By AARON SAWATSKY-KINGSLEY
---- — I knew from what I’d heard about the first two comprehensive plan meetings that I should expect some really good discussion when I showed up at the Rieth Center for the People, Neighborhoods and Housing meeting last month. The building was already full when I arrived. There were a lot of people who I knew, but probably just as many that I didn’t know. These were all people who are very interested in how we shape our city in the near-term and the long-term.
As the discussion began — centering on topics specific to Goshen and concerned with humane housing, neighborhood vitality and the ways different groups of people relate to each other — fairly standard ideas floated out: We need more neighborhood organizing, better code enforcement, more opportunity to talk to each other. Nothing terribly unusual about these insights, true as they may be.
But those ideas were just the ice breaker. As though all of us gathered were testing to see what points of commonality we had on these topics. And pretty quickly it became clear that, though we represented a certain cross-section of Goshen (by no means a complete cross section), we all agreed that we want more than just the usual proposals for how to address these topics.
As we warmed to our task, and the juices got flowing, and we felt more and more comfortable with each other, the conversation moved from merely good to intriguing. We were talking about why rental housing has to feel like a second-class option. We were talking about what it would take to revitalize some of the large, 19th century houses in the off-downtown neighborhoods. We were talking about corner groceries on our blocks, to help us get to know each other. We were talking about the way that gardens and streetscaping can help us get over walls of language and culture.
At one point during the hour and a half meeting, I stood still for a moment and listened. People were talking in every part of the building. There was excitement, and thoughtfulness, and surprise in the voices.
All these ideas got written down. It was an impressive list ranging from the very concrete (more bike paths) to the nearly fantastical (more and smaller schools). There is something magical in the way that so many people got together to generate ideas and try to pull them into a cohesive blueprint. Of course that last part — the cohesive blueprint — is an enormous job, which our very capable planning department is heading up.
Over the past week and a half since the meeting I’ve been trying to make my own sense about what I saw and heard. Two themes are emerging for me, and from what I’ve gleaned about the first two comprehensive plan meetings, these themes may be a consistent thread.
One theme is human scale. This is the idea that we want the way in which we live in Goshen to be self-contained, manageable and generous. We want our homes, our neighborhoods, our work — our lives — to reflect appropriate agency and pride, ability and contentment, personal time and energy. We want to build a city that encourages us to have enough space for ourselves, and our neighbors — what Mayor Kauffman has called “quality of life.”
The other theme is diversity. This goes hand in hand with the theme of human scale. Our vibrant downtown is a living example of this: geographically it is self-contained and manageable — nothing overwhelming about it — and there are many words to describe what happens there on First Fridays (for example), but I would put “generous” at the top of the list. And diversity — to me — is the engine that drives this.
We have a diversity of businesses, of styles, of interests, that all play off of each other, and we have a diversity of dedicated clientele who are well-served by these businesses; and we have the diversity of integrated residential and commercial neighborhoods. As a forester, this makes lots of sense to me: diversity is the cornerstone of all healthy ecosystems. This extends from each smaller neighborhood to the larger entirety of Goshen.
I’m no great student of sociology or the history of urban planning, but I’m guessing that these two themes — human scale and diversity — are reaction to and push-back against a century long urban trend of bigger-faster-more-is-better and the notion that physically separating essential facets of our lives is unavoidable. Of course, we in Goshen aren’t the only community naming these ideas. And certainly we have been talking about and working on these ideas for some time already.
I think the work we are defining for ourselves is to further protect and provide for human scale and diversity in Goshen. No easy task, but we’re up to it.
Aaron Sawatsky-Kingsley is Goshen’s urban forester. He can be reached at email@example.com or at 537-0986.