By Ann DeSanctis, NH Team Program Coordinator
We all made our quips about Manchester last week. Some comments were “sketchy,” “not much going on,” “strange”, and often, after seeing yet another peculiar incident on the street, just sighing and saying, “Oh, Manchester”. So, yes, like any post-industrial town there is a certain feeling of downtroddeness and a lost sense of purpose to the city.
But, in many ways, it reminds me of my dynamic college town of Lexington, KY. While Manchester is a third of its size and does not boast a large land-grant university (although it is home to the New Hampshire Institute of Art, UNH-Manchester, and Southern New Hampshire University), both cities exude a particular charm achieved by hardworking people, historic architecture, and a very defined, often vibrant, main street corridor.
This strong presence of a “real” downtown, one where, within a couple of blocks of Town Hall, you see young couples with children, businesspeople in power suits, and the down and out, was emphasized by our prime proximity to it all while staying in Pastor Jennie’s lovely, urban apartment. To give a good sense of the place’s walkability, we went to the library, grocery, two farmers markets, a number of meetings at local restaurants, to a fireworks display, and various parks all without even batting an eyelash at our bikes. Also, within a couple of blocks of us was a gorgeous YMCA, a gleaming minor league baseball stadium, and a rails-to-trails that stretched several miles into the country west of the city. This type of city planning, that encourages dense, sustainability living, is what I am very interested in pursuing as a career and I am always fascinated by cities who do it well, even if they are just starting out, as is the case with Manchester.
What Manchester really has going for it, though, is its historic, and varied, architecture. The most obvious examples are the old mill buildings that line the Merrimack riverfront. After standing vacant for many years, and with constant threats of demolition, many of the mills have been converted, within the last 15 years or so, into offices, condos, businesses, and restaurants. The new, juxtaposed with such old structures, (most dating to the 1850s) was highlighted by solar panels on the Pandora Mill Building I noticed one night walking around. I later found out that the building is owned by Dean Kamen, the inventor of the Segway, who lives right outside of Manchester, and the array “create[s] enough electricity to power 25 percent of the energy needs of the 130,000 square foot building”. Neat-o.
Another very visible sustainable architecture element on a historic building was the green roof on a section of Town Hall. Green roofs have a multitude of positive effects including reducing the energy needed to heat and cool the building, filtering air pollutants, improving air quality, reducing the risk of flooding and overflowing sewers, and providing habitat for pollinators. We inquired, in person, about the history of the roof but were unable to find much out. Further research showed that the roof has been around since 2007 and was a collaboration between the City of Manchester and the UNH Cooperative Extension, housed a few blocks away in the millyard. The roof was created without any tax payer dollars, meaning it was funded through grants and private sponsors. It still looks beautiful five years later which means it’s doing its job well and is a great example of how to incorporate aesthetics and sustainability.
If anyone knows the ins and outs of aesthetics, it’s architects, especially Frank Lloyd Wright. We were lucky enough to visit a house designed by him on a splendid biking tour of Manchester’s North End, led by a local and a NH Art Institute graduate. My experience at the Zimmerman House, as it is called, along with a previous visit to Falling Water, cements, in my mind, that Wright was way ahead of his time in terms of sustainable architecture. He paid particular attention to the orientation of his houses, designed the window and wall placement such that air conditioning was not needed and, incorporated hillsides and low overhanging roofs to help with temperature regulation, amongst other things. He, simply put, paid careful attention to design and did what made sense in order to use less energy but still create a beautiful space that, rather than cut people off from nature, instead, connected them to it.
If cities — from Manchester to Lexington to Boston to L.A.— can strive to follow this example when designing for their city, our climate will be in much better shape and, instead of cities being described as strange and sketchy, more and more cities can be admired for the vibrancy and resilience they harbor within.