization dedicated to establishing community gardens in the wider Utica area. Lockwood explained that For the Good started its quest in 2008 by searching for vacant lots around the city; the organization planned to transform these lots into places fit for growing crops. It wasn’t an easy job, however: “dig down six to eight inches in these lots,” Lockwood explained, “and you'll find car batteries, discarded objects from previous owners, and soil laid with arsenic, lead and cadmium.”


Lockwood and her team circumvented this issue by shipping in cow manure from nearby farms, which actually managed to grow “the most beautiful plants.” She went on to explain that the multiple community gardens, which together comprise half an acre of land around Utica, are “ideal for people who can't afford fresh food at the grocery stores.” For The Good also donates its fresh vegetables to local soup kitchens.


Panelist George Hobor, visiting assistant professor of sociology at Colgate University, explained that he had analyzed the different ways in which American industrial cities have “experienced exogenous shocks to their economic stability” over the past few decades. Both Syracuse and Utica are what he considers “devastated” cities; Akron, Ohio, and Grand Rapids, Michigan, are what he calls “stable” cities. Hobor also contrasted current employment rates in “old” industries, such as automobile and metals manufacturing, with the current employment rates in “new” industries, such as pharmaceuticals and alternative energy. He found that the smaller-sized cities still subsist primarily on the “old” industries; meanwhile, medium-sized cities like Syracuse have indeed experienced rises in employment even in the “new” industries.


The next speaker, Paula Horrigan, associate professor of landscape architecture at Cornell University explained that Utica has declined over the years due to “disinvestment, white flight, and the giving away of infrastructure to land around the city at the expense of the city itself.”  Horrigan is part of “Rust to Green NYS,” a state-funded organization dedicated to “mobilizing governers and legislative leaders, as well as local constituencies, behind an asset-oriented agenda for reinvigorating the market in the nation's older industrial cities.”


Horrigan said that “Rust to Green” aims to increase “urban resilience” by carefully monitoring and cultivating the complex dynamics between the local environment, the governing bodies of city and state, the “metabolic flows” of the economy -- like supply and demand-- and the social relationships between different cultures. The last item is of crucial importance: one in three Utica citizens are refugees, mostly from countries such as Bosnia, Burma, Somalia, Vietnam and Laos.


Panelist Brian Thomas, acting commissioner of Urban and Economic Development for the city of Utica, noted that “… Utica has made enormous strides toward creating a sustainable future. I think the most significant effort in the past six decades has been the development of a comprehensive plan for the city.” This comprehensive plan was a constitution of sorts; it laid out the goals and implementation strategies of the sustainability movement. It was also the brainchild of a huge committee of “residents, members of the refugee population, business owners, non-for-profit organizations, government officials and members of the school district.” The plan also included a “strong public outreach program” in order to motivate the citizens of Utica to participate in the movement.

Andy Maxwell, director of planning and sustainability for the city of Syracuse, concluded the panel. He explained that a similar “comprehensive plan” for Syracuse had been adopted in 2005, to great success. “But I want to add more meaningful components to that plan. More detail and more teeth,” he said. It’s clear that he’s off to a good start, however: “between now and the year 2018 we will dedicate $70 million to building up the city's green infrastructure,” Maxwell explained. “Onondaga County is committed to at least 50 green infrastructure projects in 2011. But this year I think we'll make it 51.”

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