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Q and A with Mark Johnson

by Mark Peres

September 4,2005

Civitas is considered by some as much a think tank as a design firm. How does Civitas go about its work?

Civitas is a design firm that is all about ideas. We address the most challenging urban problems that we can find by learning everything we possibly can about the people, the place, the economics and the culture of the city. We care deeply that our contribution is rooted in local natural and cultural histories, in hopes that our design resonates with people. Accomplishing that requires much more than creativity. It requires dialogue, investigation, debate and engagement with people. We challenge normative thinking in hopes that we can uncover truths that will form the basis for creative synthesis. Design that is not formed this way risks becoming outdated and ineffective.

What are the social values and design principles that guide Civitas?

We strongly believe that design should add value to a place in a way that improves life for local people. To accomplish that we have to satisfy core human values, as interpreted by any local culture. We strongly value diversity and inclusion of all possible people, because we feel that those are key attributes of a sustainable place. It is important to understand how a community feels about itself, where it feels it has been, and where it hopes to go. In Uptown Charlotte for example, there is a great sense of pride in being Charlottean. People feel that this is a city with a future, with hope, and where individuals can make a difference. That optimism translates into confidence and capability when making decisions that shape change.

What do you believe are the attributes of a good city that one can observe?

The best cities result from the long term actions of a culture on an ecosystem. People come to a new landscape, settle, establish an economic and political structure, and build. Over time, urban patterns emerge that reflect both the original landscape and cultural values. The best cities retain the best of their original place and purpose, while embracing change. Cities that are rich with quality streets and public spaces, great walking opportunities, great transit opportunities, and great institutions are not only the best to live in, they continue to attract new people. London comes to mind as the most vibrant city in the world today – an amazing combination of history and cutting edge thought.

What urban design challenges and opportunities does the Center City of Charlotte present?

The biggest design challenge for the Center City is enriching the quality of streets and public spaces. Tryon Street has become vibrant but so many other streets are not. By redesigning streets to accommodate multiple modes of movement – cars, transit, walkers, bikes, etc., we can start to spread the life of Tryon Street outward. Building quality parks and public places that are well connected back to Tryon Street is another obvious need. For example, people lament the lack of vibrancy in Marshall Park – but once you consider how disconnected it is from the rest of the city, how inaccessible it is, and how it is surrounded by buildings that do not open up to the park, the reasons are clear. Connections of every possible form are the foundation of active city spaces.

What specific projects are you engaged in Charlotte? What is your hope for these projects?

We are working with the Levine family and Faison Development to transform the parking lots in the First Ward into a vibrant urban village that connects with all properties around it, from the existing neighborhood to Tryon Street and Fourth Ward, and from the Brookshire to Trade street. I believe that this area holds a great opportunity to expand on living, shopping and entertainment in the Center City. We intend to create a vibrant park that satisfies everyone in the First Ward, replace parking that will be lost while also emphasizing connecting to the planned Light Rail and existing Trolley, and to improve all the streets to become more walkable, friendly and engaging for pedestrians. It will take time, commitment and the support of our neighbors and elected officials, but by listening and continually refining our designs I know we can create a great urban success story for Uptown.

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