Thoughts on Amherst

While a student at the University of Massachusetts Amherst I lived in that town for two years in off-campus housing. I had a great landlord and lived in a great complex. The only real drawback was the deficient public transportation provided by the Pioneer Valley Transportation Authority. With most of the options for buying groceries concentrated in four seperate shopping centers separated from each other by wide, high speed, at-grade roads, Amherst was not a great place to live without a car.

And therein lies many of the town’s problems.

Judging by lifelong resident Larry Kelley’s excellent blog, Only in the Republic of Amherst, there are three main problems that have persistantly plagued the town, all of which are linked to driving: 1) drunk driving (obviously), usually by students from one of the three institutions of higher learning in town, mostly UMass; 2) a lack of housing; and 3) insufficient tax revenues to pay for civic services.

I think there’s a solution which could easily take care of all three problems, as well as appeal to the residents’ progressive social mores without increasing taxes: the Traditional City.

As expounded by Nathan Lewis at newworldeconomics.com, the Traditional City is the format that predominated the urban environment from the time cities were first constructed about 4000 BC until approximately the Industrial Revolution in AD 1750. It consists of two main features: Really Narrow Streets up to 20 feet wide and buildings that fill the entire lot — no setbacks — and are right up against the street — no sidewalks. It’s such an efficient use of land that densities can approach as much as 100,000 people in a square mile without any crowding or any buildings over six stories tall. There is also no parking in the Traditional City, since it is from a time before cars. The only open spaces are squares or parks, neither of which takes up nearly as much land as parking does.

Amherst has a population, according to the last census, of 37,819 and an area of 27.8 square miles, for a density of 1,365.3 people per sq mi. In the more traditional parts of Paris, such as the 3rd Arrondissement, reaches 76,000 people per square mile. At that density, all the full-time residents of Amherst would fit in half a square mile.

Everyone could live within a five minute walk of their work, except for some farmers. There would be a massive reduction of automobile traffic. If the part-time residents — the students, who, for argument’s sake we’ll assume are equal in population to the town — are included than at the same density the area double to just 1 square mile. That’s roughly the area bound by North East Street, Strong Street, College Street, North Pleasant Street and East Pleasant Street. With most of the buildings next to each other and very little space used for streets, it would take 20 minutes to walk all the way across and most people would never be more than ten minutes from their destination. This would substantially reduce both the need and utility for cars.

With the local and intercity bus service Amherst already has, there would be even less need for cars than in other communities, substantially reducing pollution. Higher density cities also consume fewer resources and are thus more sustainable. The increase in the number of people using public transportation would make that service less dependent upon subsidies from MassDoT.

Now, obviously, with fewer cars on the road there would be less drunk driving. After all, if you can walk to the bar or party and then walk home again, why bother driving? The more efficient land use would allow more housing built at a lower cost — much of the construction cost of urban housing these days is due to parking minimums, and so the price of purchases and rentals would be less. Plus, without the cost of a car, people would have more money anyways. And finally, the reduced amount of infrastructure would cost the town less to maintain, while the more concentrated population would mean easier access to town sevices and be less area for police and firefighters to have to cover.

The Traditional City would not solve all of Amherst’s problems — student noise and rowdiness would continue to be an issue and years of proximate living already haven’t led students and residents to stop thinking of each other as nuissances and the anti-fun police, respectively, although perhaps, with all the potential of Traditional Cities, some better soundproofing could be devised.

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