A dozen walkers gathered at Common Market on South Tryon Street Sunday afternoon for “Designs on South End,” part of a national effort to encourage residents to explore their cities and get to know their neighbors.
In Charlotte, as well as across the United States and around the globe, volunteers interested in urban design led the walks in honor of the May 4 birth date of Jane Jacobs (1916-2006), a writer who upended conventional thinking about U.S. cities with her book, “The Death and Life of Great American Cities.”
Sunday’s tour was sponsored by PlanCharlotte.org, an online publication for UNC Charlotte’s Urban Institute, and the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation. It was the final event in a series of six free walks over the weekend in several Charlotte communities. The events were part of an annual festival promoted by the international organization Jane’s Walk, named for Jacobs.
This is the third year the walks have been held in Charlotte, and the organizers say interest and participation have grown each time. This year’s walks started Friday with a “Know NoDa” tour, followed by Saturday’s “Munching Tour of Central Avenue,” both led by Tom Hanchett, historian at Levine Museum of the New South. The NoDa walk was co-sponsored by the Charlotte Museum of History.
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A Saturday morning walk in Hidden Valley doubled as an effort to clean up a mile of nature trails. Also on Saturday were walks led by professional planner John Howard that explored the park district of west Charlotte, and one in Enderly Park led by Jennifer Harris and Pearl Anderson.
As he led the South End tour, David Walters – a UNC Charlotte professor with experience as an architect, community planner and urban designer – brought along his 1965 paperback edition of Jacobs’ book, which was so worn it was held together by a binder clip. On the www.janejacobswalk.org website, it’s said that although Jacobs had no formal training as a planner, she argued that neighborhoods need a mix of uses and diversity in terms of businesses, ages, ethnicities and income.
Jacob’s favorite neighborhood was New York City’s Greenwich Village.
“When I was a freshman architect major at the University of Newcastle-upon-Tyne (in England), my professor told us not to read it because it went against everything he stood for, so of course I went out and bought it,” said Walters. “To me, it’s the most important book written since World War II about cities. It’s a full frontal attack on modern urban planning.”
As part of the 90-minute tour, Walters talked about urban design and South End, pointing out what is good design and what isn’t. Not so good was an apartment complex near the Bland Street light rail station where first floor inhabitants have windows and balconies at eye level with pedestrians. Several hundred yards away, he pointed out another complex where the ground floor starts above 4 feet of concrete steps, to give residents more privacy.
“If you leave planning up to developers, they’ll usually do things the cheapest way,” said Walters.
Walters pointed out that Jacobs’ ideals are hard to pull off in South End because it’s a relatively new area that was developed to target specific age groups, mainly Millenials and Baby Boomers, rather than develop naturally over time.
“This is why I’m here,” said Farley Snow, one of the walkers on the South End tour. “I want to hear about it from the perspective of someone in urban design as opposed to someone from the commercial side of things.”