Good urban design is a political choice

Making good cities is hard work. I don't simply mean the sweat and labor of construction, nor even the brainpower needed to design neighborhoods, districts and downtowns. It's in the political arena where the really heavy lifting is done. Design solutions that are economically profitable, socially just and environmentally sustainable must battle for survival with the forces of inertia, cheapskate thinking and ideologies that confuse dogma with knowledge.

Challenging ideologies

As the new academic year begins, and with it my classes at UNC Charlotte on city planning and urban design, my thoughts turn to posing problems for my students that will illuminate the local terrain of these perennial contests. My main task is to nurture open-minded inquiry and a refusal to accept the political dogmas that litter the landscape.

In making urban places for the 21st century, most American cities don't share the inbuilt advantages of older European cities, replete with historic buildings and public spaces that evolved over centuries. Those pedestrian-friendly cities were formed when everything by necessity related to the human scale – before the car took over urban space. The dimensions of car movement have stretched sociable urban space to the breaking point; it no longer works efficiently for us when we dismount from our two-ton chariots.

For the last 50 years in America, we've been lured across the asphalt deserts of barren parking lots by fast-food oases and big-box nirvanas. And when we leave our homes for our workplaces, they're so distant that we spend, on average, one full week of every year just sitting in our cars.

The car has brought us convenience, but we've falsely equated this expediency with quality of life. Only over the past decade have Americans seriously studied urban alternatives, looking for examples and inspiration to meet the challenges and opportunities brought about by drastic changes in the global economy and climate.

Despite the country's short history, there are many fine examples of American city building. Boston's Back Bay shows the urban robustness of simple, well-built developers' architecture from the 19th century. Savannah's squares give eloquent testimony from 1733 to the foresight of British reformer James Oglethorpe's complex plan for physical and social order in the threatening wilderness of the New World. At a humbler level, I was recently in Des Moines, Iowa, enjoying one of the largest downtown farmers' street markets I have seen in America, a spectacular development that is bringing new life and investment to a once faded downtown.

Some American successes

American cities comprise the residue of both noble and selfish acts. These stem on the one hand from people, municipalities and businesses who think beyond their own desires to encompass the interests of society at large; and on the other from individuals and companies who care for nothing but their own short-term gain or self-aggrandizement. This latter class of city builders usually leaves the taxpayer to pick up the tab for the shortcomings of their badly conceived or slovenly built legacies.

A contrasting example is the hugely successful Lynx Blue Line light rail, the first part of the transportation and land use system that gives Charlotte a chance to prosper in the 21st century. Most readers will remember the unrelenting campaign waged by opponents of the line, mainly conservatives whose convictions about small government left little room for visions of the future based on large-scale public investments, coordinated land use planning and alternatives to the private automobile.

At the root of decisions about what makes “the good city” are basic questions of ideology: What is the appropriate balance between private rights and public responsibilities? And how far can cities direct investment in private property development?

Some years ago, a politician in Charlotte argued with me that “if an ugly city is the price we pay for the protection of private property rights, then so be it.” For him, ideology trumped every other consideration.

I can never accept that. Nor should my students. It's a simplistic and dogmatic view that leaves Charlotte under-prepared for the future. Tomorrow's architects and planners will need all their skill and energy to meet unforeseen crises and exploit new opportunities. The very least I can teach them is to have an open mind.