"What's the difference between an optimist and a pessimist?" he asked. I confessed I didn't know the answer. "The pessimist has the data," he replied.
It is easy to be depressed about Charlotte's future. My colleague's encyclopedic knowledge of America's urban failures made for grim listening. Many current Charlotte policies have failed elsewhere, the outerbelt being the most egregious example.
But I refuse to be downhearted. Maybe I don't have all the data, but I know that against all the odds, we are doing some things right. Things that buck our trend of mediocrity and hold out hope, however flickering, that our city can mature into a place our grandchildren can be proud of. Our city has some urban successes that aren't talked about enough. This story highlights those accomplishments; if they were the norm, Charlotte would be a beacon of progress across the nation.But of course, our urban successes aren't the norm. Some of these buildings and projects, like Latta Pavilion in Dilworth, were achieved by sheer persistence on the part of small, local developers. Others, like Gateway Village and Ratcliffe on the Green uptown, were made possible by the deep pockets of big banks that allowed them to bend the normally inflexible rules of development economics to their advantage. Other "points of light," the redevelopment of First Ward, and Prosperity Church Road Villages on I-485, are public sector initiatives, while two large suburban projects, Birkdale Village in Huntersville and Ayrsley, at I-485 and South Tryon, are progressive attempts by the private sector to improve the quality of large-scale freeway development.
These success stories of "smart growth" and "sustainable development" are often obscured by the flotsam and jetsam that usually characterize our city's surging growth. All the more reason to heed their lessons, and not to regard these projects merely as interesting aberrations.
A "sustainable" community offers a full, rich quality of life while consuming fewer resources. It's more energy efficient, both in its urban layout and its buildings. Transit provides options for getting around: we can use our cars when we want, not when our urban environment dictates. Home and work are closer together, and walking, or a short bus or train ride, become realistic options. Open space is preserved, and schools, parks and stores are once more integrated into neighborhoods, not spread apart with long drives between activities.
A sustainable city reduces our dependence on finite fossil fuels and dangerous nuclear materials. It cushions us from the whims of fickle foreign governments, who can hold us hostage to energy supplies; and it lessens the need to pillage our natural landscapes for small oil deposits. This urban future offers more lifestyle choices; it reduces the stress on our environment, and on families, by making life easier and more economical. Growing toward this objective is called "smart growth."
From our current perspective, this may seem like Utopia, an unachievable dream. But, in fact, several aspects of this vision are part of everyday life in Charlotte. It's just that they're fragmented, separate little pieces that never form a complete picture. Individually, the projects described in this article are just that -- fragments. But taken together, they provide a working blueprint for a better future.
But first, some context
Cities around the world, particularly in developing countries, face serious challenges of population, poverty and pollution. Many of these densely populated areas in Asia, Africa and South America are badly equipped with poor public infrastructure of streets, sewers and transportation. Daily life is often an uphill battle.
In Europe, old cities, supported by good public transit, have learned to retain their charm and economic viability by retrofitting for the digital era. Sensitive urban renewal, combined with aggressive planning policies to protect rural areas from sprawl, and strong measures to support energy conservation, allow older metropolitan areas to maintain a high quality of life. But even successful places have problems. Visit the faceless suburbs of Glasgow, Madrid, London, Rome or Paris (pick your city) and you'll see dull, dispiriting environments, especially in the poorer areas.
American cities are caught between these two poles, spared the horrors of Third World shantytowns but lacking the complex infrastructure of European places. Few American cities have an urban form that's sustainable in the long term, for they're structured around a single technology -- the private vehicle. We have no back-up plans, no choices, no flexibility for when fuel shortages hit, or polluted air from vehicle exhausts makes us sick, or when high gasoline prices tether us close to home.
By contrast, the Charlotte projects described below embody several components that must be present in any sustainable, progressive urban agenda. They all subscribe to urban design principles that put people first, although vehicles are always accommodated, sometimes at great cost. Several projects are located where their own mixture of uses can connect with, and enrich, existing neighborhoods; in greenfield locations, these examples provide an array of uses that is to some degree self-sufficient. You can live, work, shop and recreate all within a compact area that's enjoyable on foot.