Opinion: We need to welcome residents to co-create CT cities

A view of Stamford, Connecticut city skyline.

A view of Stamford, Connecticut city skyline.

Hearst Connecticut Media

I have spent several hundred hours watching Planning and Zoning Committee Meetings unravel throughout the state of Connecticut — for school, for work, as part of my civic duty — enough so that I can recite a general script of the process, no matter the locality.

“How come I am only finding out about this now?”

“This new development will degrade the character of our neighborhood.”

“This is not safe for the children — think about the traffic!”

Some may see NIMBYs (Not in My Backyard — a colloquialism signifying one’s opposition to development considered undesirable in one’s neighborhood), others may see concerned residents, but any urbanist can easily diagnose this phenomenon as the result of a disconnect between community and development. Community and development are not mutually exclusive. Cities with the highest rates of sustainability, citizen wellness and comprehensive, connective development work with citizens directly as co-producers of their communities. I can talk to you about the United Nation’s localized knowledge systems goals, or the 1,200 cities that participate in Local Agenda 21, but we don’t have to reach that far. Just this past year, the Hartford 2035 Plan was released as a culmination of direct community outreach efforts that prioritize inclusivity, engagement and sustainability.

“Knowledge brokerage” — the act of uniting people together to think of localized, innovative solutions for their communities — has been reduced to defensive tactics such as petition-signing and voicing grievances. People who oppose new development are not inherently “NIMBY” — rather, they feel a loss of control and are most likely not informed about complete streets, “eyes on the street” density, the benefits of mixed-use and mixed income development. How can they when there is no community-based urban development education or outreach? On the other hand, Stamford has not yet implemented a localized knowledge-brokerage system for residents to get the chance to learn and be involved as active co-creators of their city.

As it stands, real-estate development is the major asset for overall socioeconomic improvement in Stamford. As an urbanist, I can tell you that this mode of improvement is long overdue for change. Modern cities throughout the globe now rely on adaptive governance, local-regional-state coordination and narrow localized data provided by end users to improve socioeconomic security and sustainability. In simpler terms — community outreach will provide more innovative, resilient and effective solutions than any single developer can promise you.

A 2019 opinion essay about gentrification in Stamford stated that, “The belief that development in Stamford will lead to gentrification is based on a more general belief that development leads to gentrification, rather than on what is really happening in Stamford.”

However, this is a bit of a one-dimensional take on what gentrification is. Focusing solely on real-estate as a solution separates space from its social dimension and its role as a tool of interaction and exchange. People may not be physically displaced (though some are), but they are displaced from their role as active co-creators. Architecture and urbanism is more than efficient development — it is a platform for creating multiple routes, intersections, and interactions in the very literal sense of infrastructure but also place-making and community-building.

For smart urban development to function holistically, the constituents of the city — rather than the market and so-called experts — have to drive that development. City planners tend to be top-down and passive in the face of whatever entity is willing to locate in a city because it promises income. Of course, for a city to thrive capital is needed. However, short-termism is neither sustainable nor adaptive. Localized knowledge, innovation and proactive citizen participation will instead prove long-term success in deciding how to shape our cities. From then on we can attract and developing the types of entities that accord with that vision.

The modern city is no longer a “growth machine,” but as a laboratory for citizen-led innovation. The first step is to initiate that conversation, and it is evident that we are ready for it.

Stamford resident Michelle Skowronek is an MPA student at the University of Connecticut. She studies biomimetic, circular city and new urbanist principles as a basis for her approach to community-based leadership. She is part of UConn’s STEAM Tree Initiative, a localized-knowledge installation that is currently in development.