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Thursday, 25 May 2006
Olmsted, wear your earplugs
Topic: environment
Much is made of Americans’ petroleum addiction. And that’s a good first step toward reforming the addict. But why don’t more people talk about the companion vices – brute force and dominance and the swaggering loudness that goes with them?

I thought about this while taking a little experimental jaunt yesterday to Genesee Valley Park, towing my canoe by bicycle. (My Dahon folder is just the right height for a workable hitch to an Instep brand kids trailer.) The weather was beautiful. People were all over the Genesee River Trail and the park lawns, especially south of Elmwood Avenue, and several women’s crews were rowing downstream like mad. Everything went according to plan, and I had a fine time, even when occasional stiff gusts made “rounding the Horn” from the river into the Erie Canal a little tricky.

But along with the wonderful sensations of late-afternoon sun and warm breezes came the usual outbreak of an environmental plague: machine noise. As most of you know, Genesee Valley Park is severed by I-390, which crosses the Genesee above the canal-river intersection. There was a political battle decades ago over this stretch of expressway. One side saw completion of the Outer Loop as essential to “modernizing” our local transportation “infrastructure.” The other side understood that the project (as well as the jargon used to justify it) was yet more evidence of corporate-driven loopiness.

Eventually a compromise was reached: The x-way was built through Brighton farmlands and GV Park, and the bridge was thrown across the river; and on the other end of the scale, minimalist sound barriers were attached to the bridge and the multi-use Canal Trail got built. In other words, the compromise was typical of such things in Petro-Amerika: the horsepower guys got everything they wanted, and the environment got a couple token “enhancements.”

So now, and effectively forever, the park will suffer night-and-day assaults from traffic noise – so much so that offensive sounds from the county airport nearby hardly make a difference.

What would Frederick Law Olmsted do? The social visionary who designed Genesee Valley Park couldn’t have anticipated the psychic horrors of modern machine noise – he probably thought the loudest thing heard there would be the patter of hooves – but he knew the terrain.

As Transportation Alternatives (TA), a NY City-based group pointed out a few years ago, Olmsted believed his masterpiece, Central Park, “should present an aspect of spaciousness and tranquility...thereby affording the most agreeable contrast to the confinement, bustle, and monotonous street division of the city." Concepts like tranquility and protection from "bustle" fit the TA agenda perfectly: It was November 1999, and the rgoup was observing – mourning - the 100th anniversary of the automobile’s first appearance in Central Park. TA is still pushing for a car-free park and making some headway against blasts of hot air from the usual lobbies.

You can’t stop me from dreaming of a car-free Genesee Valley Park, starting with the ground-level park roads, which are defiled by motor vehicles (including some substantial trucks) making shortcuts. But the dream will mean little if I-390 is left to pour out its noise and filth.

Posted by jackbradiganspula at 12:20 EDT
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