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Five Memos for the Next Wave

by David Wagner

October 3,2004

A few years ago, I served as a citizen participant in crafting the 2010 Center City Vision Plan. I suggested that we use nouns to define the urban experience rather than emphasizing process when creating our vision. I suggested "memory" as a most appropriate word. I would now like to add a few more nouns to the lexicon of our planning model and nurture the possibilities and potential hidden in these words.

While graciously admitting a debt to the great Italian storyteller, Italo Calvino, I challenge us to stretch our imaginations. Calvino was drafting, “Six Memos for the Next Millennium,” which was to be the Charles Elliott Norton lectures at Harvard University, when he unexpectedly died. He completed five of the six memos. Calvino was pointing out universal values for future generations. They were lightness, quickness, exactitude, visibility and multiplicity. I believe we can make an argument for direct organic comparisons to our city from these qualities.

First, lightness, in the act of writing, is removing weight, as if to say, the burden of living bedevils our desire to act with spontaneity. In city planning, weight is over-management of desires based on a false assumption of needs. Beyond an overall organizational concept, cities become light when "imagination flourishes."

Quickness, in literature, is the connection revealed between people, events and objects, each of which can become a special force. Therefore, quickness has much to do with expectations and is not necessarily measured by a string of events. A well-placed, well designed edifice creates an urgency, which can often result in a visual rhythm of buildings and places appearing as though instantaneous, like street vendors clustered around a busy intersection.

The ancient Egyptians, as Calvino pointed out, used feathers as a counterweight on scales for the weighing of souls. Thus, exactitude defines a well calculated plan of work, balanced with clear, incisive and memorable visual images. ere we can easily derive an analogy regarding the exactitude of cities. It is precisely this notion of balance which, when misconceived, leads to the banality of the urban environment. When well-defined master plans are deemed the general solution to all design issues, the reality, or should I say, the exactitude of great cities, is based not on general solutions, but on a multitude of particular solutions that lead to a general solution. Therefore, an almost imperceptible weight, when balanced against an array of visual imagery, leaves the indelible impression we call visual memory.

Calvino stated that there are two types of imaginative processes. One that starts with a word and arrives at a visual image and one that starts with an image and arrives at a word. He was describing visibility. Most cities are first images in our minds, followed by words to describe them when they meet our imagined expectations. Visibility then is the act of making a context, layering detail and form, and creating variety and place.

Finally, multiplicity is described by Calvino as a vast network of connections and events between people, places and activities. It is a notion that the world is a system of possibilities, a layer of conditions inter-related. As a composition, a city is a record of learning or knowledge, past and present. A city is a combination of experiences which tie the emotion of the moment to the memory of the place.

What does this mean for Charlotte? I think it means romance, falling in love with our city. Describing it as you would a good friend, with loquaciousness, feeling and memory. As Andrew Saint, the British historian observed, “Great cities draw us romantically toward them.”

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