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Is Charlotte Bing Worthy

by Christa Wagner

July 8,2009

Have you binged lately? I have. I am more or less indifferent as far as web browsers are concerned, switching between Internet Explorer and Firefox without much thought. But when it comes to Internet search engines, sorry Microsoft, I usually pick Google. I have to admit, however, that Bing -- Microsoft's newly unveiled "decision engine" -- has an enticing, come-hither feature: the homepage displays a different unusual image from around the globe each day. Just this week, I toured the glorious Butchart Gardens in British Columbia, Canada and was mesmerized by a giant sting ray that swims off the coast of Mexico near the Revillagigedo Islands.

What does this have to do with Charlotte? I think Charlotte should be one of those remarkable places that gets binged. And to do that: to be a local place with a global reach? Well, I had to browse for some answers.

Fortunately, I had recently enjoyed an extended conversation with one of the foremost academics researching the concept of urban sustainability and resilience, Timothy Beatley, the Teresa Heinz Professor of Sustainable Communities at UVA. Earlier this spring, when he visited the City and Regional Planning Department at UNC where I am working on a master's, we talked about the economic and environmental imperative to think about cities in new ways. The concepts have currency for Charlotte.

For example, a major asset for Charlotte, as a growing city, is the opportunity to put infrastructure in place that gets it "right" the first time. As Beatley noted, green building, local food, bicycling, alternative commuting choices and physical activity are all increasing in importance. Charlotte has and can continue to build amenities to accommodate these needs and desires. Further, the current economic climate, as has been argued widely, anticipates a new -- and fundamentally different -- built environment.

For cities to realize such potential, in Beatley's mind, there will need to be a balance of the competing forces of globalization and localization -- what creates jobs, what attracts workers, and what makes the place livable, enjoyable and unique. He argues that we may now be in a period where we are rethinking the benefits of globalization. In contrast, strong communities will be defined by their rootedness in actual places. "There's a quality and meaning to life that can only be gotten at that local level," he says. The term glocalism, popularized in the 1990's as a portmanteau of globalism and localism, can describe such communities, those that take local action with a global awareness.

What are some possible glocal enterprises for Charlotte? Charlotte has taken many meaningful steps toward making an interconnected, multi-modal, energy efficient and affordable urban core, from the light rail to the greenway, the city's and county's certified green buildings, and pioneering green roof projects. New York is known for its transit, Portland for being bike friendly, Chicago for its green roofs, and Berkley for its local food. So what new green economy feature will be associated first with Charlotte?

As I learned from Beatley, projects other communities are taking on include yard farming, growing food in school lots and other institutional property, and urban orchards. Instead of using resources, cities can generate them. The building façades, sidewalks, or streetlights can provide space to generate energy. And these projects will create jobs and income. In fact, the Pew Center recently released a report, with a rigorous definition of green jobs, and found the rate of added green jobs to the economy grew at 9.1 percent, while conventional jobs grew by 3.7 percent, between 1998 and 2007 across the nation. North Carolina has a solid ranking as the state with the 16th highest green job creation, and in doing so, puts itself at a competitive advantage.

In addition to being an economic engine, these examples of building sustainably will create and confirm a community's sense of place. As Beatley notes, "there are lots of ways we can show our commitment to and affection for places. One is simply to say, 'I live here and I'm going to do what I can to intimately know this place, nurture, and care for this place.'" Such guidance seems particularly sound in trying economic times. And, when heeded, I think Charlotte will find its way into B(e)ing.

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