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Smallbany

Albany, in case you haven’t no ticed, is a small city. Not a small town, not the boonies, not a ghost town, not a massively shrunken once-huge city, not a big city.

A small city. This is in fact one of the things many of us like best about it. I’ve talked about this “best of both worlds” feeling before here, I think, and heard it from tons of others: Public transit and quick access to nature. Culture without sky-high prices. People you know on the street and people you don’t.

It is, unfortunately, something you’d never know from looking at the Albany 2030 vision statement.

I went to the third round of 2030 meetings. I brought my four year old, who is now under the impression that all public meetings include getting to vote with an electronic keypad and put colored stickers on maps. I’m going to feel bad when she’s disillusioned. But I digress.

There was little there to actively disagree with. Priority setting is a nice exercise. It’s clear that the consultants, Albany’s planners, and many of the people who came to the meetings share many of the same values as I do—they place a high value on supporting vibrant neighborhoods, not just downtown. They are concerned with improved non-car transportation, an accessible waterfront, a strong economy, green spaces, and addressing vacant property.

As I noted, in my last column, however, the vision drafters don’t share my aversion to passive, vague, wonkish, so-all-encompassing-it-means-nothing language, and I was disappointed to see how much that remained true in the final vision statement. Not only was it mealy-mouthed and passive, take out a word or two and it could apply anywhere.

Everywhere wants to be green right now. As everywhere should. It’s great to want to emulate the best of what other places are doing—tearing down highways, revitalizing waterfronts, improving multi-model public transit, introducing urban agriculture. In these ways we can and should be a follower, because there’s so much exciting stuff going on that would work well here and would help us preserve what’s good about Albany—as long as we keep the specifics of what’s good about Albany in front of us at all times as we work—our location, our context, our size, our attitude. The Pine Bush, the Hudson, Tivoli Preserve, the Normanskill Farm, and the view from Lincoln Park. Our specific mix of grand government institutions, universities, lively small businesses, and scrappy arts and DIY organizations.

But we can also ask in what ways can we be a leader? Here’s what I would love to see: How about we lead in specifically asking how these things work best in a small city context (and in a multi-small-city region context). We’re not going to have the density and numbers of a big city, and that will change the math in many of these arenas. Also, where we want to end up is different. We don’t want to be Manhattan (at least most of us), as small- carbon-footprint as it may be. Happily, we also don’t have to deal with the crushing levels of abandonment of places like Youngstown or Detroit; we have something pretty good to build from, so we could have a chance to be the place that others look to. What does it look like when a small city wants to balance continued affordability and accessiblity with economic and environmental sustainability?

Here are some of the kinds of questions that we might want to ask (and experiment with answers for): What sorts of densities hit the balance of our green and urban goals and our preservation of historic character and quality of life goals? How do you best encourage that kind of development? Does light rail make sense here or should we aim for a much improved but more flexible bus system instead? How do we enhance accessibility to surrounding natural areas in a sustainable way? Do we have the density for car-sharing, and would a common for-profit model like Zipcar work here, or would a more distributed system that formalizes actual sharing of personal cars, as with RelayRides in Cambridge, Mass., work better? How do we become one center in a multi-center greener region—and what do the other centers, and the towns in between, have to say about that? At this population density, how self-reliant could we become in terms of food? Energy?

Let the conversation continue, Wi-Fi keypad polling or no.

—Miriam Axel-Lute

www.mjoy.org

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