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Big Urbanism

by Mark Peres

January 6,2007

“Make no little plans. They have no magic to stir men's blood and probably themselves will not be realized. Make big plans; aim high in hope and work, remembering that a noble, logical diagram once recorded will never die…Think big.”
- Daniel Burnham, Chicago architect. (1864-1912)

The New York Times Magazine, in its “Year in Ideas” edition published this December, proclaimed the return of “Big Urbanism.” Writer David Haskell noted the sprouting of large-scale redevelopment projects nationwide, from the $4.2 billion, 22-acre Atlantic Yards project in Brooklyn to the purchase of Bellwood Quarry in Atlanta that will be transformed into a 300-acre park part of a 22-mile rails-to-trails corridor. Similar projects of grand scale have been announced in varying degrees in cities throughout the nation.

“Taken together, these projects represent a new confidence among designers, as well as developers and public officials, in reshaping the American city,” Haskell writes.

The remaking of cities harkens back to Rome, found its modern apex in Baron Haussmann’s remaking of an entire swaths of medieval Paris into new neighborhoods, plazas, and tree-lined boulevards, and to the redevelopment of New York under the reign of Robert Moses, who directed the construction of river-spanning bridges, sweeping highways, huge scale housing projects and scores of public parks.

These projects revitalized entire environments, allowing whole new ecosystems of growth to occur, but did so by killing often still teeming old growth neighborhoods. Infrastructure that supported long-standing culture and diversity was laid waste in the hope that new roots would take hold. Sometimes it did, sometimes it didn’t, with millions of lives – usually the poor – bearing the cost either way.

The great backlash to urban renewal found its prophetic voice in 1961 when Jane Jacobs published The Death and Life of Great American Cities, in which she argued against sweeping developer-engineered master-plans and for more organic, pedestrian-level change. Her cautionary lessons led to organized movements championing conservative urban restoration.

In his New York Times Magazine piece, Haskell attributes the new big urbanism to mechanisms like “tax increment financing” that allow municipal governments to issue bonds against anticipated tax revenues. More importantly, however, he attributes it to a reinterpretation of the urban restoration movement that has held sway over the last 40 years. Haskell notes that developers and city officials are embracing a hybrid: master plans that seek lively streetscapes.

Where do we see this in Charlotte? We see it in a number of public/private multi-use developments that seek a “new urbanism”: infill and greenfield developments that follow codified design principles to achieve walkable neighborhoods – often as part of a retail entertainment destination – Philips Place, Birkdale Village, the Metropolitan.

We also see big urbanism more spectacularly in the imminent Center City initiative known as the Land Swap. In a master-stroke of vision and political maneuvering that perhaps would have given Robert Moses and Jane Jacobs common cause, Michael Smith, President of Charlotte Center City Partners, has led the effort to transform two historic neighborhoods, address what appeared to have been intractable urban design challenges, and unlock millions of dollars of development in one bold move: swap a series of land parcels as part of a master plan to create two uptown public parks, a AAA baseball stadium, hotels and high-rise condominiums in Third Ward, and jump start “Brooklyn Village” in Second Ward – a project of 700+ living units, an office building, restaurants, a grocery, retail shops and the possibility of a Second Ward High School – all in an effort to further a vibrant, vital urban streetscape.

The irony here is that we are using a new form of community development (selective demolition, tax incentives, minority contracting) to reverse the negative consequences of an old form of urban renewal (wholesale demolition, superblocks, redlining) to create a master-planned new neighborhood (Brooklyn Village) paying homage to an old neighborhood (Brooklyn) that was anything but planned.

We will see what comes of it. But the energy of it is exciting, the mere idea of it becoming, as Daniel Burnham suggested, “a living thing, asserting itself with ever growing insistency.”

And, of course, it is in that insistency that we must take care, for the sheer momentum of the idea could, like a wave, crash upon the shore of patience where true organic growth occurs.

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