On Connectivity: How Did We Get Here?

By Andrew Obernesser, Land Use Planner, Environmental Design & Research (EDR) Syracuse

West of the canal remnant, Erie Boulevard contains eight travel lanes, plus a raised median that is the equivalent of a ninth lane width, with no crosswalks.  The adjacent “sidewalk” along Erie Boulevard is a not a sidewalk, but a curb.  Across the boulevard, a sidewalk covers less than half of the road frontage, interrupted by four curb cuts servicing two businesses.  To the north, along Towpath Road, there are no sidewalks, no bike lanes, and nothing to even inform the passing motorist of the significance of the site.  And to the south, commercial development turns its back to history and nature.  

West of the canal remnant, Erie Boulevard contains eight travel lanes, plus a raised median that is the equivalent of a ninth lane width, with no crosswalks.  The adjacent “sidewalk” along Erie Boulevard is a not a sidewalk, but a curb.  Across the boulevard, a sidewalk covers less than half of the road frontage, interrupted by four curb cuts servicing two businesses.  To the north, along Towpath Road, there are no sidewalks, no bike lanes, and nothing to even inform the passing motorist of the significance of the site.  And to the south, commercial development turns its back to history and nature.  

Andrew Obernesser

Andrew Obernesser

Connectivity is a funny thing. 

Many people consider ours to be an era of instant and constant connection with the outside world.  With nothing more than a few keystrokes, we can book a three-hour flight to Fort Lauderdale, stream a Brazilian soccer game, check the headlines in London, and track a package from Shanghai.  Not all that long ago, the technological advancements that have evolved to produce such hyper-connectivity were inconceivable – literally beyond the wildest of imaginations.  Then came a 363-mile canal.  Then a locomotive.  Then an automobile, a plane, a computer, a satellite, and a microchip. 

One by one they became imaginable, but remained unbelievable. 

Then they became believable, but remained unlikely.

Then, very soon after each became likely, the technologies that created stronger connections to the outside world became so dominant that they became difficult to live without.  Indeed, increased connectivity has quickly resulted in improvements to quality of life throughout our history.

But history is a funny thing, too.  As we have continued to develop previously inconceivable digital connections to the rest of the world, our physical and cultural connections to our own communities have been eroded by a singular focus on the primacy of the automobile, which is essentially a nineteenth-century technology.  For decades, we have designed places, spaces, and thoroughfares as though our vehicles shopped, traveled, worked, owned homes, exercised, and paid taxes.  But our vehicles don’t do any of those things – people do. 

Just as Erie Boulevard supplanted the Erie Canal, communities of interest have supplanted communities of place.  Our decisions to invest in the infrastructure that allows us to stream a soccer game halfway around the world have often come at the expense of others that would allow us to watch one in person, halfway across town.  All too often, we have failed to create or maintain the types of civic spaces that history has shown to generate real, lasting value – places to congregate, recreate, relax, and enjoy.  We have lost something important in this transaction, and it will take a good amount of imagination and commitment to get it back. 

Can you imagine an Erie Boulevard featuring safe, comfortable, even beautiful connections for all people – pedestrians and motorists, residents and visitors, old and young, urban and suburban?  This is a difficult exercise for many people within our community, or in any number of others with similar corridors.  But we know from our history that big, powerful ideas need to be imagined first.  Before our canal changed the world, it was a ditch.  Before it was a ditch, it was a “folly”.  Before it was a folly, it was an idea about connectivity, born of equal parts necessity and wild imagination. 

In 2016, we again find ourselves with both the need for better connectivity and the imagination to illuminate its potential.  Let’s show the world how connectivity transforms communities – again. 

Andy Obernesser is a land use planner with Environmental Design & Research (EDR) in Syracuse.  Andy and his team at EDR are currently working with the Town of DeWitt to draft a Local Waterfront Revitalization Plan to better connect residents, businesses, and visitors to the town’s natural resources through improvements to infrastructure, municipal programming, and development regulations.