Guest Column: The elements necessary for downtown and vital Rockford

Guest Column: The elements necessary for downtown and vital Rockford

By David A. Sidney

Rockford continues to build on its track record of creating bold visions for the city, particularly for its downtown. Each plan from the beginning was doomed to fail. They lack the necessary elements to creating a real city, not one that looks pretty but one that actually works. Cities do not develop overnight, nor are they based on false premises and misguided planning. Portland, Chicago, Chattanooga, Bethesda are products of a long-term, often 20 years in the making, of planning. Each city is a success story because they started with defining their assets and values.

A community that fails to recognize its assets and values is doomed to fail and see little, if any, progress and development. We do have organizations within the community that do recognize their assets—Rockford Park District and the Museum system to name a few. However, these are pieces to the overall puzzle that has no real defined image. Therefore, City of Rockford needs to be the incubator to providing the vision for the city, by engaging its citizens in the planning process and cultivating and building on our assets. The necessary elements for a downtown and vital Rockford are split into four categories: 1) Development that responds to the human scale; 2) Land-use policies that drive development; 3) Multiple-use transportation networks; 4) Zoning laws that follow the Smart Code Transact and Traditional Neighborhood Design.

Development that responds to the human scale requires precise understanding of what makes an urban environment work. Communities that do not understand the urban context generally adopt hybrid versions: mixed-used development that still segregates commercial from residential and requires the use of the automobile or four-lane boulevard roads that have trees but are designed for automobiles and fail to slow people down, i.e., the new Charles Street. Instead, the urban network is composed of buildings that encourage retail space on the ground levels and support residential and office space above these shops. The urban network encourages both small business and chain stores to thrive and exist cohesively and is not a survival-of-the-fittest mentality. The urban network places more emphasis on the pedestrian by creating large sidewalks and narrower streets to ascertain a safe feeling to traverse. It places more emphasis on the use of mass transportation rather than self-centered automobile usage. It encourages large projects such as convention centers, civic buildings and stadiums to blend in with the urban environment as well as providing elements such as vistas and outdoor rooms.

So how do we achieve our goals, objectives and the land-use policies identified? It begins by examining our law codes that prohibit such developments. Current zoning laws allow Walgreens to build suburban models in an urban environment with their ridiculous parking requirements designed for peak hours during the Christmas shopping season.

New Urbanism architects, planners as well as academia, have responded by providing the Traditional Neighborhood Design and Smart Code. These codes allow buildings to come back closer to the streets to create the urban streetscape. They allow garages to be put in their right places, at the rear of homes. These codes allow roads to return back to being pedestrian and mass transportation friendly and not designed for high-capacity routes for the automobile. To achieve a unique urban environment, we have to be willing to accept our past failures, misguided visions, and disconnected zoning laws.

David A. Sidney is an Urban & Regional Planning Undergraduate at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

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