“Innovate: to start or introduce something new. To create.” Webster’s
Rochesterians enjoy a long tradition of creating the new: cameras, optics, copying machines, telegraphy, and today medicine and science, even corporate R&D (GM has its fuel cell research facility here, as an example). There is and has always been a lot of brainpower here.
Innovators here have always been good at developing the latest widget, and enjoying the resulting profits. And sharing them – thank you, Mr. Eastman.
But the challenges facing this city and its region now require more than the latest widget. The innovation Rochester needs now, in order to enjoy a durable and sustainable future, requires nothing less than redefining progress. Let me explain.
I read an extraordinary article the other day on resilience theory and cities at seedmagazine.com. In the course of the piece the writer, Maywa Montenegro, penned two very memorable and telling sentences. The first: “A city’s lifeblood is a continuous flow of stuff.” Energy, water, food flow in. Waste, carbon dioxide, and perhaps innovative widgets flow out. Hmmm. I have thought a lot about this – even written about it here – but that one sentence sums up city life with enormous concision – a continuous flow of stuff, in and out.
And the second, even more clear and potent: “No city today could survive on its own resources.” Not one? Nope.
So there it is. If Rochester wants to be the home of innovation, then let’s figure out how to become a city whose flow of stuff, both ins and outs, is completely the result of our own resources. Sounds like a simple challenge, but in order to approach success, this region would need to rethink and remake nearly everything. Let the innovation begin.
We hear every day about shrinking resources, so the need to move our city, and region, toward independence is not as screwy as it might sound. But getting even remotely close to independence, however necessary, would be a staggering task. One example: consider how a city like Rochester could get off the grid, and generate sufficient energy and food to securely and durably sustain itself. Imagine how different this city would be if we accepted this challenge. I suppose that lawsuits about wind turbines would probably cease pretty quickly….
I sit here in my studio trying to imagine what that next Rochester would be like. As I ruminate, I make lists of all the things that would have to change – and I consider how those changes would reshape the city. Here are just five ways this city, and region, would change if we became resource independent. An independent Rochester would be:
Carless. Obviously, no oil – no cars. Perhaps a local innovator will perfect some kind of personal transportation device that we can power without oil, and can be made from local resources. Otherwise it’s feet, folks.
But since mobility is a central requirement in any urban setting, we will need some local innovator to figure out transit options that can propel us from one neighborhood to another. Fuel cell street cars or buses? Solar powered jitneys? Wind powered land ferries?
Carless at Main and Fitzhugh, 1910.
Dense. In order to limit energy used for (wasted by) sprawling all over the landscape, we will need to live closer together. There are almost unlimited numbers of studies that illustrate that increased urban density is central to an increase in sustainability – define that word how you will. And since Rochester has almost no alleys, where an increase in density is easy to achieve, I guess we can just start converting our garages into homes. Won’t need that car, anyway.
Rare in Rochester – Wentworth Apartments at East and Gibbs, 1925.
Nodal. Need a new flat screen? Hop in the car and trundle over to Best Buy. There are two here, both at huge malls. But in the next Rochester, no car, so no trip to Best Buy. Instead, we will gather in neighborhoods, or urban nodes, where there is retail and institutional redundancy – a diverse mixture of uses to support daily life. Maybe some innovator will figure out how to turn the malls and strip centers into sustainable neighborhoods – food markets, health care facilities, shops, homes, schools, and all the other places we need to live our lives. This will need to get repeated in each node or neighborhood.
A local neighborhood center – Versage Brothers Grocery and Philips Robbins Tin Shop, Roofing, Heating, 1919.
Walkable. If we are carless and dense and nodal, we must be walkable. Rochesterians pride themselves on the fact that they can get anywhere in the region in 15 or 20 minutes. It’s a kind of standing joke here, you hear it so often. But when we say this, we mean in a car. Imagine a Rochester where you can get anywhere you need to go in 15 or 20 minutes – on foot.
Most of us – not all, but most – can walk about a mile in 20 minutes. So this begins to give you a sense of the order of things in the next Rochester – nodes of about 2 miles in diameter. Maybe a wee bit smaller. But you will need to walk to all you need in about a mile in any direction.
If you begin to think like this, it’s fun to go to Google Earth and start plotting out the neighborhoods and their centers. Do try this at home.
Main Street vendors, 1927.
Green. If we must grow what we eat locally, then suddenly that vacant lot down the street becomes a coveted asset. Gardens will spring up all over the place, as will markets. We have a challenging climate here – winter is a bit long, and very white – so we will have to grow our own in the good months, and figure out how to store and distribute during the cold months.
Actually, Rochester has one of the oldest public markets in continuous operation in the U.S. It wasn’t that long ago that Rochesterians used the market, all year around, to purchase all their grub. What we need now is a handful of innovators who can teach the rest of us new ways to craft our seasonal menus with the stuff we have sprouting in the backyard.
The Rochester Public Market, 1905.
Innovators – commence innovating! Oh, but do try to remember that we have done most of this once before. What’s old is new again, I guess. Onward.