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Feature Stories

Civic Engagement
Envisioning sustainable communities with the return of passenger rail
Young boy standing next to light box installation at Envision Depot Square event

Krupczynski’s work exemplifies the campus’s commitment to meeting needs within the community with the best possible expertise and incorporating an element of public service into the classroom.

For more than 20 years, once-traveled rail tracks that run through nearby Holyoke and Northampton have lain dormant. Soon, however, those tracks will breathe new locomotive life into the area’s mass transit system. The overhaul is part of a considerable revitalization effort gaining speed along the Connecticut River region from Connecticut to Vermont—also known as the Sustainable Knowledge Corridor—work that is receiving both federal and state funding.

The railway was once central to the community and its return will bring a time of sizable transition, especially for the emerging city of Holyoke. To help the transition go smoothly, UMass Amherst architecture professor Joseph Krupczynski was brought on by the city to design a civic engagement campaign. Krupczynski and his students were tasked with creating inclusive public forums for Holyoke’s diverse communities in order to better understand what the move towards a more sustainable community will mean for residents.

“We took that very seriously. The research that we did, the strategy that we evolved was really aimed at engaging a broad range of Holyoke residents,” says Krupczynski.

Krupczynski and his students are paying particular attention to Holyoke, which as a diverse post-industrial city, is a priority area for urban development. Krupczynski is working closely with the city of Holyoke to create opportunities for students to engage with city residents and envision an optimal scenario; they are working to plant a communal seed, to get residents thinking about how the return of the passenger rail to the city’s downtown Depot Square can be a jumping off point for the revitalization of the city. The team is developing the effort, weaving together three perspectives: history and culture, economic development, and food and fitness. Krupczynski explains that this process is part of a planning strategy referred to as transit-oriented development. Not only will the railway draw more people (and money) to the city, but it will also encourage more people to leave their cars at home.

“It’s a holistic kind of response to create a sustainable community and a more urban lifestyle,” says Krupczynski.

The Pioneer Valley Planning Commission has been working on a regional transportation plan for years. Amtrak is also eager to see the tracks return to their former glory—the comeback will cut the travel time along the line’s “Vermonter” by at least one hour.

Krupczynski and the students began by researching the city’s history and by convening a team of Holyoke community leaders. They then designed a block party titled, “Envision Depot Square,” to be held in the area where passengers once arrived in downtown Holyoke. With a clearer idea of Holyoke and its residents, students put together visionary models of what the Depot Square area could look like in the future. These project ideas were later presented to Holyoke residents in a public exhibition.

Next, Krupczynski will work with his students to develop an adaptive reuse model for the old train station farther from the downtown center, a historic landmark designed by the significant 19th century architect H.H. Richardson. Current standards for train platforms made it difficult to integrate the newly proposed platform with the existing station. Still, many people in the city would like to restore the historic building and see it put to some use.

The team’s work in Holyoke is considered one of many “catalytic” projects for the Sustainable Knowledge Corridor. For the larger civic engagement strategy surrounding this planning effort, Krupczynski and his students have already visited more than a dozen underserved communities throughout Hampshire and Hampden counties to get a sense of ways their day-to-day lives could be made healthier and more sustainable. How communities “live, grow, connect and prosper” sustainably has been their key question.

As they visit each community, Krupczynski and the students first discuss the meaning of sustainability, and then break into smaller groups to brainstorm its various manifestations. Lastly, they visualize the ideas by passing out chalkboards to residents and asking them to complete the phrase, “we live sustainably when…,” which was an idea developed by the students. With permission, the team has put together a compilation of photographs of the residents holding the chalkboards—each with a personal message about their hopes and dreams for their respective neighborhoods. These dialogues both served as a community building activity and an opportunity for Krupczynski and the students to collect valuable project information on community-identified priorities.

“We looked at a lot of the existing engagement methods, but we also wanted to invent some new ways to do this,” Krupczynski says.

For Krupczynski, it is important to nurture opportunities that positively impact the community, create a space for students to design civic engagement projects and then carry through their ideas to fruition. Krupczynski teaches his students to “be accessible, be inclusive and build capacity,” and emphasizes these values in their collective work. He guides them in building engagement models that are well communicated, beneficial to the entire community and that leaves something empowering behind—an element of the conversation that endures after the team has left.

With a Polish father and Puerto Rican mother, Krupczynski has long been fascinated with notions of identity and culture. He incorporates these interests into his work as a teacher, a designer, and as one of the directors for the Center for Design Engagement. He is an avid collaborator and activist in Holyoke (and beyond), and has worked with local organizations such as Alliance to Develop Power, Nuestras Raices and Nueva Esperanza. Krupczynski’s work exemplifies the University’s commitment to meeting needs within the community with the best possible expertise and incorporating an element of public service into the classroom.

Amanda Drane '12