Tuesday, March 13, 2007

The Face of Connecticut

I learned a couple of new things on Friday afternoon when I drove to Storrs, to give a talk at the Connecticut Conference on Natural Resources.

First, the University of Connecticut really is in the middle of nowhere. After you reach Hartford you drive east for miles – I didn’t measure, but it seemed like 15 or 20 – and after you get off the interstate you drive south for another seven or so miles. Considering the school’s big agriculture and forestry departments, it’s hard to argue with its location; downtown Hartford would hardly be an appropriate spot for the dairy barn you pass, for example, on your way to the center of the campus. But I did get the feeling, somewhere around the Manchester exit of I 84, that you can’t get there from here.

Second, UConn is vast. That hadn’t occurred to me only because I didn’t realize that it has 18,000 students. But it’s a relatively pleasant place, with big pastures and new, well-kept buildings, and in that part of the state it seems as if you’re up high, on a plateau which, if only there weren’t so many trees, would give you a view straight south to Long Island Sound. I’d imagine, though, that when you're walking from one part of the campus to another in January and February, it gets a bit chilly.

I also saw during my drive (and not for the first time) that Connecticut isn’t very nice to look at, at least when you see it from the road. The sprawl-type development that you see everywhere as you drive along the interstates is awful, and the interstates themselves are major intrusions. I haven’t spent much time in Waterbury, for example, but it’s situated in a very pleasant valley that seems to me significantly marred by the giant concrete raised highways.

When I got to the conference I chatted briefly with Sandy Breslin, of Audubon Connecticut, who mentioned the big Face of Connecticut program that her organization and many others are pushing in the state Legislature. It was announced last month while I was away, and so I hadn’t paid much attention to it, but I looked it up over the weekend (here and here). The proposal basically brings together environmentalists and preservationists to try protect more land, and to protect and reuse Connecticut’s historic downtown areas. The state, apparently, has protected only an average of 1,100 acres a year in recent years, a pitiful figure. And as new subdivisions and strip malls and outlet centers are being built, downtowns that really aren’t so bad (Bridgeport, for one) are going begging for activity. The Face of Connecticut coalition wants the state to spend a billion dollars over the next 10 years to protect more land and encourage better land use decisions.

I say good luck. It’s unfortunate that efforts like this come together after the horse has left the barn. To my eye, if the Face of Connecticut proposal works, it will succeed in preventing Connecticut from looking worse than it is, perhaps. That’s an effort worth making, particularly if (unlike me) you live in Connecticut and have to confront its ugliness every day. But all it takes is an afternoon’s drive to realize that while the Face of Connecticut proposal might be a good one, the actual face of Connecticut might be beyond repair.

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Blogger Tamara said...

The whole issue of redevelopment is one that is matters a lot to me. Both my husband and I have purchased commercial and multi-family properties that were run down. We renovated them, thereby transforming eyesores into attractive buildings that are an asset to their neighborhoods.

Of course, this only works if the buildings are structurally sound and in good communities to begin with. There is no question, though, that thoughtful redevelopment can help some places from becoming "bad," and can help others recapture their former glory.

I think this coalition is a good start, but if developers, big and small (like us) don't get behind this effort, I fear it may not go far.

2:05 PM  

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