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Urban state—suburban state

Over the last 15 years, the various states within the Boston-Washington, DC, megalopolis (BosWash) have dramatically improved their urban infrastructure and inner-city development patterns. States such as Maryland and New Jersey have developed strong, smart growth programs while others, such as Massachusetts, New York and Rhode Island, have created strong rail corridors with a series of new intermodal hubs, new transit-oriented development (TOD) and direct rail-to-airport links. However, within this emerging megalopolis, one state has taken a very different approach.

Map by Ryan Sullivan and Nick Caruso

Click image above to view full size.

Since 1995, the State of Connecticut hasn’t developed a single new transit corridor, regional rail station or TOD village in an era when other states made considerable headway. Instead, Connecticut promoted the double decking of Interstate 95 and expanded various roadways across the state. This, in turn, generated a stark urban state–suburban state gap in the BosWash Northeast Corridor. However, this gap provides an opportunity for two coordinated initiatives to emerge: a new, stronger urban corridor among like-minded states in the BosWash megalopolis and a suburban alternative state for defense, insurance and other economic entities in need of detachment, privacy and security, which is Connecticut’s leading strength.

Both initiatives—one urban, one suburban—will provide a definitive choice within the BosWash corridor and spur a new major public-works initiative that has the potential to generate a large private-market reaction and push the states out of the recession.

The following is a series of pinpointed vignettes within this urban state–suburban state region.

Connecticut removes rail while the rest of BosWash expands

In the mid 2000s, Hartford, Connecticut, the state’s struggling capital, removed the city’s second set of rail tracks, thus relegating Amtrak’s fledgling high-speed Acela and Northeast Corridor service to the state’s sparsely populated shoreline and winding flood-prone rail line. At the same time, Connecticut’s suburban sprawl was allowed to push freely across the state’s open land because of a smart growth office without any teeth. Plus, officials from the state’s department of transportation would frequently resort to scare tactics about the effects of limiting highway access whenever road redesign would come up in city and town meetings. Instead, Connecticut reinforced, built up and expanded its highways and roadways through the state’s small cities and sprawling suburbs.

In contrast, adjacent Massachusetts, Rhode Island and New York orchestrated comprehensive urban-development projects; expanded efficient straight-shot rail corridor service toward Long Island Sound; restored and expanded their regional rail hubs; and developed two new direct rail-to-airport links, one between the Jamaica Station rail terminal in New York City and John F. Kennedy (JFK) Airport and the other between Boston’s Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority (MBTA) commuter rail line with Rhode Island’s T.F. Green Airport. After 15 years, the urban-suburban landscape in Connecticut compared with its neighbors is overwhelming.

A collection of 169 municipalities between Boston and New York

To date, the State of Connecticut still operates as a detached collection of 169 municipalities, each with its own planning policies. Any regional system of planning and design is voluntary and rarely turns into a tangible effort. Each city, town and village functions autonomously, and, in many cases, turn their backs to one another. The suburb-city battles between the tony community of West Hartford and the city of Hartford in central Connecticut alongside the opulent town of Fairfield next to the struggling industrial center of Bridgeport on the shore have become commonplace.

As such, any regional urban initiatives in Connecticut have been parochial and built solely because of town-line disputes or poor local planning. The only recent substantial rail-development plans to come out of the state have been a third station in Fairfield to offset Bridgeport’s plan to build a second stop, while West Haven’s upcoming station and New Haven’s small State Street platform have been in response to New Haven’s inefficient and poorly placed Union Station outside downtown. Connecticut towns rarely work together on an initiative, a huge difference compared with the hand-in-hand efforts among various communities in Rhode Island, New York and Massachusetts.

Why punish Rhode Island? Amtrak’s future plans

In contrast to Connecticut, Rhode Island in the last 15 years has developed a multifaceted urban rail corridor that runs from Boston to Rhode Island’s growing capital of Providence, past the state’s T.F. Green Airport and southward through a new TOD village in Wickford on its way to Long Island Sound. The coordinated efforts of Massachusetts and Rhode Island at the state, regional and city levels made this corridor possible. Boston’s robust MBTA commuter-rail service was first expanded to Providence and then to T.F. Green Airport, creating a newly connected urban corridor of 1.5 million and the first direct link between a major city and airport in New England. In addition, the new corridor also provides a direct spur to New England’s massive Gillette Stadium and adjacent Patriot Place lifestyle center in Foxboro from both Boston and Providence.

Nevertheless, despite this success, Amtrak and other institutions have developed long-term plans that would completely overlook and avoid Rhode Island and instead award a new high-speed rail line to regions that have remained predominantly auto-centric and suburban since World War II, such as upper Westchester County in New York and central Connecticut. In the end, tossing aside Rhode Island’s hard-earned rail efforts would be problematic.

The rising of Brooklyn and Queens

The resurgence of Brooklyn as an urban hub and American cultural mainstay has transformed the once-lowly borough into the “sixth major city” of the BosWash megalopolis. Today, Brooklyn revolves around the borough’s growing Atlantic Yards complex and transit hub anchored by the Barclays Center arena. The Yards will consist of nearly 7 million square feet of office, residential and retail space on top of the existing subway hub and Long Island Rail Road terminal in the borough. The massive nexus will continue to grow and compete with the unanimously reviled and stunted Penn Station area in Manhattan, as plans to tie the Yards with downtown Manhattan continue to emerge. To date, Brooklyn is the largest borough of the city and would be the fourth largest city in America by itself, just behind Chicago, yet today the Northeast Corridor bypasses it completely for the suburbs of Westchester, New York; and Connecticut.

Alongside Brooklyn, the Borough of Queens has also moved into the spotlight. The new Long Island City district facing midtown Manhattan has become the new face of the borough of 2.3 million. Plus, Queens is home to the main rail corridor running from Manhattan eastward to Jamaica Station, a largely unknown yet massive rail center that includes the city’s recent AirTrain link to JFK Airport and nearly any and all transit service east of the city and across Long Island. At the same time, the area around the complex is ripe for new, dense development such as that seen at Atlantic Yards, providing the impetus for a new central hub in Queens, especially if it becomes a node within a stronger Northeast Corridor.

Hempstead and Ronkonkoma—Two emerging hubs through multitown partnerships

Alongside both city boroughs to the west, the municipalities of Hempstead and Ronkonkoma in Long Island’s Nassau and Suffolk counties have emerged as new centers of concentrated TOD ventures. Both communities are hubs for a large collection of communities that frequently work together for a common goal, a huge contrast between Connecticut’s 169-detached-municipalities policy and Long Island’s regionalism. Hempstead by itself is a town of 60,000 yet incorporated as a city with its working neighbors is an urban center of 700,000—an urban metro that’s similar in scope to Boston; Baltimore; and Washington, DC. Today, Greater Hempstead’s focus has revolved around the Nassau Coliseum and adjacent office parks, a huge suburban complex that’s gradually being redeveloped into an urban node within adjacent Uniondale under the moniker “Nassau Hub.” The area is slowly being converted into a dense complex of TOD on par with Atlantic Yards.

Moving eastward is Ronkonkoma, a once-lowly, impoverished community that has seen an upswing, thanks to the coordinated efforts of the two towns that entail portions of the Ronkonkoma rail hub: Brookhaven and Islip. Working together, both municipalities are building up one central TOD node instead of competing against each other. As a result, a stronger urban center is emerging, with Ronkonkoma becoming the fourth hub in a growing TOD chain that includes Atlantic Yards, Jamaica Station and the Nassau Hub heading east toward Long Island Sound.

MacArthur and Calverton Airports: A new multimodal Long Island

Finally, next to the buildup of Providence, Brooklyn, Queens, Hempstead and Ronkonkoma, Long Island holds the potential to accommodate New York City’s growing need for better passenger and freight air transport. The city’s recently christened “fourth airport,” known as Stewart International, in the remote hinterlands of upstate New York, is outside the Northeast Corridor and has already run into a series of connectivity and location issues. In the meantime, Long Island has two airports immediately adjacent to the main line of the Long Island Railroad: MacArthur and Calverton.

MacArthur has the potential to mirror the success of Rhode Island’s T.F. Green Airport link for Boston by relieving passenger traffic at JFK Airport as a new, small secondary airport with a direct rail connection. In addition, Calverton, a once-experimental now lightly used airfield in rural Long Island, has the potential to expand into a new international air hub for coordinated passenger and freight service that JFK, Newark and LaGuardia airports cannot accommodate in their constrictive urban settings. The new rail-airport center could become a major nexus of private and public freight service directly between Boston and New York, and for the multitude of institutions, universities and research parks along the new line, thus generating the value to develop a strong link between Long Island and Rhode Island. Plus, New York’s Greenport and Riverhead villages, through their existing and planned set of ferry service and bus rapid transit, can become three small, stronger urban hubs for the new potential employees at Calverton along this new multimodal corridor.

A multifaceted project among like-minded states and a new suburban framework—two coordinated recession efforts

These past issues outline the urban-suburban contrast within the northern BosWash states but also showcase two potential coordinated initiatives: a new dual process where the BosWash rail corridor can run through the urban-oriented states of Massachusetts, Rhode Island and New York, while allowing Connecticut to become a sustainable suburban market for national defense, insurance and other secure business entities. This organization will allow each state to pursue its own distinct aspirations while providing a choice between urban and suburban life at the state and regional levels. In addition, both varying environments will still provide a smaller minority alternative. The growing pull of New York City will tie together the strong urban islands within Connecticut. Plus, the new urban corridor through Long Island, Rhode Island and Massachusetts will provide the impetus for further concentrated suburban and fringe development emanating from New York City and Boston.

Altogether, through this new urban state–suburban state process, the Northeast Corridor will become a stronger multifaceted spine that allows Massachusetts, Rhode Island and New York to continue their urban economic incline while allowing Connecticut to become a new suburban entity of sustainable private business and remote living. Both processes will create two pragmatic initiatives for a country still within a deep recession and in need of buildable infrastructure ideas that can generate a powerful, multifaceted private-market reaction. By developing a vibrant urban corridor among like-minded states and a well-defined suburban state for various industries to grow and develop outside the spotlight in controlled, secure settings, both sides of the argument are accommodated and can continue to grow through this new urban-suburban model.



Nicholas Caruso is an urban designer and writer. His work focuses on modern adaptive reuse, brownfield redevelopment and transportation design. He is a graduate of the Yale School of Architecture. You may reach him at

Top image: Ryan Sullivan and Nick Caruso.