Save the beauty in both lands

Many Charlotteans who read my columns give me the same advice: Go back to England where you belong! It's often accompanied by what I'll euphemistically call “colorful language,” exploring a wide range of additional possibilities.

Well, these folks will be pleased to know that I've taken their heartfelt recommendation – at least for a while. When you read this, I expect to be sitting on a balcony, sipping a gin-and-tonic (there's a five-hour time difference), watching the boats in my hometown harbor shuttle back and forth. Some are taking tourists on sightseeing tours; others have just sailed across the English Channel from ports in France, Belgium or Germany.

Devon: Eden upgraded?

I was lucky enough to be born and raised in one of the loveliest parts of the world, in the county of Devon, in the far southwest of England. Devonians like to joke that the Garden of Eden was God's first try at making Devon, such is the natural beauty of the place. There are miles of rocky coast interspersed with wide pebble and sand beaches. There are soft, rolling hills and valleys of fertile farmland leading to bleak upland moors, topped by craggy outcrops of volcanic rocks and inhabited only by hardy sheep, cattle and miniature ponies. If you read about Sherlock Holmes and “The Hound of the Baskervilles,” you get the picture.

Many small towns and villages are picture postcard perfect, old stone and thatched buildings huddled around narrow lanes and village greens; communities can trace their buildings back 700 or 800 years. Of course, growing up there, I took all this for granted; only when I went away to live and work in large industrial cities in the north of the country did I begin to appreciate my southern heritage.

I've worked in cities in Europe and America ever since, studying their planning and design – how they got to be the way they are, how we can conserve their history and how to improve them with new buildings and spaces. That's one of the things that attracted me to Charlotte nearly two decades ago; this was a city moving forward with ambition and energy. From the perspective of Oklahoma, where my wife and I were living, it looked a bit like Oz.

But I've never forgotten my love of the countryside and the landscape of farms and hills that framed my boyhood. This year while I'm basking in the cool of an English summer, with palmettos below me waving in the brisk sea breeze, I'll have some wonderful American memories to keep me warm.

In recent weeks I've been a member of a team of architects and planners working on a fascinating project in the far western counties of North Carolina known as the Mountain Landscapes Initiative. This comprises a determined effort by local communities and organizations in that part of the state to find better ways of accommodating the development they need without destroying the landscape they enjoy and which sustains them, environmentally and economically.

Cowee Valley's lush landscape

My small part in this large enterprise was to work with the community of Cowee Valley in Macon County, about an hour southwest of Asheville. It was a truly wonderful experience. The people there were friendly, informative, generous and hospitable past all expectations. And the landscape they've lived in for generations is every bit as gorgeous as my home. The hills are higher and more dramatic, small mountains really, but the valleys are as lush and fertile and filled with beauty, where humans have carefully tended nature to their advantage.

For several days my colleagues and I listened to the locals and learned about their history and the dangers facing the community from bad development before we designed some homegrown solutions for them to consider. It was a very collaborative experience where designers worked hand-in-hand with residents and other community members.

Community bonds in goodwill

The folks in Cowee live in the midst of awe-inspiring beauty, and their community spirit in the face of development that threatens their way of life struck me as equally impressive. Long-time residents and newcomers bonded together with an indomitable spirit of goodwill and energy – almost a force of nature in itself.

In contrast to the ugly e-mails from certain Charlotteans that fill my inbox each month, working with these North Carolinians was a joy and went a long way to restoring my faith in America. That's a nice thought to enjoy with my gin-and-tonic!