Last spring, University City became a laboratory of sorts for a group of students in the UNC Charlotte College of Arts and Architecture’s master of urban design program.
The experiment was to take University City’s existing layout and apply the concept of landscape urbanism – a theory that involves linking disconnected sections of an urban environment by using its natural landscape, like creeks and tree canopies, instead of brick buildings and concrete infrastructure.
The students’ results were presented at the Civic by Design forum, a monthly public discussion on Charlotte’s growth issues, held at the Levine Museum of the New South.
The idea of urban landscaping is considered an increasingly popular remedy for urban sprawl, which often is responsible for fracturing a city and forcing reliance on cars to get anywhere.
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Charlotte has experienced tremendous growth in recent decades, creating its own issues with urban sprawl in some areas.
“Right now, the way the city has been expanding, you have limited connectivity,” said Ming-Chun Lee, an assistant professor in UNCC’s College of Arts and Architecture. “It’s not walkable. It’s really designed for people with cars.”
University City is one of those problem areas. Interstate 85 runs through it, drawing a barrier to pedestrians between the east and west sides of the area. Few roads have sidewalks or bike lanes, and main streets like W.T. Harris and University City boulevards have few crosswalks.
Using University City as a case study, Lee’s students created projects to ease urban sprawl issues, making the area more walkable from one end to the other.
With greenways, untouched woodlands, creeks and parks, the north section of Charlotte is an area ripe with natural assets perfect for urban landscape projects, said Jaquasha Colon as she described her ideas at the forum. “There’s a lot of things that are happening but they’re not connected.”
Colon’s ideas included creating micro-housing towers for single employees around the University Research Park area, reducing the number of parking spaces to discourage car ownership, establishing bike and car-share programs and building parking decks with rooftop farmland to grow produce for residents and local restaurants.
“We wanted the architectural and natural environment to co-exist together, to connect the workforce and the residents into the center of the University area,” said Colon.
Other projects included plans for a new recreational center that takes advantage of lakeside footage, meditation areas in wooded settings and the introduction of green streets that use rain gardens and swales to improve stormwater runoff and sidewalk trees and planters to reduce the urban heat island effect.
Designing a plan for the city was good practice for his students, said Lee, who hopes to see more examples of urban landscaping become reality someday.
“Right now, it’s mainly just a concept,” said Lee. “Urban landscaping hasn’t really come with a set of methods of how to really turn a city into a green city.”
Lee has visited other cities, including Seattle and New York City, whose urban landscape projects have made the jump from blueprints to reality.
If the trend continues among urban planners, phrases like “concrete jungle” may become descriptions of the past.
“A lot of cities have been trying to bring nature back,” said Lee.
Lisa Thornton is a freelance writer: email@example.com.