News & Views » David Walters

Green Lung Disease

Maybe we should think "plaza," not "parks"


Charlotte center city is going gaga over green space. Previously absent from Charlotte's urban environment, several new "green lungs" are now planned to improve the quality of life in the heart of the city.The biological metaphor is no accident. Ever since the polluted heyday of the industrial city, grass and trees have been thought to breathe life and fresh air into the city's mean streets.

While most Americans live in cities (the suburbs count), majority opinion has always favored nature over urbanity. But contrary to popular myth, America's westward expansion during the 19th century was a story of unfettered urbanization. The West was colonized and "tamed" far more by urban expansion than free-ranging frontiersmen. Midwestern centers like St. Louis and Kansas City fuelled and financed the migrations of millions -- to other new cities.

But the mythology of the bold pioneer dies hard, and the little house on the prairie has become the tract home on the cul-de-sac as we yearn for our own little piece of the Promised Land. The city in American life has been tolerated rather than celebrated. Thomas Jefferson's vision of an agrarian republic, where cities were viewed as a pestilence, still strikes a chord deep within many Americans.

In this mindset of reluctant urbanism, nature was brought into the city as an antidote, a civilizing and calming influence on the rude behavior of industrial man. America's great landscape architect of the 19th century, Frederick Law Olmsted, went so far as to suggest that nature in the city could calm potential civil unrest, and bring about a benign mixing of the social classes through a wide variety of people sharing recreational green space.

The 19th century vision of urban open space as domesticated nature, a safe and attractive "zoo" for trees and plants spread out in pleasing arrangements for human enjoyment, persists to this day. But it's a dated idea that doesn't fit the agenda of a 21st century city.

As information technology allows us to work from almost any location and foster a nomadic lifestyle, the places we do inhabit become more critical to our needs. Urban spaces can be much more than nice lawns, a pond and shade trees. In fact, the unspoken rule that any open space in the city must be "natural" needs to be challenged and overturned.

Plans for urban parks are springing up everywhere. It's becoming contagious: Third Ward, Second Ward, and now First Ward all have plans in the works for similar facilities. And they're all derived from the same formula: take a couple of blocks, surround them with as much high-density mixed-use development as possible, plant grass and trees and then pump the spaces full of festivals.

There are two problems with this approach. First, a great urban park rarely needs "programming." People go there simply because it's a wonderful, lively place to be -- to meet friends and lovers, watch strangers, have a glass of wine, lie on the grass, or play informal sports. Residents and workers surrounding the park use it as their informal living room -- a safe and natural extension of their daily routines. To be sure, programmed events can take place there, but they are the occasional spice of urban life, not the daily diet.

Second, what Charlotte lacks is a real urban plaza, a city square where urbanity is celebrated. The new square can borrow the time-tested model of Italian piazzas, hardscaped and lined with restaurants, retail, residential, and civic buildings (often churches). Trees can provide shade, but they're not essential. The buildings, with deep shadowed arcades and projecting awnings, can do that. After all, when you visit the Campo in Siena, or the Piazza Navona in Rome, there's not a tree in sight. Moreover, you can guarantee that at least fifty percent of the people there are American, avidly consuming urban culture and urban spaces they can't get at home.

Fourth Ward has its neighborhood green space. An attractive, conventional neighborhood park is planned for Second Ward. There remain two last opportunities uptown: the confused situation in Third Ward, where the problematic positioning of a park and arena has designers scratching their heads, and a more promising condition in First Ward, where potential exists for a variety of "natural" and urban spaces along the transit line. The County is actively pursuing a park in this location, but the last thing we need in First Ward is another generic two-block green space. If we make the Third Ward park large enough for active recreation -- a soccer field would be nice -- we can structure First Ward around a variety of urban spaces, with some small intimate green areas, courtyards, and a beautiful piazza as the focal point of city life.

Can we cure ourselves of our "green lung disease" and provide a new, truly urban destination space for locals and tourists alike? That's our new and heady challenge.

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