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Q and A with Tom Low

by Mark Peres

July 4,2005

Tell us about the Civic by Design Forum.

We started it with support from the Charlotte AIA and the Levine Museum of the New South. The mission of the Charlotte Region Civic by Design Forum is to elevate the quality of the Charlotte region’s built environment and to promote public participation in the creation of a more beautiful and functional region for all. We discuss a wide range of topics, from urban infill, what makes for great streets, affordable housing, open spaces, transit and civic infrastructure, to growth and physical design. We are a non-profit group with a board of directors and steering committee. The forum is free and open to the public. We meet the second Tuesday of every month from 5:30pm - 6:30pm at the Levine Museum of the New South, 200 East Seventh Street.

Why did you start it?

Every area where people live has a regime in control. In New York, it might be City Hall and Wall Street. In Portland, it might be powerful environmental coalitions. In Richmond and Charleston, traditional Old South cities, it might be an old social establishment. In New South cities, like Atlanta, Houston, Dallas and Charlotte, the controlling regime is developers. The personality of each city is usually an extension of the personality of the controlling regime. Like other New South cities, Charlotte is business and future-oriented, open to newcomers, and less concerned with design, creativity and the arts (unless its good for business and development). We’re beginning to see a broadening in our civic personality as we begin to embrace design for its intrinsic value. We saw an opportunity to bring citizens together to talk about design and creativity, and influence the qualitative aspects of city life. Our approach is holistic and cross-disciplinary. We modeled it after the Nashville Civic Design Center, which has had great success bringing design professionals and non-professional residents together to impact the city’s physical environment.

How does the Civic by Design model work?

There are many well-intentioned organizations trying to promote smart growth. Most of them work independently and do not actively cooperate. Some take a planning department approach. Others follow a university educational model. Each has its own constituency, funding sources and particular agendas. Our approach is to offer a place and process for these different interests to inform each other, and to have as a result, a stronger say for design. We follow an “open space technology” process to help participants share concerns and suggestions on issues. We capture insights and suggestions. As we evolve, and have a better understanding of priorities and our own sustainable capabilities, we will take more action-oriented steps to influence civic design choices.

What civic design issue is of particular interest to you?

I’m interested in regional scale and new town planning connected to our transportation interchanges. We have focused a lot of due energy on the Center City, and on the whole, it seems that the Center City is on its way to becoming a thriving urban space. Architects and planners, developers, citizens and politicians, roughly in that order, have gotten it: we want an urban core with great street life, open green spaces, mixed use at various price points, and a flow of people and ideas that is porous between edges. What we haven’t focused on is containing the edges of the region. The I-485 beltway is a huge development catalyst. For the most part, what we build around each interchange of our transportation network is crud. It’s really awful, car-centric sprawl, and we all know it. But it doesn’t have to be that way. Just like we have brought better design to the inner city, we can bring better design to the outer city. New towns with walkable main streets are planned all the time. We need to plan and build compact, connected, human scale towns at our interchanges. We could reduce car trips by as much as 2/3rds, which would be a massive environmental benefit on a regional scale, let alone turning awful places into interesting places to work and live. With I-485 not yet complete, Charlotte has an opportunity to become a national leader in interchange town planning and design.

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