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The Past Is Present 

And challenges us to create a livable future city

Many physical and demographic changes have taken place in Charlotte during this time, but most interesting to me is a change in the intellectual landscape. The town planning ideas that I and other architects espoused more than a decade ago have moved from the rarified realms of the avant-garde into the mainstream of conventional wisdom among planners and developers.

Concepts of higher-density, walkable neighborhoods that feature a mix of homes, offices, shops, and civic buildings once brought hoots of derision from Charlotte builders in the old-fashioned slide shows I used to give to community and developers' groups. Now these very same ideas are extensively featured every month in developers' trade and professional magazines as the hottest topic in real estate. A slew of books from the Urban Land Institute, the developers' think-tank, explain in minute detail how to make lots of money from these projects.

I approve of this, wholeheartedly. Projects like Phillips Place in SouthPark and Birkdale Village in Huntersville, even with all their faults, set a higher standard for the development community. The Rosedale Shopping Center, also in Huntersville, does an excellent job of integrating grocery stores, smaller shops, a drug store, gas station, offices, and apartments into a cohesive neighborhood along a network of small-scale town streets, while "The New Neighborhood in Old Davidson," off the Davidson-Concord Road, effortlessly weaves different types of housing together with a beautiful new church and park.

But these developments are still the exception in our region, and this must change.

As I write this column, I look over Latta Park in Dilworth from our third floor home office, and feel immensely lucky to live in such an agreeable location. Even at this time of year, the park is pleasantly green, and lined with houses that watch over the public open space. I can see parents walking with children, wrapped up against the cold, neighbors meeting and chatting, and hardy joggers from the Dowd YMCA running through the park, safe from traffic. If school was in session, a class from the adjacent Dilworth Elementary might be using the playgrounds for exercise, or the deeper recesses of the park for nature study.

Earlier today, I took our truck to our local mechanic's shop on South Boulevard for its inspection and oil change, then walked home for breakfast. Another short walk allowed my wife and me to visit shops and restaurants for lunch, while a similar pleasant stroll, past homes, offices and churches, takes us to the grocery store and a whole bunch more places to dine and shop. We can also walk to our doctor's and dentist's offices, our hairdresser, and massage therapist if we so choose. Dilworth is almost a self-sustaining community, a true "urban village" of the kind that's been the basic building block of great cities throughout history.

The reason I mention all this, and often use Dilworth in my columns, is not to regale you with the boring details of my petit bourgeois lifestyle, but to describe how successful American suburbs work, and how they ably function as models of good development for Charlotte in the future. Dilworth and Charlotte's other "streetcar suburbs" are classics of town planning that have stood the test of time. They work as efficiently today, in the era of two cars per household and radically changed demographics, as they did in the days of horses, buggies, trams and a patriarchal society.

There are simple reasons for this. The neighborhood was designed and built primarily around pedestrian convenience and public transit, so it still feels very comfortable to walk. Sidewalks are everywhere, shaded by trees and safely separated from traffic by a layer of on-street parking. Yet the way the suburb is laid out, a connected network of gridded streets and curvilinear drives, is also the most efficient design for automobile traffic. Drivers always have multiple choices of routes, so congestion is rarely a problem.

This long-term flexibility of infrastructure means that changes in the use of land and buildings can be easily accommodated, either by retrofitting older homes or erecting new structures, but always by respecting the public space framework of streets and parks that connects everything together.

This flexible pattern holds a singular lesson that should be engraved on the heart of every planner, architect and developer: the use of a building can change over time, but the building's form, and its relationship to the public street, can remain the same, or be easily adapted to cater to new uses. This way we link together the past, present and future in a web of community memory.

Far too often, we mistakenly think that use alone is the deciding factor in planning and development decisions, and we parse our lives into ever more segregated fractions, designing different pieces of Charlotte for each separate purpose and dispersing them widely across the landscape. Then, of course, we drive everywhere for everything. Each part of our lives is dependent on the automobile, which of course brings the consequent problems of congestion, pollution and obesity from lack of exercise.

When we compare this wildly inefficient design of recent suburbs with the common sense pattern of integrated uses and spaces handed down from history and illustrated by Dilworth, Elizabeth, Plaza-Midwood and a few other Charlotte locations, our choice over the next decade is clear and stark. Tightly knit suburbs like Dilworth cost less to serve with water, sewer, schools, fire and police protection, and support a strong community, because they're efficient in their use of land. Their burden on the public purse is relatively light.

In the newer car-dependent suburbs on the periphery, every public service is more expensive because activities are separated into low-density pods of dispersed development. The further out Charlotte expands, the more expensive it becomes to run sewer and water lines, drive school buses longer distances, and buy enough police cars and fire trucks to cover wider areas. And all this money comes from our taxes: as the bills get bigger, our taxes have to go up to pay them. There's no alternative.

On average, Charlotteans living their lives in distant suburbs consume three times the natural resources, and cause three times the pollution of their fellow citizens who live close to the center. Combine those figures with the spiraling costs of providing basic public services to the periphery and our future in 2015 looks bleak if we don't take corrective action. To avoid higher taxes, Charlotte should grow as a network of these interconnected "urban villages" instead of segregated sprawl. We would minimize our environmental impact while we save our tax dollars.

A decade ago, critics derided my ideas of a brighter, better future for Charlotte. Now, many of those plans are conventional wisdom, but we still have a huge task ahead of us. My mission, for the next 10 years, is to hammer home this message for urgent change till we alter our policies of urban growth to ones that are more sustainable -- on our wallets and the environment. Will you join me?

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