The Choice to Homeschool

Taylor contemplates life without electricity at Sturbridge Village

Taylor contemplates life without electricity at Sturbridge Village

“Mom, if I can pass 3rd grade MCAS at the end of 2nd grade, can I take 3rd grade off?”

Makenzie posed this question to  me the first week of school last year. Bruce and I told her that she had to do something- she couldn’t just sit around and do nothing. She replied, “I will homeschool myself”. Further exploration of this topic uncovered that Makenzie wanted a year of self directed exploration and learning. She presented a curriculum to us which included science, literature, Spanish, art and swimming. She further explained that she could learn math and reading through these subjects.

Just to be clear- this Happy Springfield Parent, and her kids, were very happy with our public school choice. No event happened, teachers have been top notch, friends plentiful. Makenzie simply wanted to explore her education on her own. We told her that she had to complete a community service activity. She chose to blog about animals that need adopting at the Dakin. Taylor quickly picked up on the conversation and declared her own interest in learning at home. The two kids soon named their new school “Smarty Pants Academy”.

We are in week 3 of Smarty Pants Academy. We are having a really fun time and I am feeling lucky to have the professional latitude to support their learning at home. I am impressed by my kids- they are taking this seriously and each day they set goals for themselves that they work to accomplish. Even cooler is that Springfield and our region provide the perfect classroom for such a year of learning. In 2.5 weeks, they have:

  • Visited NYC and the Natural History Museum, set of Today Show and learned about subways (Taylor built one under her bed when we returned home),
  • Studied slugs and worms and decay in Forest Park,
  • Absorbed lots of information at 3 of the Springfield Museums,
  • Read about birds, cupcakes, sewing, lizards and gardening at the Forest Park Library,
  • Made a grocery list and shopped on a budget (lots of reading, math and teamwork!),
  • Designed and assembled new Barbie clothes,
  • Researched the stinkhorn mushroom in our yard.

This post is not meant to create a homeschool movement (although it is growing at a rapid pace nationally). I simply wanted to be clear that our decision to homeschool was not seated in any dissatisfaction with the Springfield Public Schools. More importantly, I want to emphasize that Springfield is an amazing city to homeschool from if you are considering such a move. Options make a city great!

 

Springfield Zoning- “I’m Sexy and I Know It!”

Watershed moment- the private developers who have been opposed to the new Springfield Zoning Ordinance appeared at the Planning Board hearing on May 1st and spoke in SUPPORT of the new ordinance. Planning Board member Gloria Defilipo was so excited, she whipped out her camera and took a picture of the two men standing at the podium. I applaud them for the public display of support.

It has been almost seven years since the process began to replace the current zoning ordinance with an entirely new one. This is no small undertaking. Replacing an entire set of regulations is cumbersome, tedious and at times, confusing. It is an endurance race that only planners and lawyers could enjoy. Adopting a new zoning ordinance requires robust debate so the end product is implementable. Springfield, in partnership with countless voices at the table, has done just that. The new zoning ordinance is now rounding the last turn on the track, headed to City Council at the finish line with no opposition (except maybe their own).

I headed home after the vote on Wednesday, proud of my government and the residents who have stuck by this process. I smiled, realizing I am even more proud of our new zoning ordinance- a sexy little minx of regulatory fun.

One of my planning school professors once told me, “there is a zen to zoning”. A well written zoning ordinance should read like a tourism guide. Zoning should be a page turner that has the reader imagining what is possible- not cringing at what is impossible. The new Springfield zoning ordinance does just that.

First, the new zoning allows a huge amount of new flexibility for home based businesses. The modern economy of entrepreneurs and innovators requires that the home support a family’s productive capacity. Small business is the documented leader in our local economy and the Springfield zoning ordinance will now recognize that and cheer it on. A nationally innovative part of this is the “Market Garden Ordinance” that is a part of the new agricultural regulations. Under the (still) current ordinance, homeowners are prohibited from selling produce from their own gardens to neighbors and friends. Oddly, this is common nationally! Springfield is now among a handful of metros that endorse the productive capacity of one’s own backyard. Small scale community supported agriculture or “market gardens” will now be allowed on any property under 5 acres in Springfield. Brilliant!

Next, like many industrial cities, Springfield has turn of the century mills that are underutilized. As a way to maximize their potential, the new ordinance allows industrial live/work space. This flexibility will allow for the creative economy to co-exist with the residential community in our former mills. Excellent!

In addition to new uses and allowances, the zoning ordinance is laced with language that describes the kind of well planned and aesthetically pleasing community I want to live in. “The soul of the City” is conveyed through statements of intent and descriptive definitions. A reader of the new ordinance will encounter “Residential Renewable Energy Facilities”, “community gardens”, “farmer’s market”, and “historic resource properties” to name a few. And then there’s the “sexual encounter center”…huh? See- it’s even a bodice ripper at times like  “50 Shades of City Planning”!

This is a huge leap forward for Springfield. It’s not perfect. But it does provide Springfield with the tools to manage land use in a modern economy. I have every confidence that our esteemed elected officials will see their way to the yes vote.

My personal thanks to everyone who stayed in this race and never gave up on our awesome city.

 

 

I Spring for Springfield!

It’s been a long time. Eek!! Winter is a long slog for me (as it is for many). My creative energy hibernates it seems. But Spring is here- or is trying to be here- and I am thawing out.

Last weekend I had a great time offering face painting for free to kids at the Eastfield Mall. I was promoting BYOFamily.com and I got to meet lots of parents. I left the day energized because every single parent- from Connecticut to Longmeadow to Springfield to Wilbraham all said the same thing- we think Springfield is great. Each parent conveyed places they take their kids, where their kids go to school, playgrounds they love. The conversation was regional. I enjoyed hearing Springfield and Holyoke woven into a list of places where parents play with their kids regularly. There was no exception for the cities. They were just part of the “scene”.

In contrast to this experience, in my consulting role I’ve recently met with leaders from various regional colleges. There is a constant discussion about how to keep our region’s college graduates in the region after they graduate. I asked about the types of “experiential learning” the students were doing while they are here. While it is not 100%, I would say a majority of opportunities for students involve working in our human service sector. This is logical. But in terms of retaining graduates, is it helpful?

Let me explain. “Judy” goes to volunteer at a human service agency. She is exposed to one side of a very urban experience. Judy is motivated to help. She loves making a difference. She bonds with the staff and the kids. Judy goes back to her campus. Her friends ask about her experience in Springfield. She goes on about how she loves making a difference. “What is Springfield like?” she is asked. Well, she says, I like volunteering there but I would never live there. There’s nothing to do and it is pretty poor and run down. I wouldn’t send my kids to school there if and when I have them. I guess I would live there if I was going to be a social worker. Unfortunately, Judy is speaking with her friends who are business majors. Her friends ask, “Can you give us a tour? Can we go there for dinner?”. No she replies, it is unsafe at night.

These students graduate and this perception of our cities goes with them.  I was a UMass student twice in my college career (I tried my freshman year and dropped out. Ironically UMass at the time was scarier to me than any urban experience I have every had). I never went to Springfield once during that time because we were told it was unsafe. We were told there is nothing to see. That was in the 90′s. How many thousands of people have graduated with the same perception?

I am not saying that students shouldn’t volunteer in the non-profit sector. Their service to these organizations is incredibly helpful and for many students is life changing. I am saying we need to diversify the experiences we offer.

It was pointed out to me that students volunteer based on where faculty have formed relationships. Typically the faculty that are involved in cities are from the social service, public health or education fields. But what about the engineering faculty, the computer science faculty or business school faculty. Biology, chemistry, art, environmental sustainability programs. Do we know them? In some cases yes, but the numbers are proportionately much smaller. I would hypothesize that these faculty are more likely to create experiences on campus that are specific to faculty research. Research that doesn’t require interaction with people.

As an alternative option, students can be directly involved in economic development, innovation, and social entrepreneurism. Students may not be from a city, but they might bring a fresh perspective on how to solve ongoing problems. There may be a solution that is science, engineering or business based that both students and community find exciting. Add health and human service majors to the mix and the problem solving grows in its dimension. These experiential projects might inspire more students to stay and be business owners, IT employees or social venture entrepreneurs. An understanding of economic development is important as each of us grows into our citizenship as adults. This is true for both health and human service as well as STEM and business majors.

If anyone has heard of where this might be happening locally, let me know! I would love to learn more about it. Otherwise, I urge municipal leaders and academia to join forces in a thoughtful experience for students that leaves them inspired, familiar and proud of the Pioneer Valley’s most urban centers.

Let’s Begin the Year at the Center

Two important city planning moments happened to me last week. The first was a major heartbreak. The draft Springfield Zoning Ordinance was ONCE AGAIN not passed by the Springfield City Council. The second one was an epiphany of sorts. I was asked by someone why some neighborhoods in Springfield consist of only single family homes and strip malls- and really little more. Because we do not have strong neighborhood commercial centers- I replied.

Let’s tackle the first issue. If we are going to aspire to be as great as the places we choose to vacation in, the places we admire, then we must have a a modern zoning ordinance to guide the momentum of that growth. Springfield has no growth- you say? Funny, I’ve seen multi million dollar facilities proposed and underway in the past few months.

Zoning, and what it can do for a community’s character, can be an abstract concept to some. However, in communities where land use planning is discussed on a community-wide basis- zoning is less abstract. In Massachusetts (and in states all over the country) a comprehensive plan for development is created by the community and is reflected in the zoning map and in the zoning regulations.

For example, someone says, I think there should be a stronger and denser neighborhood commercial district in 16 Acres at the intersection of Parker Street and Wilbraham Road. This would be a walkable district with much of the same mix the intersection has now- but it would feel more like a neighborhood and less like a gas station show place with a CVS that nobody can find the entrance to. It might be further imagined that this district would have some housing over the shops and some stand alone housing units. Neighborhood commercial districts thrive on the density around them because people can walk out their door and stroll the district. Maybe this is an extension of Western New England…who knows.

Intersection at Wilbraham Road and Parker Street is heavy on parking and not pedestrian friendly.

Once a vision for this is adopted, the zoning map and regulations that would make it possible are put in place. Transit links are considered, park links, bike trails, access to schools and community centers, etc. Makes sense right?

What is that- you want to know if Springfield has a comprehensive plan for development? One that by State Law is adopted by and guided by the Planning Board? One that is updated every five years to make adjustments for new conditions? One that City Council can refer to when making its land use decisions for things like power plants or restaurants that sit on kettle lakes?

No- Springfield has no such thing. Rebuild Springfield is not a comprehensive plan. Elements of it are comprehensive plan ‘esque. But it is not a comprehensive plan. It does recommend that the draft Zoning Ordinance be passed- but the outcry for that from their board was absent when it mattered.

So what do we have instead? We have a zoning ordinance and a zoning map that are the same age as me (41). Does anyone think that 1971 development was a good thing? I look at that era of development and gag. Parking lots and concrete.

You might wonder why the new zoning ordinance was proposed instead of a new comprehensive plan. Good question. It was because the mechanics of the current ordinance are so out of date and so loose, it is like every window in the house being open in the dead of winter. We (I was on staff at the time) thought that if we could stabilize the legal side, then we could do a comprehensive plan and fine tune a really solid zoning framework- make it better, reflecting the vision of the community.

To my epiphany, we need neighborhood commercial districts. They anchor a sense of community- something Springfield is losing. Zoning, which seems so abstract, is important. The passage of the new ordinance has been hijacked for 6 years by the same private interests that have been gutting the remnants of our neighborhood commercial districts for years. Neighborhoods they do not live in. Neighborhoods they do not want to live in. Residents who are fighting for their own quality of life spoke in favor of the ordinance, several times. Yet, it does not pass.

I know that without being involved in a Comprehensive Plan process, being involved in a zoning overhaul process seems odd. The new zoning seems out of context. But it would be good for all of us living in Springfield if we try to understand this process, let your City Councilors (especially Bud and Tim) know how important this is for our City. If you have questions about it- ask me (I am Chair of the Planning Board).

We have a few neighborhood commercial districts in Springfield that remain intact but need some rebuilding. These are: South End, North End, and Indian Orchard. There are many more that need to be re-constructed such as the X at Forest Park, Sumner and Harkness in East Forest Park, St. James in East Springfield, State Street in Mason Square…there are more. Many are former trolly stops. Here are some links to good commercial districts that have zoning as their underpinnings.

St. Louis

St. Louis

Portland, OR

60th_stark_420x315_05

When I Grow Up I Want To Be…

Developing a vision for a community is a lot like dreaming about what we want to be when we grow up. We look to role models, we research what it takes to get to  a desired career and then we work at it- for years. Along the way, we tweak our path based on what we learn or what conditions change in our lives. That’s ok. But there is generally a goal- a desired outcome that fulfills a dream. Our identities are formed.

The path is long, painful at times, filled with arguments with parents and others who think you should do something else. But you push ahead because you are determined to reach your goals. There is no easy way out in this scenario. Some get very lucky and win the lottery- very few cross the finish line with this experience. Others try quick fixes and end up in jail. Then there are those that just coast, never really reaching any desired point because the work seems too hard.

Bringing back a city that has had a declining economy for decades is a very similar experience. However, it is harder because the vision is a collective vision. The leadership has to be committed to push forward collectively, accepting small victories at times, knowing that ultimately each small step builds momentum towards a bigger one.

About a year ago I began a list of 365 things I love about Springfield. I made some progress on this and I could continue the list. But I reflected today on why it is important to have such a list. In my vision for Springfield, each of the places I highlighted are things that I would look for in any city I live in. We need parks and food and ethnic treats. We need people who think outside the box and expose us to arts and technology.

One of the first things I learned as a planner was that cities steal ideas from other cities. Why not? If it works for one, why not emulate a cool idea with your own local twist? We do this in our society on a daily basis in many aspects of our lives.

Which cities does Springfield emulate? What have you seen in other places that you wish were here? If we dig in and fight for a new identity, what is it? Does anyone emulate us? Don’t we want them to?

I was recently at a meeting concerning our public libraries. Great questions were being asked and ideas were floating- but the vision for the libraries was isolated without connection to a larger context of the City’s broader identity. We know what we don’t want to be. I hear it at every meeting- we don’t want to be poor, uneducated or violent. ok- agreed.

But what do we WANT to be? Have we gotten so bogged down in fighting against who we are that we stopped dreaming about what we can be? Our neighborhood commercial districts are dying- shouldn’t we talk about this? Our absentee landlord problem is crowding out a conversation about what good mixed use housing looks like. Our neighborhoods don’t effectively organize anymore- and they need to.

So I will change gears over the next few months and highlight ideas that have taken hold in other cities. Ideas that have traction and are part of a larger collective vision for a city- part of its identity. If anyone has any ideas- let me know! I am happy to showcase any ideas. But I challenge you to think about an idea in a larger context. What is the bigger picture- the bigger impact? A vision cannot be an “if” statement. It has to be an “if/then” statement.

Detroit’s entire community is working hard on its vision for a gardening based economy- one facet of their long range planning.

Let’s go people! Why would someone vacation here and what would they “have to see or do” before they leave? Maybe they tour our amazing collection of gardens and attend master garden classes held by published local gardeners. Perhaps they attend a wellness retreat located on one of our kettle lakes and cruise art galleries and shops in Indian Orchard? Do they bike from Northampton to Springfield and stay over in our collection of sweet New England bed and breakfasts? Do they stroll up and down Main Street- any part of Main Street- to find a restaurant? Do they take pedi cabs? Do they come to downtown just to be in Springfield without having a destination in mind because there is so much arts and culture? I could go on…

Can you?