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Finding The 'Special Sauce' That Makes A Place Thrive

Emily Corwin

  The Portsmouth City Council recently passed an ordinance reducing the heights of new developments downtown.

That debate over curbing development will likely color that city’s upcoming city council election.  As similar efforts to curb development proceed elsewhere on the Seacoast, other New Hampshire downtowns are eyeing these Seacoast problems --with envy.

After moving to Portsmouth this summer, friends elsewhere in the state ask me “How’s the Seacoast?” sort of drooling, a little -- out of envy, I suppose.

What could they be jealous of?

Sitting on a bench in Market Square, Portsmouth Planning Director Rick Taintor points out things he says make this city a destination. “In Market Square and here along Pleasant Street you’ve got lots of wide sidewalks,” he says, “you’ve got these benches, trees shading you, and then beyond that you’ve got these great historic buildings.”

According to Mark Lapping, a professor of Planning at the University of Southern Maine, Americans are looking for special places to put their roots down.  “I think a lot of people are feeling like there’s no ‘there there’ in post World War II America,” Lapping explains, “and people are hungry for a ‘there there.’”

Credit Emily Corwin / NHPR
30 Maplewood Avenue, just up the road from the already-under-construction Portwalk, will soon be replaced with a new mixed-use development.

  But Seacoast history writer J. Dennis Robinson says Portsmouth only became a “there-there” in the last ten years. “We were one of the top, top ports. That all died out after the 1800s, and the economy started to crash, and we've been in like a 200 year free fall,” Robinson says.

Without a river to power any mills, Portsmouth had to sit the industrial revolution out.  Robinson says reviving the city started slowly, in the 60’s, “But it only really has been catching fire in the last ten years.” 

"The three main qualities that attach people to place in their communities are social offerings, openness to diversity, to change, to new people, and the area's aesthetics, it's about green spaces, beauty and architecture."

  Today -- towns and cities across New Hampshire look longingly at Portsmouth’s renaissance , wishing their town had those commercial assets and broad tax base. But here in Portsmouth, some people are frantically trying to put on the brakes.  Like Clare Kittredge.  She writes for PortsmouthNow, an organization trying to curb development downtown. “This is not what smart cities do,” she says. “It’s losing its individuality really fast, its special personality.”

Kittredge’s organization pushed for the building height ordinance, and has compiled a list of other suggestions.

Credit Emily Corwin / NHPR
The 450,000 square-foot Portwalk has been under construction since 2009. The final phase began in May.

  But it’s a delicate balance.  It was years of carefully planned development that attracted the retailers and restaurants that make downtown thrive. But now, planning Director Rick Taintor says, Portsmouth is so prosperous, even larger scale developers have come knocking. 

But what is it exactly that makes people choose one place over another? Quaintness? Amenities? Jobs?  I did an informal poll earlier this month with a bunch of planning experts at the Northern New England Planning Conference.  Some said it was “opportunities for social interaction”; others the beauty of the environment; or a strategic plan; or character; or, for professor Lapping, “someone being able to live their entire life cycle in that community.”

Whatever that special sauce really is, it’s not like you can put it in a vial and administer it town by town. So how does a place like – say, Concord or Franklin, -- decide what to encourage, and how does Portsmouth know what to restrict?

That’s what Susan Silberberg has spent her career trying to understand. The MIT lecturer and urban design consultant says defining the there-there is not as squishy as it sounds. 

Three years ago, Gallup and the Knight Foundation did a study concluding that three universal things attract people to place.

“The things that came to the forefront weren’t about education, it’s not about jobs,” Silberberg says. “The three main qualities that attach people to place in their communities are social offerings, openness to diversity, to change, to new people, and the area's aesthetics, it's about green spaces, beauty and architecture.”

Social offerings, openness to diversity, and green spaces. Three things, Silberberg says, every place has the ability to provide.   And, perhaps, three things Portsmouth will consider as it goes about its next challenge: trying to tailor zoning regulations neighborhood, by neighborhood.   

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