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Reclaiming Utopia


We often fear the future rather than embrace it. The future, though, is the everyday workplace of architects and planners, who create buildings where none exist and change the shape of cities. Some envision whole new places, working for safe and sane societies where people live in harmony with each other and with the land. In the past, such utopian visions have changed the world, but they're not much in favor these days. Today, it's hard work simply to make sense of our complex world, let alone change it, and even at the scale of a city, issues are so complicated that many people merely complain about things they don't understand rather than working to be part of the solution.

It's natural, then, to look across the uncharted landscape of the next 12 months with some trepidation, and wonder what's in store ­ for our city and its region, for the United States, and for the larger community of nations.

Charlotte is a recent player on the world stage, a supporting actor with a small part but lots of potential. Globalization makes distant places more important to us than they used to be. Meetings in Rome could be more vital to our future than arguments in Raleigh. Economic decisions in Delhi may be more relevant to our city than investments in Dilworth or Derita.

In short, we depend on the wider world for our future, and the more we know about it, the better our chances for prosperity and peace.

It's hard to imagine peace at the moment, with 3,000 New Yorkers dead, the bodies of many not even found and decently buried. American and British troops are fighting in far-off places once again, and the Islamic world is in turmoil. But the heart of the conflict isn't Afghanistan or bin Laden. The crucible of unrest is Palestine. Or Israel. That's the problem: two peoples claiming the same territory and three religions worshipping at the same holy sites.

Any improvement in the desperate Middle East and southern Asia situation is impossible without some rapprochement between Israel and Palestine. Both sides are committing crimes and atrocities, but it's hard for Americans to obtain an objective view of the situation. A review of European news sources reveals a wider analysis of motivations and historical context behind this continuing tragedy than what's available on our nightly "info-tainment."

US policy doesn't help the situation. This nation's one-sided backing of Israel has undermined Washington's ability to broker peace, and America's recent veto in the UN Security Council of a motion to send neutral UN monitors to the West Bank and Gaza further diffuses our credibility.

Everybody knows about the reprehensible murder and mayhem caused by the suicide bombers of Hamas and Islamic Jihad. Less well understood by the American public are the hardships of Palestinian life, whereby dispossessed families living in miserable conditions watch helplessly as new, fortified Jewish settlements are built ­ in defiance of international agreements ­ on land that was once theirs. Here is a basic injustice that must be addressed. Without an Israeli pullback from occupied lands, the fragile dove of peace can never fly again over the ravaged Holy Land.

Before rushing to judgment based on 30-second news bites on CNN, pause to consider the following. Would contemporary Americans ­ if faced with an army of occupation on their land, and a foreign government that assassinated American leaders ­ be tempted to take up arms against their oppressor? I'd wager there would be many from this nation of proud and independent people who would band together in a patriotic struggle for liberty ­ and be willing to die for their country. We would call them heroes.

This isn't the same as condoning violence. No sane person can approve of suicide bombings that claim the lives of innocent civilians and bring untold grief to families. But, equally, no state that uses assassination as government policy, and booby-traps footpaths used by schoolchildren, can legitimately demand fair treatment in international society. Palestinians and Israelis must be brought back from the brink of self-immolation to sit around the negotiating table. America, as the sole superpower, is the only nation that can do this. Peace is very much in our national interest. But Washington can't succeed by favoring one side from the outset.

With this and other doom-laden crises overseas (let's not even think about a potential nuclear war between India and Pakistan), it's almost a relief to turn to Charlotte and its problems. They seem so minor in comparison.

But it's here, on the home front, that the adage "think globally, act locally" provides us with sage advice for the coming year. There's not much we can do as individuals about world peace and catching bin Laden. But we can work cooperatively with our neighbors ­ promoting solutions to wide-ranging problems that face our city and many others across the nation. In so doing we can change the world, one little piece at a time. If we can develop a more sustainable city form, one that promotes more choices of lifestyle, reduces our dependence on foreign oil, and protects America's wilderness areas from oil drilling, we will have taken one huge step forward.

But weaning SUV drivers from their gas-guzzling behemoths into more efficient vehicles is harder than getting Yasser Arafat and Ariel Sharon in the same room. And pursuing planning policies that promote efficient, sustainable urban growth while protecting the environment is more difficult than hunting terrorists in the caves of Tora Bora.

I'm serious. American military might and determined diplomatic pressure could indeed solve both these foreign problems. But left to our own devices at home, wallowing in hedonistic self-interest, the outlook for improvement is bleaker than the plains of Afghanistan.

Important decisions taken during this coming year will determine whether Charlotte can advance to a more evolved urban level. By creating a better city, we can do our bit to create a better world.

A little bit of utopia can go a long way. *

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