As anyone who has come within earshot of me in the past four days knows well, I had the great fortune to be invited to the first round of a certain golf tournament in Georgia last week. That place is amazing. But as amazing as the place is, it’s not very easy to identify exactly what makes it so special. It is clearly more than a collection grass, trees, paths, athletic facilities, azaleas, creeks, bridges, buildings and parking areas. Everything element there works in concert and enables every other element to be the best it can. The place is the embodiment of synergy.
I would wager that if you charged a horticulturalist, a golf course designer, an architect, a transportation engineer, a golfer and a hydrologist to each design their idea of a perfect place and overlaid them, you couldn’t come up with anything close to the quality found there. For example, on this course a tree does not exist just for environmental purposes or aesthetic appeal, it also provides shade for patrons and other plants, habitat for wildlife, detention for stormwater, and challenges for golfers (and Presidents). Likewise, every other element of that place plays a number of roles in a number of the nested systems that comprise the ecosystem of the golf course.
Cities follow the exact same model. In a perfect world, a street would not only move cars, but move pedestrians, provide an organizational structure for buildings, house other infrastructure, accommodate parking, and provide opportunities for social interaction. However, in our country we have been more than willing to abdicate the responsibility for designing holistic, integrated places to experts who design their little piece of the pie without concern for how the disparate elements of the city relate to one another.
Despite arguments to the contrary, the soulless, sub-urban sprawl we have produced for decades is not a nefarious act perpetrated by greedy developers. Our cities have developed according to a comprehensive and prescriptive set of design guidelines. We haven’t called them design guidelines, we call them street design standards, subdivision regulations, and zoning ordinances. Sub-urban sprawl is mandated by law. Those guidelines were based on sound principles; the safety of automobile drivers, providing fire and police protection for houses, and segregating incompatible land-uses- all worthy goals. However, as experts in various fields were drafting their design guidelines, no thought was given to how all of the pieces fit together in this very complex system. The ultimate effect is the opposite of synergy, our whole is less than the sum of the parts since the parts are often working at cross purposes.
The greatest cities in the world have been created incrementally by generalists, comprehensive thinkers and renaissance men- not credentialed experts. Clearly, the solution is to do away with laws that force us to do the wrong thing and start over with integrated development codes that enable healthy city building. Unfortunately, we have chosen to go in the other direction and engage more experts to create more layers of regulation that do nothing but band-aid a broken system.
The great Bobby Jones*, co-founder of the Masters Tournament, was a renaissance man, an attorney and an amateur golfer. Our city builders need to have a similar focus on not only having a well-rounded game, but a well-rounded perspective.
*If you can watch this without getting misty you have no soul…(8’ long, but worth every second)