Snapshots of a resilient America

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.