A good walk, unspoiled

The word “sustainability” and its associated derivatives are thrown around with abandon to describe everything from architecture to Jay-Z’s diet. But what does it mean, really?

Tuesday, I attended a panel discussion where experts discussed how Charlotte could move toward a more sustainable future. There was talk of sprawl and ozone, policy and transit. Statistics flew, and I wrote frantically to keep the numbers straight. How many more people are moving to Charlotte? How much tree canopy has greater Charlotte lost? It was an important discussion, and I wanted to hear how far and wide Charlotte’s net was being cast. After all, my life in Charlotte is about 25 days old, and I have much to learn. I’m still in that newborn stage where time is measured in days.

But today I think I re-learned the meaning of sustainability. It began when planning my 12-mile trip to uptown Charlotte from the UNC Charlotte campus. What were my travel options? 1) Bus: ix-nay, takes too long and won’t accommodate my schedule. 2) Rail: nope, no line here. 3) Walk or bike – way too far! 4) Carpool – don’t know anyone (remember, I’m a newbie). So, I decided my only option was to drive in and take my chances with parking (crazy thinking, this being DNC week and all). Happily, I was able to park in my usual permitted area, but it was a good hike to the venue for the panel discussion, at Packard Place on South Church Street. Undaunted, I set out on foot, Google map in hand.

I embarked at a fast clip – I wanted to get there as quickly as I could. I was in unfamiliar territory, but I did my best to take in what I could along the way. I passed the Ninth Street trolley station (no trolley runs there, I later learned) and kept walking. Lots of smiles, and “Good mornings,” met me. I liked the sound of my kitten heels beating out a rhythm on the brick sidewalks. It wasn’t sunny out, just muggy with humidity, but I was happy to be walking. It felt good to propel myself through such a lively atmosphere. Was that a Secret Service entourage at the curbside, waiting for someone important? Who knew who might be getting into the blacked-out Suburban? It was an entertaining, but brisk, 20-minute walk.

I made it on time for the panel discussion. It was great stuff – we need a transit system, not just a line. (Yes!) We need the political will to keep up the fight for transportation options. (Absolutely!) We want to attract young talent and support multi-income communities. (Perfect!) The hour went by too quickly. The event’s sponsor, the PPL, and the panel organizer, Sustain Charlotte, brought together a great panel. Check out the link (here) for more information.

Afterward, I had a less hurried walk back to my car and took the time to absorb my surroundings. The architecture was beautiful. The graceful arch of overhead trees drew me down the street. I could hear the loud, shrill chirping of a whistle blown in rapid succession. As I drew near a corner, crowds were gathered and laughing, clearly entertained by something. Ah, there it was – the police officer directing traffic was putting on quite a show – dancing, really, as he sent cars this way and that. Cell phones were snapping pictures and video; no doubt tweets were posting. I continued on. From a pub on the next corner, “a little ditty ‘bout Jack and Diane … ” was spilling out. Without even thinking, I found myself adjusting my gait to the beat of the familiar song. Oh yeah, life goes o-on. I kept walking.

Here is a deli that claims to have the best hamburgers in the Queen City. I’ll have to test them on that. Another tavern, a church, a library, a school, hotels, offices, a performing arts center … and life goes on. I stopped at a deli to get a sandwich. And wouldn’t you know it, I overhear the server talking about her hometown in Florida, which was also my hometown! Turns out we went to the same high school. We comforted each other over how we missed the beach. Sigh… Back to the street and its rhythm, and I gradually made my way back to my car. The drive back to campus was highlighted by a view of the back of a VW Jetta and several tractor-trailers, one of which blocked the sign for my exit, and so I found myself in Concord. Remember, I’m a newbie.

What does this have to do with sustainability? The walkable, diverse, and interesting uptown experience I just had couldn’t be more different from the car ride back. I missed the smiling faces, the street preachers, the sidewalk café eaters and the unknown young woman ahead of me with some really cute shoes on. I enjoyed feeling part of a community – this is my town now. Chance encounters on the street – yep, that just happened. Jane Jacobs would be so proud!

Sustainability is about many things, but most of them are tied up in quality of life and quality of choices. What we need are options – and options should transcend politics or scare tactics. We need the option to choose something other than a single-occupant car ride, the option to meet someone by chance, the option to live in a walkable world, the option to live a healthier lifestyle that includes exercise away from a gym. The wise person is one who has learned to enjoy the journey on the way to where they’re going. But that’s hard to do sometimes, if you have only a singular path to travel.

Melissa Currie is a doctoral student in the department of geography at UNC Charlotte. Views expressed here are hers and not necessarily the views of the UNC Charlotte Urban Institute or the University of North Carolina at Charlotte.