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Us and Them 

Government's catalyzing role in improving cities

Ignored by local media, three world-famous architects slipped in and out of Charlotte last week to speak at the North Carolina AIA Summer Design Conference. Christoph Ingenhoven from Germany, Dr. Kenneth Yeang from Malaysia, and Dr. Frank Duffy from Britain gave presentations on the future form, content, and location of new office buildings.

Their messages of urgent reform in the ways we design and plan our workplace environments were generally well received by the 450 architects present, although there were a few grumbles about "too many foreign accents." The experts tiptoed carefully around a common theme: why more advanced design was happening in Europe rather than America, which was also the subject of this column last week. This volatile disparity in design between "us and them" was diplomatically dodged by Ingenhoven when he answered a question by saying, "I don't want to make Americans more angry at Germany."

He steered clear of saying that European countries have regulations that promote innovative, ecological design, whereas here the forces that produce our built environment reward conservatism; yesterday's solutions are more highly regarded than new ideas. This backward-looking attitude doesn't work well in today's globalized culture, and consequently Charlotte will struggle to compete in a fast-changing world.

The dilemma for Charlotte, and by extension for the US at large, is that progressive European designs for buildings and cities are often a function of government leadership, not private sector enterprise. For Americans conditioned to believe that government is always the problem, never the solution, this central, catalyzing role is difficult to comprehend.

The business models for most American developments look back to what worked well in the past, and replicate those solutions in the future; tried and tested types of development mean less financial risk to private capital than new ideas. Innovation of any sort is hard to infiltrate into this bottom line mindset, let alone "radical" ideas of ecological, "green design" for new buildings.

European countries are trying hard to decrease environmental pollution and the use of expensive energy. Because buildings generally account for over 60 percent of national energy use in their construction and operation (with equivalent problems of greenhouse gas production), governments there have set high standards for energy efficient design and planning.

An English developer with a track record of innovative projects once revealed to me why such government leadership was necessary.

"You don't think I'd do all this fancy stuff unless I had to?" he replied to my question regarding his success. "I'd much rather build something simple like a shopping center on a greenfield site than a complicated mixed-use project in the city. I'd make as much money more easily."

"But what about damaging the environment, and the extra traffic and pollution that comes with building on greenfields?" I asked.

"Not my problem," he replied. "Listen, I do complex developments in cities because government policies on urban design, planning, and sustainable development usually require them. All my competitors are working under the same regulations, so the only way I can beat them is to be more innovative."

This developer had adapted creatively to a situation that stopped him from building cheap and mediocre buildings: his solution was to make money through innovative design instead. In this context, last year's formula would be the kiss of death.

Contrast this with the view most common in Charlotte (and espoused stridently by developers like Michael Mulvaney in The Charlotte Observer) to the effect that unbridled capitalism, free from all government regulation, always produces the best results, and to think otherwise is anti-American.

I'm not an American, so I can say this argument is utter nonsense. Patterns of development in Charlotte are massively influenced and subsidized by American government taxation policies that reward suburban homeownership and penalize urban renters, and transportation policies that favor roads over rail. In other words, American governmental regulations and handouts of tax dollars promote the status quo. Charlotte's sprawl could not have happened if developers had to build the highways that opened up their land and served their subdivisions. In fact, these captains of free enterprise have enjoyed a government handout of $1.2 billion for the outerbelt -- and they have the gall to bleat about government getting in their way, or complain about smaller amounts of money going to build light rail!

Innovative development and architecture is hard to do in Charlotte, and many architects left the conference scratching their heads, excited by what they had seen, but frustrated by so few opportunities to put new ideas into practice. I doubt progressive government will lead the way in America for at least a generation. Things will have to get much worse before they get better. Yet, maybe someday we'll be able to stop looking to Europe for the best ideas and build buildings in America that are once more the envy of the world. But not yet.

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