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Designing the Future 

Sustainable development for Charlotte

"The past is a foreign country," wrote English novelist L.P. Hartley 50 years ago to describe how the passage of time changes our perspective. The same events are remembered differently, and the past quickly fractures into a kaleidoscope of dissimilar points of view.

In detective stories I'm always amused by the power to recall past events with precision that's granted to the characters by their authors. "Can you remember, madam," asks the policeman, with notebook and pencil at the ready, "what you were doing on the night of February 2nd last year?"

If I were ever asked such a question, I would be struggling. While I have no difficulty remembering Michelangelo's dates (1475-1564) or the year Alberti wrote his famous treatise on painting (1435), I can't recall particular events from earlier this year with similar precision. This past year in Charlotte has been a myriad of memories, both good and bad. But already they're beginning to fade in clarity; memory alone is a poor guide to history.

So rather than attempt a conventional catalogue of happenings from Charlotte's calendar this past year, I'll concentrate on just one, an innovative project for an ecological community that hasn't yet made an impact in local media and politics. Although unsung, this event has the potential to be one of the most important episodes in the story of Charlotte's struggle toward a more sustainable urban future.

Sustainable development means building in ways that provide us with a full and satisfying lifestyle while conserving or replenishing the natural resources of the land. This allows us to live within our means today, while bequeathing our children and grandchildren a city and countryside that are attractive, well managed, and don't require massive amounts of money to correct the planning mistakes of earlier generations. In short, it's exactly opposite to the way we plan and develop today.

Ours is a selfish and hedonistic society, one based on immediate gratification of desire with little thought for future consequences. No ideas of sustainability or environmental stewardship for the future will take hold in the public's mind if there is any suggestion of having to go without something we value today. Sadly, we have come to equate standard of living -- the amount of trendy stuff we possess -- with quality of life, the emotional and cultural richness of our existence. So for this new development vision to succeed it has to provide a wider choice of lifestyles and greater convenience, and combine these with lower energy costs, less pollution, and a healthier environment than is currently available anywhere else in our city and its region.

This real-life design project for an ecological community involved the creation of master plans and development guidelines for 400 acres on the Catawba River in Fort Mill generously donated by Jane and Hugh McColl to the Culture and Heritage Foundation of York County. At the behest of the Foundation's director, Van Shields, architecture students at UNC Charlotte, in collaboration with their peers at Clemson University, explored future scenarios for building on this land in ways that can radically improve current development practices.

These new neighborhood designs create models of sustainable growth that can guide and inform Charlotte's future. They show that development can be intensive, but at the same time sensitive to the environment and energy efficient. This means mixing uses on the site so that people can live, work and play without necessarily traveling far afield. It means using radical new approaches to stormwater and wastewater management, recycling and purifying water naturally on site before allowing it to flow back into the ecosystem or using it for non-potable purposes. Green spaces of all types are incorporated throughout the community to assist this process.

Sustainable development also means saving energy by using local and recycled materials, and designing buildings to accommodate many different uses over long, useful lives instead of being built for obsolescence and casual demolition in 15 years. It means utilizing renewable and clean power sources like solar and geothermal energy, and designing buildings to minimize consumption of this energy by maximizing daylighting and natural ventilation. All the ideas we proposed are used successfully elsewhere, but they're new to Charlotte.

Sustainability also means providing homes and workplaces for a diverse community, so this better future is available to everybody, not just the richer sections of society.

The students rose to this challenge magnificently, with several of them producing some of the best work I've seen in 30 years of teaching and practicing architecture. These youthful architects embraced these new ideas with a vigor and passion that bodes well for our future. However, these young men and women are in a minority; more architects are interested in bending their buildings into the fashionable shapes du jour than helping to save the environment. By contrast, this past year's project has laid the groundwork for radical change. Next year's task will be to carry this vision forward to reality.

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