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Hartford's Actually Doing A Good Job Redesigning Itself

When I talk to people about Hartford's ongoing redesign, I often hear disbelief and dismissiveness. Not from residents who live in Hartford, especially young people invested in the fabric of the city, but from the ones on the periphery -- people in the city's inner-ring suburbs. 

They drive through Hartford to get to another suburb. Or maybe to the symphony occasionally, and back home. But listening to Mahler at the Bushnell doesn't mean they're engaging with the city.

You need to understand the city’s re-design, I tell them. Because great urban design is intentional. It’s about intentionally changing the way a city works. How people interact with it. How it nurtures commerce and culture and parks and nature.

“Why would anyone build a ballpark in north Hartford?” they ask. “Nobody goes to north Hartford.”

And I explain how that’s the point -- to draw people into and through the city’s neighborhoods. To see the city up close. New sidewalks with trees and lights connect people between the city center and the ballpark. Families fill the walkways on game days. The energy is palpable.

Putting the ballpark there is changing the way people use the city. The ballpark features local micro-breweries and restaurants and free movie nights. It runs job fairs to recruit from the neighborhood.

And possibilities and connections like these are happening all over the city.

Sometimes people roll their eyes about road construction slowing down their drive through the city.

I ask, “Did you see the new downtown promenade? It connects Bushnell Park to Main Street and the riverfront.” 

I explain the intention behind the city’s new green spaces and walkways is to attract people to walk around the city. Browse in the new university bookstore. Or stroll through the waterfront sculpture park. Sit on a bench under a tree. Be part of the city Hartford is becoming.  

The other thing I tell people is, anything can change. Especially a city. Intentional design has transformed a host of post-industrial cities: Lowell, Massachusetts; Cleveland; Pittsburgh. It can undo a legacy of damaging urban planning. Or misguided silver-bullet approaches to urban revitalization.

What’s happening in Hartford isn’t accidental. It’s purposeful and thoughtful and exciting. It's everything urban design should be.

Lisa Chase is a researcher and writer who studies urban design and development, and lives near Hartford. She runs Lucky Fish Communications.

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