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Landscape, architectural history professor visits Camden

Posted: May 21, 2013 9:05 a.m.
Updated: May 22, 2013 5:00 a.m.

Camden welcomed an extraordinary visitor and new friend last week: Nina Antonetti, an “urbanist.” She’s been teaching about cities at Smith College in Northampton, Mass., for the last 15 years.

With her PhD from the University of London, Antonetti teaches landscape and architectural history, historic preservation, land conservation, environmental justice, urban farming, green activism, entrepreneurship, and women in design. This year she decided to leave Smith to practice city planning with a design collective of diverse and wide-ranging professionals. They’ve been working in downtown Detroit, previously a dead zone that now boasts 98 percent occupancy of new housing and the most successful community park in the country. A Detroit entrepreneur, Dan Gilbert, has given the city a starting gift of $1 billion.

She defines her field: “Urban landscaping is cityscape as landscape. Greening comes into play, but is only one of many elements. My approach is three-pronged: ecology, economics, and culture. Buildings, streets, trash cans, and parking lots are as important as trees, flowers, and fountains.”

Antonetti spent last week in Camden at her own expense. She said that when she heard about us, she could not wait to visit, to study us, and to attach a profile to her website.

“I’m already working on two exciting projects in New England; another in a tri-cultural, border town in the southwest; and a restoration plan of an estate in the UK, so my work in Camden will finally connect me to the South,” said Antonetti, a Virginian by descent. “The more I learn about Camden, the more I think of it as an ideal American case study for urban renewal, social justice, creative economics, regionalism and ecotourism. I will focus my report generally on resources, amenities, and opportunities. I could provide case studies of relevant best practices, as well as offer immediate suggestions and long-range thinking. With all of the resources at my disposal, I’ll be able to do a lot of research upon my return.”

With another visit, she plans to analyze the community’s connective tissue. “My final conclusions would then enable me to map the past and present to address both short-term and long-range planning.” At a lunch in Columbia with the Urban Land Institute we were surprised to learn that Camden sits in the midst of one of the fastest growing regions of the country. “Camden could either grow from the outside in, getting swallowed up as a suburb of Columbia, or from the inside out, as a self-sustaining, vibrant city -- or both,” says Antonetti.

In a word, she thinks we’re beautiful, terrific, and way ahead of the game. “Camden is so much richer in A.R.T. (assets, resources, and talent), especially for a town its size, than I could have imagined,” she said, adding, “And whereas the citizenry is organizationally bonding daily, each organization (churches, Business Alliance, chamber, FAC, etc.) needs to be institutionally bridging, too -- creatively, proactively, and innovatively reaching out to everyone else.”

I first knew Nina Antonetti, now in her mid-40s, as 1-year-old Nina James, youngest child of Alice and Norman James. Her late father taught English and Irish literature at Washington College, Chestertown, Md., until recently a little known Southern town on the Eastern Shore. “Until recently,” because as she describes it, when busloads of New Yorkers and Washingtonians discovered Chestertown’s history and local beauty, housing prices and taxes rose, stores started charging astronomical prices, and her widowed mother, now living in New Hampshire, could no longer afford to live there. For that reason, probably more than anything else, Nina Antonetti is passionate that small cities develop in a way that honors the people living there. She frequently says that progress and change must come from the bottom up. “Top-down government never works,” she maintained. In Detroit, as one example, for developmental purposes, she and her architectural colleagues broke up the city into eight districts. As she describes it, everyone wanted a better Detroit, but people everywhere are mostly concerned about their own neighborhoods. “What do the people of Camden want for their neighborhoods?” she asked.

Some of her ideas: She involves kids in civic process. She looks for multiple uses for vest-pocket parks. She mentions that in Costa Rica with its successful hospitality industry, the government provides hospitality training for all service personnel: waiters, store clerks, hotel clerks, gas station attendants, so that when a visitor asks, “what’s happenin’?” they get clear information and more importantly, enthusiasm.

I’m looking forward to Nina Antonetti’s own report for the Chronicle-Independent. It’s coming soon.



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