9 ways (and more) Charlotte could be a better city

Group seated at parklet on North Tryon St. in 2014

In advance of our free Citizen Jane  film showing, we ask nine local thinkers about cities what Jane Jacobs might say to Charlotte in 2017

It’s been 56 years since writer and activist Jane Jacobs published The Death and Life of Great American Cities and turned many of that era’s city planning beliefs upside down. She pointed out that a city’s natural messiness and seeming disorder were, in fact, part of a complex system that depended on diversity, small enterprises close together, and old buildings.

Today, planners around the world still analyze her work, honor it, quote it and occasionally debate it. This month, you don’t have to be a planner to learn more about Jane Jacobs’ life, work and words, and how they are relevant to Charlotte and the Carolinas in 2017. The UNC Charlotte Urban Institute and the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation are sponsoring a free public showing of the documentary, Citizen Jane: Battle For The City on Sept. 28 at UNC Charlotte Center City.

The film chronicles Jacobs’ battles with developers who threatened to demolish New York City's most historic neighborhoods and offers a lesson in the power of the average person to push back. It shows how she single-handedly undercut her era’s orthodox model of city planning, exemplified by the massive Urban Renewal projects of New York’s “Master Builder,” Robert Moses. Jacobs and Moses figure centrally as archetypes of the “bottom up” and the “top down” approaches to planning and city building. 

Doors open at 6 p.m., with light refreshments. The film begins at 6:30 p.m. Panel discussion and question-answer session follow the film. It’s free but registration is required.

REGISTER TO ATTEND

In advance of the film we asked some local experts in cities and city planning this: If Jane Jacobs were in Charlotte in 2017, what advice might she offer? 

REMEMBER ‘THE SMALL EFFORTS OF THE MANY’

Deb Ryan, chair of Charlotte Mecklenburg Planning Commission

Deb Ryan, chair, Charlotte-Mecklenburg Planning Commission, and associate professor of architecture and urban design at the UNC Charlotte College of Arts + Architecture:

In 2017, Jane would remind us that cities are built on relationships, both material and human, and we must attend to both if Charlotte is to become the place it aspires to be.

She'd tell us that as long as we valued the efficiency of the automobile over the experience of the pedestrian, our city would never become a great place to live. She’d remind us that streets are not simply ribbons of asphalt on which to move cars, but places for people to live their lives. She’d say that traffic congestion was not necessarily bad, and we ought to stop using it as an argument for not doing good things, like building affordable housing or demanding more pedestrian-oriented neighborhood design.

She’d say we need to encourage more people to literally make their mark on the city, so that there were more places in town that were unique, full of personality, and even a bit quirky and strange. Jane would tell the city to double down on efforts to support individual innovation, whether through yard art, tactical urbanism or small businesses, understanding a city is made equally from the small efforts of the many, and not just the large gestures of a few. 

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KEEP BUILDING A ROBUST TRANSIT SYSTEM

John Howard

John Howard, planning manager, City of Charlotte Historic District Commission:

I think Ms. Jacobs would commend Charlotte on investing in our green infrastructure – our greenways, park system and the uncapping of Little Sugar Creek in Midtown. She would encourage us to continue building a robust transit system that integrates bus and rail. She would also encourage us to be vigilant in providing decent housing for our most vulnerable citizens and in areas that are convenient to transit, walkable and near neighborhood retail.

 

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WHY REPEAT HISTORICAL MYTHS?

Ken Lambla with student. Photo: UNC Charlotte College of Arts + Architecture

Ken Lambla, dean and professor, UNC Charlotte College of Arts + Architecture:

I think what Saskia Sassen wrote in the Guardian last year [“How Jane Jacobs changed the way we look at cities”] is the most succinct description of her contribution to “seeing” the city. Thus, I cannot help answering your question by saying that the “advice” – or more importantly, the “demand” she would make – to the citizens of Charlotte is to TAKE THE TIME TO SEE AGAIN! She would point out the difference between “looking at” and “seeing” (referencing Susan Sontag and John Berger here) and to make a distinction between categorization (convenient to reports) and really looking at the city as a living organism with real people.  She would critique the rise of data analytics as a subterfuge in policy analysis, and she would ask why we repeat historical myths.

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NEW IDEAS, YES, BUT LOSS OF OLD BUILDINGS

Penelope G. Karagounis, Lancaster County, S.C., planning director

Penelope G. Karagounis, Lancaster County, S.C., planning director:

If Jane Jacobs were in Charlotte in 2017, she would start out with her famous quote, “Old ideas can sometimes use new buildings. New ideas must use old buildings.” The emergence of mixed-used projects has brought Charlotte into the era of new ideas. However, these new ideas have bulldozed the landscape of Charlotte by decreasing the identity of historic neighborhoods and narrowing the ability of affordable housing to continue.

At the same time, Charlotte is promoting open space by advocating and building more parks and greenways to connect with all the neighborhoods. The support of local efforts like the Catawba Lands Conservancy, the Carolina Thread Trail, and Sustain Charlotte is laying the foundation to build public awareness in Charlotte.  

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CITIZEN ACTIVISM HAS MORPHED INTO INDISCRIMINATE NIMBYism

David Walters, architect and town planner; professor emeritus of architecture and urban design at UNC Charlotte; consultant urban designer for Stantec Urban Places Group:

David Walters. Photo: Linda Luise Brown

If Jane Jacobs visited Charlotte today, she would reinforce the following points from her 1960s manifesto:

1. Charlotte MUST retain its fast depleting stock of older, cheaper buildings. These are essential for any city to retain a broad and sustainable economic base that caters to a wide variety of residential incomes and to start-up, creative enterprises. Without old, affordable and useful buildings adaptable (cheaply) to a variety of uses, the city can all too easily become an upper-middle class theme park.

2. Jacobs loved density as the corollary to public open space. In areas such as South End and in pockets along the northern extension of the Blue Line, she would advocate much higher densities to support true mixed-use development. A mixed-use neighborhood is much more than the bedroom-and-brewery model that now blankets South End. (Note: In the spirit of Jacobs, the new South End Vision Plan sets out this kind of future.) 

3. Jacobs would be dismayed at how her citizen activism against bad planning has morphed into indiscriminate NIMBYism (Not In My Back Yard) that stifles excellent new development as well as bad plans. Jacobs imagined an educated citizenry that understood the issues inherent in diversity and development, not close-minded people living in a series of neighborhoods segregated by class.

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‘A PAT AND A PINCH’

Alysia Osborne, Historic West End director

Alysia Osborne, director of Historic West End, an initiative of Charlotte Center City Partners:

If Jane Jacobs were in Charlotte today, I think she’d begin with a “pat and pinch” – a “pat” on the back for our efforts to create a vibrant, walkable, and inclusive city.

And then, we’d get a subsequent “pinch” on the shoulder for not being more aggressive and intentional with our policies and plans for creating an equitable and inclusive city for all who live, work and experience our city.

 

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KEEP 36TH STREET CLOSED TO CARS FOREVER

Robert Boyer, assistant professor, Department of Geography & Earth Sciences at UNC Charlotte:

Robert Boyer

Jacobs on center city Charlotte: “A giant corporate parking lot. The rest of it is a government-subsidized playground for tourists and bankers. Any semblance of a neighborhood was destroyed years ago, when streetcars were extracted, urban renewal demolished the Brooklyn neighborhood (in Second Ward), and the interstate highway system choked off access to pedestrians and cyclists. My advice: Demolish I-277 today and close the entire central business district to personal automobiles. Allow buses, bikes and humans to pass through freely. Everyone will be safer and happier. The air will be cleaner. It will relieve congestion on I-77. Businesses will thrive.”    

Jacobs on South End: “This is a cartoon of urbanism, at best. You’ve created the appearance of density, but you've scrimped on the actual pedestrian infrastructure, kept all the parking lots (structured and surface), allowed developers to copy-and-paste cheap apartment stock, and razed some of the most charming historic structures. Thank goodness for the Rail Trail and Price’s Chicken Coop.”

Jacobs on the NoDa neighborhood: “The closest thing to an actual mixed-use, pedestrian-scale neighborhood in Charlotte. Good job preserving the mill structures and historic Main Street buildings. They’re filling up with high-quality, locally owned businesses. Light rail will only invigorate the place. 36th Street is closed to traffic for light rail construction. Keep it closed to cars forever. Open it up for bicycles and humans. Add more housing.”

Jacobs on Charlotte’s rental apartment boom: “More like a carpeted, minimum-security prison boom.”

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CHARLOTTE, IT’S OK TO BE A LITTLE PICKY ABOUT DEVELOPMENT 

Monica Holmes, who advises, “Get active.” Photo courtesy Monica Holmes

Monica Holmes, planning coordinator and urban designer, Charlotte Mecklenburg Planning Department:

What Jane Jacobs would tell us:

Think small. Charlotte does not need a grand master plan or development proposal for every piece of land. If you ask most Charlotteans the places they love, they will tell you about locally owned shops and loved parks – the Common Market, Latta Arcade, Romare Bearden Park, 7th Street Public Market, their greenway or coffee shop. While some of those were not small feats to build, they all are not too big and not too expensive to frequent. Charlotte needs more of these spaces and places inclusive to all.

Work on the cleanliness. Yep, Charlotte is a really clean place. You can get a little funkier and work on being comfortable in a little bit of sidewalk grit. After chatting with a longtime NoDa resident I’ll tell you that visitors always remark that it doesn't seem like the neighborhood is in Charlotte. It is too dirty. That is rapidly changing, but let it hang around a little bit longer and promote it if you can. Charlotte can do that with more murals, older buildings, and even letting the flyers stick to the telephone polls for a couple of days. 

All investment is not positive investment. Charlotte is growing up, and you can be a little bit picky. It is OK to ask developers and investors to consider the residents who live there now when they are designing new houses and apartments. It is OK for neighborhoods to say that quality is important. Everyone deserves to have sidewalks that connect people to where they want to go and businesses that support the local community. Take control of your destiny and get active. 

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CHARLOTTEANS, LISTEN TO EACH OTHER 

Historian Tom Hanchett: Would Jane Jacobs see sprawl, or incubators for new business?  Photo: Mary Newsom

From Tom Hanchett, historian, author:

If Jane Jacobs visited Charlotte today, I think she’d be impressed with the walkability and liveliness of the center city, though sad at its lack of old buildings. I wonder if she’d see places such as Central Avenue and South Boulevard as valuable incubators of new ideas in “ordinary old buildings,” whose cause she championed – or whether she’d simply see those streets as sprawl.

Whatever she thought about today’s Charlotte, her advice for the future, I’m sure, would be for us all to listen to each other and be alert to the desires and energies of everyone. As she famously said, “Cities have the capability of providing something for everybody, only because, and only when, they are created by everybody.”