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The Humane Metropolis

by Mark Peres

June 6,2007

I peered over the new Independence bridge under construction off of King’s Drive near the heart of Uptown to get a better look at the future of Charlotte. With construction workers around me and back hoes within reach, I took in the uncapping of Little Sugar Creek. Concrete and steel gave way to pneumatic drills, and gray stone and creek beds that had not seen the sun in nearly 50 years sparkled in the morning light. Within a year, as recently reported brilliantly by Richard Maschal in The Charlotte Observer, we will witness a signature half-mile linear park with trees, a fountain, benches and walking trail beside a meandering creek overlooked by shops and restaurants in the center of urbanity.

It all got me thinking about the schizophrenia of the city. We are living in a time of progress and vitality in the Center City and south rail line corridor, from the catalytic bold stroke of the land swap and the green spaces that will follow to the advance of mass transit. Yet uncontrolled residential market forces on the edges and the total lay down of government in the face of suburban developers remains unabated. The most recent example noted in the press is the city is in its fifth year of delaying implementation of the Urban Street Guidelines allegedly due to pressure from developers. We are two cities in one: planned, managed, mixed-use and nascent green in one instance, and libertarian, unregulated, single-use and carbon energy-intensive on the other.

The way our officeholders seem to manage – if not contribute to – the schizophrenia is by avoiding championing either camp and advancing in half measures. That’s what many call triangulation – a practical, expedient, non controversial approach to consensus building and governing. Playing both sides against the middle. It keeps politicians in office for life and the city rocking along. Business is happy. Stability is assured. Grumbling is evenly distributed. The Charlotte Way. It’s what many like about the city and take for granted. However, it is not leadership.

Leadership is putting a stake in the ground and making a case. In the coming debate about light rail, which is really a proxy for the larger debate of growth management vs. unregulated suburbinazation (and the increasingly disparate blue-red value sets associated with each), those who oppose mass transit are leading. They have marshaled their talking points, raised money, gathered signatures and are on the offensive. They may be dead wrong, but they are clear, passionate and out-front in their cause. What I see from our officeholders who support mass transit is nervous concern about the pending vote, and the out-sourcing of their argument to the Chamber of Commerce (who will surely yield to the strings of the Uptown banks over those of the land developers). When is one of our local officeholders – other than Parks Helms – going to get out front publicly with a forceful vision of a decidedly humane metropolis well worth investing our tax dollars in?

The humane metropolis is a phrase taken from the work of William Whyte, a colleague of Jane Jacobs, noted for his landmark essays on city living. In 2002, an international conference, exploring Whyte’s insights was held entitled: “The Humane Metropolis – People and Nature in the 21st Century City.” A book by the same title, edited by Rutherford Platt, was published last year. Essays in the book explore civic and public spaces, regional green infrastructure, the restoration of urban watersheds, and resource allocation and social equity – all the things that make a city a destination and increase property value for all.

I’m not sure why the Mayor didn’t sign the U.S. Mayors’ Climate Protection Agreement. I’ve read his statement that he would not sign an agreement that would not acknowledge nuclear power as an alternative energy option. But 400 other mayors from both sides of the aisle have. We do know that the Mayor is an employee of Duke Power, which is advocating public licensure of nuclear power plants that it wants to build. I do not know what the Mayor does at Duke, but it calls his position on the issue into question.

Perhaps our local government officials could triangulate a bit less, lead a bit more, and not add to the schizophrenia.

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