Saving Us From Sprawl

Tom Low will not rest until we all think differently about planning and design

If you've got an idea, Tom Low has the perfect place to discuss it: the wide, columned veranda of the 1920s Greek revival mansion where his urban planning firm makes its Charlotte office. Nestled behind a Texaco station, between the old Myers Park Hardware building and Providence Café, it's a comfortable spot to contemplate ways to make Charlotte better, with the hum of Providence and Queens roads traffic in the background.

Recently, for example, Low, fifty-three, spent an hour there with former Bank of America CEO Hugh McColl, talking about Low's latest plan: rather than using trailers to ease school overcrowding, construct "learning cottages," attractive, low-cost buildings modeled after the "Katrina cottages" being used to house hurricane victims along the Gulf Coast.

And while the school system hasn't signed on to the idea yet, Low's huddle with McColl shows how, after fourteen years of preaching about how better planning and design can improve quality of life in Charlotte, he has the ear of influential folk.
The learning cottage initiative actually was birthed from the Civic Design Forum, a monthly confab founded by Low five years ago as a way to give the design community a stronger voice. Topics have included public art, teardowns, bike paths, and Eastland Mall. The group's e-mail list has grown to about 2,000, and attendance has varied from as few as ten to as many as 250, Low says, including various public officials.

Eventually, Low envisions the forum morphing into something like Nashville's Civic Design Center, a nonprofit formed to help improve that city's built environment.

All this civic work comes in addition to Low's real job, leading the Charlotte office of Duany Plater-Zyberk & Co., the influential Miami-based firm where Low has worked for twenty years. Locally, DPZ's new urbanist ethos of creating sustainable, compact, walkable, mixed-use communities can be seen in Huntersville at the Vermillion development, but the firm has had a hand in planning hundreds of neighborhoods, cities, downtowns, and other projects across the country.

Low says he knows that he and his staff could work many fewer fourteen-hour days if they would spend less time discussing ideas on the veranda and stick to the work they get paid for. But he sees himself as a new urbanist "movement activist," out to save Charlotte from the scourge of sprawl and bad design.

"We're just kind of crazy passionate people like that," says Low. "I can't really stop myself from instigating this stuff."

Big Idea

The floundering economy put the breaks on Low's school buildings initiative, so he came up with a plan to create a nonprofit organization through which people could volunteer to help build learning cottages -- similar to Habitat for Humanity. The cottages could be constructed in a few days for a fraction of the cost of conventional school buildings.


Categories: Feature, The Buzz