Time to Plan

This issue contains a profile of a man named Tom Low. The story is called “Maybe It’s Time to Start Listening to Tom Low” (page 62) and it was written by Annie Monjar. It’s a really good, somewhat complex story, and I hope you read it. Here’s the gist:

Tom Low is an urban planner. He is devout in his belief in a concept called “new urbanism.” Think main streets—walkable, pleasant, neighborly, everything you need a stroll away. That’s new urbanism. As you may have noticed, there was no mention of cul-de-sacs, McMansions, or forty-minute commutes. As you also may have noticed, Charlotte has a lot of the latter. And people tend to complain about their commutes, McMansions are impossible to sell these days, and a lot of those cul-de-sacs are lonely, waiting for homes that may never be built.

Yet developers persist in proclaiming that the market will determine what needs to be built, not planners. The obvious problem with this statement: the market is focused only on the here and the now. As soon as the market shifts, like it did in 2008, like it’s been doing for a decade, entire waves of development become obsolete and unsustainable.

Clearly, a city needs all types of places to live, because all types of people live in cities. But after reading Annie’s story, what also seems clear is that something has to give.

Clearly, a city needs all types of places to live, because all types of people live in cities. But after reading Annie’s story, what also seems clear is that something has to give.

I’ve had the opportunity to be involved on the periphery of a few planning processes. It usually goes something like this: planners, either on the city’s payroll or hired guns like Low, draw up a sensible plan. It includes all the things that people enjoy, like wide sidewalks, inviting façades, buildings scaled for pedestrians, retail and offices in close proximity. They unveil the plan to the public. The public largely ignores it. Real estate developers do not. They prod and cajole, reference “the market,” negotiate and interrogate. They do this with the planners, and they do it with the planners’ bosses. At the end of the “public input process,” the plan is a shell of its original self. But wait! There’s more!

A plan is not binding; it’s just a suggestion. City Council has the final say when the developer comes before the dais to get his or her project approved. This is where all those campaign contributions come in handy. You can guess what usually happens next. Or you can look to areas like University City, which is about the worst example of a college town I have ever seen. Think Davidson, Princeton, Chapel Hill. Now imagine the opposite. (Things got so far off track in University City that the area voted to impose an extra tax on itself to raise money to try to retrofit the area.)

Yes, that’s all an oversimplification. There are bad planners, for sure. Especially in the 1970s and 1980s, there were lots of just plain bad plans. There are plenty of real estate developers who value high-quality, sustainable built environments. Charlotte is recognized nationally for using its nine miles of light rail to encourage billions of dollars in dense development. And the burgeoning greenway system shows how we can make this city walkable and bikeable.

But still, Charlotte is noted for its sprawl and its bad air. Because of the recession, development is at a standstill. It’s a good time to do some planning, so that we’re prepared for the inevitable (right?) turnaround. Maybe it’s time to start listening to Tom Low.