Author and transit activist Benjamin Ross to speak May 28

Benjamin Ross, the author of Dead End: Suburban Sprawl and the Rebirth of American Urbanism (Oxford University Press, 2014), will discuss his book at the UNC Charlotte Center City Building on May 28 at 6 p.m. Ross's speech will be followed by a discussion with a local panel.

Ross, an environmental scientist and long-time transit advocate in suburban Washington, has put together a history of suburbia, and the attitudes that created it and that shape opposition to development in suburbs and cities alike. He is generally not a fan of NIMBYs – a slang term for people with a Not In My Back Yard attitude – although he notes that sometimes they are right. He even believes that the NIMBY movement, which arose in the 1970s, is seeing a convergence of the left with the right. For more on Ross's book, check out his interview with Plan Charlotte's Mary Newsom here.

The event is sponsored by, the UNC Charlotte Master in Urban Design Program, and Sustain Charlotte. Panel members include:

  • Ken Szymanski, executive director of the Greater Charlotte Apartment Association; 
  • Kathy Hill, Stonehaven neighborhood activist;
  • Shannon Binns, director of Sustain Charlotte; and 
  • John Howard, director of the Charlotte Planning Department’s Historic District Commission.

UNC Charlotte Center City Building
320 E. 9th St.

Crossing the lines: Real cities are regions

Sediment from the Rocky River flowing into the Pee Dee in southern Stanly County.

It’s as obvious as the air we breathe, as basic as the fluid geography of a watershed, as clear as the connection between a new highway and strip shopping centers and subdivisions clustering nearby.

But then again, the air flowing over city limits and state lines is invisible.  And most people don’t stop to think that what goes down the kitchen sink or runs off a muddy construction site eventually flows into streams, rivers or lakes and sometimes into other people’s drinking water supply. Even the idea that road-building shapes how we live, work and shop is a foreign concept to most people.

Read the 2008 Citistates Report on the Charlotte region.

In other words, despite city limits or voting district or state lines on maps, in the real world of air and water, of urban transportation and economies, city regions function in ways our political systems may not recognize. This is true not just in Charlotte but across the United States.  Although environments, economies and living patterns create very real urban regions, those geographic areas don’t exist in an official way in the basic structure of the government of the United STATES. Under the Constitution, states have powers and cities don’t.

So is it possible to create or empower meaningful efforts to manage city regions as they truly are – regions? Last week I spent several days chewing over that question with more than two dozen business and nonprofit leaders, academics, writers and former mayors.

Pulled together by author and columnist Neal Peirce and his Citistates Group, with a grant from the Rockefeller Brothers Foundation, we came at the issue from differing viewpoints but a base-level agreement that urban regions are too important to be dismissed.  But after that, what should happen next?

The concept of “regionalism” has been around for decades, but I have always filed it in the mental folder of “Worthy but Wonky.” Important, but it is a topic that tends to make eyes glaze over, with its jargon of COGS and MPOs and the A-95 Review Process (a former federal process). Yet the more I learn about cities, the more I see that problems and solutions can’t stop at the city limits. 

The idea that metro regions deserve heightened attention and respect gets more fanfare these days, thanks in part to the Brookings Institution’s Bruce Katz, director of its Metropolitan Policy Program. Metro regions, Katz preaches, are essential to our national economy. Yet state governments are too often missing in action in these discussions.

Peirce recalls that he and Citistates colleagues Curtis Johnson and Farley Peters have studied 25 cities over 31 years for Citistates Reports, and they have heard almost endlessly how state governments don’t take metro areas seriously. (Read the 2008 Citistates Report on the Charlotte Region here.)

That situation is a problem in the Charlotte region, too, although this area has advantages: North Carolina’s annexation laws (gutted by the N.C. General Assembly this year) meant N.C. metro areas created fewer municipalities than in many other states. Charlotte, for instance, covers most of Mecklenburg County and includes large suburban areas such as Ballantyne and Highland Creek. Pennsylvania, by contrast, has 2,500 municipalities and 5,000 local governments.  In addition, through the Charlotte Regional Partnership, Charlotte-area counties join in economic development and recruitment.

Yet at the conference I heard plenty of good ideas coming from other city regions. Some, such as Silicon Valley, Denver, St. Louis and Portland, Ore., have metro-wide “greenprints.”  Seattle and others have developed region-wide export-import strategies. In one example particularly relevant for Charlotte, the 10-county Atlanta region has won a long struggle to win a revenue source for its vast transportation problems.

“Everyone in the region knew we had a transportation crisis,” Sam Williams, president of the Metro Atlanta Chamber, explained.  The business community was a powerful leader in that effort.

A 2010 state law lets voters in each Georgia metro region, in July 2012, approve or scrap a 1-cent sales tax for a specific list of transportation projects. If it passes, the Atlanta region tax is projected to raise at least $6 billion over 10 years. The list of projects runs the gamut: MARTA, streetcars, freeway interchanges and bike-ped projects.

One thread running through most of those examples: A region’s business community took the lead. Businesses know the importance of quality of life, transportation and education. Williams noted that relocation specialists who help businesses find new sites look at regional cooperation, along with other checklist items.

In today’s grim economy, state governments should recognize their enlightened self-interest in helping, not hampering, their metro regions.  But today’s grim economy also has pushed the regional issues of environmental protection and sane land use planning to the back burner in favor of jobs and economic development.

It's still hard to get elected officials’ attention for topics like “regionalism.” Even within metro regions, many are wary of true power-sharing. Bill Barnes, director of emerging issues for the National League of Cities, described what he sees among groups of officials discussing the idea of regional-scale governance. “There’s always a great sigh of relief when I say it’s not ‘the answer.’ ”  But then, he tells them, “It’s not the answer. But it is a question.”

And that is where last week’s roundtable seems to have coalesced: Smart regions will – often led by the business community – start working together with or without formal governments akin to the metro authorities of Portland and the Twin Cities. It's already happening, in cities from Seattle to Atlanta.

What does any of this mean for Charlotte? As Barnes said, a regional approach may not be the answer, but should always be a question. Unlike Atlanta, Charlotte has seven transportation planning agencies; none is lodged at the regional Centralina Council of Governments. The Charlotte area has no regional Chamber of Commerce and no multicounty land use-transportation vision, such as the Puget Sound Vision 2040.  It lacks a regional planning advocacy agency akin to New York’s Regional Plan Association. It has no regional strategy for preserving land other than "hope." It has no regional transit strategy beyond waiting for Mecklenburg County to pay for it all.

All are challenges for this growing, once-rural and now increasingly urban region. Barnes described it well: “It’s all part of the messy problem of governance, problem-solving and people working together to do stuff.” Or to put it another way, we no longer have the luxury of adversarial relations.

Mary Newsom

Despite lines on maps carving out city limits and voting districts and state borders, in the real world of air and water, of urban transportation and economies, city regions function in ways our political systems may not recognize. This is the case in Charlotte and pretty much across the United States.

But is it possible to get around that problem and create meaningful ways to look at city regions as they truly are – regions? Last week I spent several days chewing over that question with more than two dozen business and nonprofit leaders, academics, writers and former mayors.


Snapshots of a resilient America

Newbury Street in Boston exemplifies an urban form that accommodates changing times.

Amid the pervasive gloom and depression about the future of American cities I was lucky enough to visit recently two very different American places that hold out some hopes for a sustainable future here in the USA. On the face of it, Champaign-Urbana, Ill., and Boston, Mass., could not be more different: one a large seaport city, founded by English settlers nearly 400 years ago, and now home to more than 50 colleges and universities within the I-95 freeway loop, and the other, a landlocked railroad town, just over 150 years old, set down as a rigid grid in the midst of endless flat prairie, and home to a single fine state university.

But each in their own way embody important lessons for a sustainable, and resilient American future.

Historical examples demonstrate that if America was built like parts of Champaign-Urbana we would have fewer urban problems of suburban sprawl with its consequent pollution and environmental damage. Shampoo-Banana, as the twin towns are affectionately called, is a classic American university environment, embedded in urbanity and with an ambience of civic and academic integration that UNC Charlotte, located on the fringe of a suburban city can only dream about.

My wife grew up in Urbana, in a classic walkable neighborhood with schools, parks and a connected network of gridded streets that were safe for cyclists, pedestrians and motorists. She walked and cycled to elementary school, middle school, high school and university. As a young child, she and her mother rode the bus a short ride into town for shopping, the library and the cinema. Her father walked to work along tree-lined streets to the university campus, fifteen minutes away. All that was normal if you were an average (white) family in the 1950s and 1960s. To many of us today, living in an environment that is constructed solely for the convenience of the automobile, that lifestyle seems like a lost age.

It’s important to strip away any lingering nostalgia for those times and learn instead the vital lessons they can teach us about patterns of building and living that are more sustainable than our contemporary developments. Leaving aside for the moment (if you can) the evils of racism and segregation that plagued American society during many decades of the twentieth century, America built far more wisely in physical terms during the period before World War II than it has ever done since. If, instead of yet more suburban pods of disconnected development, city extensions were built as a series of connected neighborhoods with schools and parks integrated into the walkable fabric of streets (just like Wesley Heights and Myers Park in Charlotte), we would be building neighborhoods that are resilient in the face of change; they would still work well 100 years from now and look every bit as good as Urbana (or Dilworth) does today.

Boston teaches us some different yet complimentary lessons. Of course, it’s old; it looks and works much like a European city. It was built organically without any master plan over centuries, and being predominantly English, early settlers built the kind of tight urban networks they were used to from home, adapting to topography rather than imposing abstract geometries. Later generations from other European nations continued this pattern of ad hoc expansion, reclaiming increasingly large tracts of land from the Charles River and the Atlantic Ocean.

Boston, too, is very walkable, supported by its extensive public transit system of light rail, buses, commuter rail and ferries. On a recent visit with graduate students from UNC Charlotte’s masters program in urban design I stayed with my son and his family who, like millions of others, moved to a suburban town after the birth of their first child. But even from this suburban location we could walk 10 minutes to a commuter rail station, get a coffee and croissant and ride quickly into the center city. There, a five-minute walk took us to my son’s architectural office. Another day, we drove a couple miles to a light rail park-and-ride station, and took an Orange Line train into the city. I walked five minutes from a downtown stop to meet my student group while my son stayed on the train for a few stops longer to reach one of the construction projects he’s supervising.

These brief snapshots of contrasting urban places can teach us vital lessons – if we want to learn from them. Whatever the scale of settlement, one of the essential building blocks of sustainable and resilient urbanity is the neighborhood. This doesn’t mean some fake real estate sales pitch about a cookie-cutter subdivision, but instead the essential fabric of a true local community, with different types of homes on connected, walkable streets, with schools, parks, offices, shops, and places of worship all easily reachable by foot, bike, car and bus.

The other essential element for urban resilience is a connected web of transit, providing a range of alternatives to the private automobile. Like millions of others, my son loves his car. It is spotless and tuned to perfection. But he also loves not having to use his car for every trip. For he and his wife, when studying the complex Boston housing market, one prime criterion for home purchase, along with school districts, was access to transit. Transit options provide urban areas with that vital capacity for resilience in the face of change. They also provide an essential freedom – freedom of choice – perhaps the most essential element of any resilient city. And that special freedom is what too many of us have surrendered in our car dependent suburban lifestyles.

David Walters

More information about the photographs: The top photo is Newbury Street in Boston, Mass. Originally a nineteenth century street of townhomes, Newbury Street is now one of America’s great shopping streets. An example of urban resilience at work; consistent urban form accommodates extensive changes in function.  The second photo is of Leal Elementary School in Urbana, Ill.  One of the oldest schools in Urbana, the truly civic building is set in a walkable neighborhood where many kids still walk and ride bikes to school. 

Views expressed in this commentary are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of the UNC Charlotte Urban Institute, its staff, or the University of North Carolina at Charlotte.

Amid the pervasive gloom and depression about the future of American cities I was lucky enough to visit recently two very different American places that hold out some hopes for a sustainable future here in the USA.

Urban Planning