News & Views » David Walters

Sense and Sensibility

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Sometimes it seems as if the world is going to hell in a hand basket; that we're surrounded by so much dross, mediocrity seems like a shining beacon of hope. Compared to the graceful cities of yesteryear, all we seem able to produce is a scrambled hodgepodge of development that runs the gamut from bad to even worse.

Two centuries ago, Georgian Bath, and early American cities such as Annapolis (and later Savannah) were laid out with taste and refinement. They don't need the gloss of BBC costume dramas to render them attractive. They are true masterpieces. The elegant terraces of Jane Austen's 18th century Bath weave a pattern of urbanity across the green Wessex hills that is timeless in its sense and sensibility. Little we build today rivals these examples.

I was spurred to these gloomy thoughts by a question posed recently by a colleague. He sought my comments on a subdivision plan for a large new development near his lakeshore home. The development will be in a rural county at the fringe of the large metropolitan region, within which Charlotte sits like a spider at the center of a tangled web.

My colleague is no NIMBY. Just as he was attracted to a lakeshore lot within reasonable commuting distance of Charlotte, he realizes many others will make a similar decision. He isn't against the development per se; it was inevitable that sometime, someone would build on the large tract of land across the road from his lovely new, architect-designed house. What he objects to is the awfulness of the subdivision's design.

All too predictably, the development plan is full of cul-de-sacs going nowhere, throwing all traffic onto a narrow two-lane road, guaranteeing congestion. The design, if one can call such awfulness "design," rips apart existing natural features, stripping the landscape of every quality it once had, dividing it into a banal patchwork of identical lots. This might as well be the desolate plains of the Oklahoma Panhandle for all the attention the layout pays to the particulars of location. The attractive lakeshore only yards away is totally ignored. It's not even drawn on the plan. The only open spaces left are a couple of unusable steep banks, isolated between rows of backyards. Everything else is chopped into little pieces and spat out of the "designer's" computer, much like trees are shredded into pulp by mechanical wood chippers.

It's sad enough that a developer would want to create this garbage. It is even sadder that he or she can find a so-called professional to churn it out according to the meanest of formulas. But it is sadder still that the local planning authority in this predominantly rural area admits it has no means of affecting improvement in the design. Planning is so primitive that it barely deserves the name.

The only recourse neighbors have is to try to block the development, setting up the classic "residents versus developer" conflict. This crude confrontation is no way to build communities in this, the richest, most powerful nation in the world. We should be ashamed of our lack of skill and sagacity. If the clumsy, outdated design of this development were translated into the military sphere, American troops in Afghanistan would be fighting with muskets.

In cases like this, there's no one to look out for the public interest -- nobody to promote standards of good design, no regulations to protect the land, to safeguard its future. Nobody in this scenario has the common sense or the cultured sensibilities to do what earlier town builders did as a matter of course -- plan a larger connected framework of public streets, sidewalks, parks and open spaces within which developments like this can be raised up to take their place. Such a framework would respect the land while allowing good development potential, and create an effective infrastructure that would meet the needs of an expanding area for generations.

But this isn't going to happen. In this instance (and many others in the rural fringe of our region) there is nothing to stop rubbish like this miserable subdivision being foisted upon our communities. Another slice of North Carolina will be massacred, and one day we will wake up with a stupefied realization that everything we once valued has been traded for a quick buck, soon spent and forgotten.

Looking at the God-forsaken plan for this particular project, I realized I could transform it into a decent development in about three hours, probably increasing the developer's profits while conserving the landscape. I'm not boasting; my students could probably do it in a day, inexperienced as they are. The truth is, good land planning and urban design isn't rocket science. But you've got to start by respecting the land and the people who already live there. Developments like the one that's threatening my colleague's solace do neither. In the minds of the bottom-feeders who produce this kind of suburban swill, the land is merely a resource to be consumed, and existing communities count for nothing.

What is heartbreaking is not just that the proposed development is so bad, but that making it better is so easy. But nobody is prepared to set higher standards, and few individuals who get elected to public office in these rural counties seem to comprehend the issues. Although we complain about missteps by the Charlotte City Council, that group is light years ahead of some of their rural counterparts, to whom planning and design rank right up there with socialism and the black helicopters. I speak from years of experience.

In cases like this, everybody loses. The developer makes less money than better design could provide; the existing neighborhood has to live for decades with blight in their backyards; new homeowners are offered only ticky-tacky boxes in a featureless nowhere land; and the landscape loses its character. As a society we set our sights so low and accept shoddy development as standard. It's depressing.

Perhaps tomorrow will be more optimistic, but don't hold your breath. Both sense and sensibility are in short supply right now. I'll keep trying, but meanwhile . . . let's see what's on Masterpiece Theatre.

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