News & Views » David Walters

A Conversation About Cities

Or, an urban one-to-one

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Our culture defines us by what we do rather than who we are. One of the first questions we ask strangers is "What do you do for a living?" My own answer is conventional: "I'm an architect." After that it becomes a little more complicated. The conversation goes something like this.

"What kind of architecture do you do?"

"I don't actually design buildings anymore. I'm an urban designer."

"What's that? Is that like an urban planner? Are you responsible for the mess Charlotte's in?"

"No and no. Urban planners aren't the same as urban designers. Planners think primarily in two dimensions, with patterns of land uses and transportation. A lot of planning is about policies -- essential, but only part of the story. Urban designers think about urban places in three dimensions, designing the spaces between buildings. You could think of a city as a giant house, made up of many rooms. There are public rooms like squares and plazas -- we don't have many of those in Charlotte -- and others that are long and thin, like Tryon Street. Some of these outdoor rooms are large and green, such as Latta Park in Dilworth. Then there are other, more private rooms, like a Charleston garden, glimpsed through a railing. And to answer your second question, lots of people are to blame for the state of Charlotte's environment -- politicians and developers, mainly. Planners have relatively little power. And by the way, not all of Charlotte is in a mess. There are some very good bits."

"Such as where?"

"Well, our center city is doing very well and keeps improving. First Ward is a good urban model with its HOPE VI affordable housing and the adjacent Garden District. We're blessed with attractive older suburbs like Elizabeth and Dilworth. And there's a lot of good development going on in South End. Even the South Park area is maturing into a more cohesive urban place around the mall and Phillips Place. Farther out, there are several good developments in north Mecklenburg -- Birkdale Village and Vermillion, in Huntersville, the reviving old town center in Cornelius, and some very good new housing around the new St. Alban's Episcopal church in Davidson."

"I read a piece in the daily newspaper recently by a developer who suggested that planners have too much power. But you say the opposite. How come?"

"It's a question of perspective. Many developers think they should be allowed to do what they want without government interference. They believe the "free market' will ultimately make everything right. By contrast, planners and urban designers think that decisions affecting the community should be made with community input. Development changes people's lives, and I think the larger public interest should shape how cities grow just as much as individual desires to make money on particular pieces of property."

"But you're a foreigner. Is that an Australian accent? I love the way you talk! But I bet you think they do things better at home. It's easy for you to criticize America."

"I'm English, actually. And yes, I do think the Brits do some things better -- like preserving historic buildings and landscapes. However, in other aspects of city life America does a better job -- recycling domestic waste is one small example; Charlotte is light years ahead of many British cities. But saying one country or another is better isn't really the point."

"What is it then?"

"I don't think it's very important where a good idea comes from. The real criterion is whether we can use it here to our advantage."

"Hold on! I knew I'd heard your name before! Aren't you the guy who wants to build this European utopia in Fort Mill? The place where old socialist hippies can go to live off solar power and windmills?"

"Ha! I'm glad you mentioned that. You're probably talking about the project for a sustainable community on land donated by Jane and Hugh McColl by the Catawba River, developed by students at UNC-Charlotte and Clemson University for the York County Culture and Heritage Commission. Our client wanted a model for development in our region that was more environmentally conscious than the norm. But just the thought of doing a development that respects the natural environment in the way roads and buildings are designed, and uses technology in innovative new ways to save energy, really confused some people."

"Why's that?"

"I suppose if people usually think only of themselves, any thoughts about larger community responsibilities -- being less wasteful of our natural resources, for example -- seems like socialism; and that, almost by definition is considered anti-American. And some of the ideas came from England and Canada, where they've worked well in practice. It's not always easy to introduce progressive new concepts to our city."

"So do you think Charlotte's doomed if it can't adapt?"

Before I could answer, my mobile phone rang. With an apologetic smile, I ended the conversation. For the time being.

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