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Socratic Dialogue

by Christa Wagner

January 8,2009

Christa returned to school after several years as a lobbyist for an environmental group to pursue a master's degree in regional planning at UNC-Chapel Hill. John David is in his first year of the architecture program at Virginia Tech. The siblings caught up over the holiday break to talk about how their respective school experiences have influenced their thinking about cities and spaces.

Christa: So, JD, was your first semester at school anything like you expected?

John David: I'm really enjoying school. In Earth Sustainability class, for example, we looked at a water retention pond on the edge of campus and measured its inflow and outflow capacities and discussed the ability of the pond to fulfill its purpose -- to control runoff. We measured the runoff's "residence time" -- how long the water sits in the pond until reabsorption. A typical residence time is two weeks. In this pond, it was a couple of days. It got me interested in the possibilities to limit surface permeability in developments to reduce environmental impacts.

What about you, has grad school been what you though it would be?

CW: Yes, I think so. It's been interesting to be in school at the same time that so many significant and challenging issues are coming up, certainly in the economy broadly, but particularly in housing markets across the United States and what that means for planners.

JDW: One of the things I've thought about driving around Charlotte over break is the relationship of certain in-town neighborhoods to others. I'm curious about how certain roads expanded to become major arteries and how side-by-side neighborhoods are economically stratified, like Grier Heights and Eastover. I'm definitely thinking a lot about what our community will look like over the next few decades.

CW: Yes, we are witness to a lot of change as Charlotte natives. When I was in high school, and you were just leaving the fifth grade, farms dotted the developments out Providence Road. You have to drive outside of the county now to see a more rural landscape. One of the big questions we wrestle with in planning school is who pays for growth?

JDW: I'm impressed with Charlotte. I like that the local governments and private developers worked together to make a really successful project in the redevelopment of Midtown Square by rethinking "big box" retail to make it fit into an urban environment and improving the creek with a greenway. It's smart and I hope it's suggestive of how future development will go in Charlotte.

CW: Certainly, Charlotte has done well to accommodate the growth of new residents and businesses. One of the issues cities like Charlotte are starting to think about is their retirement populations. Residential development in more dense neighborhoods and uptown will need to accommodate not just single people and the younger workforce, but also retirees, who will need to meet their mobility challenges as they age with closer connections between their homes and every day trips.

JDW: So, how can CATS and LYNX be more accommodating to older adults and other dependent travelers? Do we bring the public transit to retirement developments, or do we encourage developers to build closer to transit systems? It's a difficult question for people in your field to consider. Do you reward suburban development by reinforcing it with new transit lines or do you "force" a redistribution of development like the LYNX blue line rail corridor along South Boulevard and bring new areas to life? By the way, I hope you're reading the paper up at school. The Charlotte planning department's ordinance to require more bike lanes in new developments was recently upheld by City Council.

CW: So, park your car. And walk, bike, or take transit.

JDW: Oh, most definitely. College towns like Blacksburg and Chapel Hill are small and dense and can accommodate biking really well. It's more complicated and costly to add that infrastructure in larger cities, but I think it's really important. At school I walk and take public transit.

CW: Me too. Hey, speaking of college students, great news that there are plans to extend light rail to the university area.

JDW: That is great. But, you know, if I've learned anything this semester, it's that I love my walkable college campus. Community design needs a human scale. I hope there's more of that in store for Charlotte.

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