I have an uncanny ability for developing great ideas that require tremendous amounts of work but result in little or no pay. And…I’ve come up with another one! The problem is that time usually devoted to blogging will be split working on this new project. The blog may suffer for a few weeks, so please cut me a bit of slack and I will reward your patience with some cool concepts that will hopefully be thought-provoking and insightful.
If the guiding principles for good urban design had to be distilled into one word, I think that word would be context. Context is everything in the consideration of the built environment. Good designers take cues from the context of the existing built environment, the historic context of the site, the context of natural systems and social context of anything they design. This post doesn’t have much to do with urban design. It does, however, have plenty to do with the city. Today, I will consider my profession in context and put urban design issues in perspective.
Urban design is about quality of life. How we build and inhabit our cities has a great impact on issues of health and well-being and our buildings provide the fundamental human need of shelter. If we are honest, however, urban design is not a matter of life and death. When I complain about Noodles or Buffalo Wild Wings or P-word, those are valid concerns within the context of how important it is to build healthy, sustainable communities. In the big scheme of things, however, those complaints are insignificant.
Ya’ll know that I love Chattanooga. I am a choir-member, cheerleader and one who spends his time spreading the Gospel of the Scenic City to clients across the country. We have a lot of fantastic things going on right now– great stuff at VW and the spin-offs it created, the Gig service and the possibilities it represents, the promise of a new election, and all of the cool things working downtown. It’s a fine time to be white in Chattanooga.
Unfortunately, for a large number of our neighbors, times are a bit tougher. It seems that every time I go to Chattanooga.com, I am greeted with another story of someone murdered or shot. Every one of those who are killed is someone’s son or daughter and may be someone’s mother or father. To borrow from the late, great Robin Harris, it seems that we are in a place where the quality of life is going up, but the chance of life is going down. It always upsets me when I see an article about a Chattanoogan being murdered in cold blood followed by an article about a new opening up or who was lucky enough to win the Disney on Ice tickets. I guess I have a hard time focusing on the community’s good life when we apparently can’t provide for the basic health, safety and welfare of all of our citizens.
We have young people in our city who routinely murder one another over nonsense, but it seems the community only wants to talk about who is being mean to horses or where the door of a new grocery store should be located. When it comes to inaction, I am as guilty as the next guy. It’s easy to write about problems, it’s quite another to get out in the community and try to fix them. We love to talk about the Chattanooga way- bringing diverse stakeholders together to work in a spirit of cooperation and collaboration to solve a problem. The promise of that process is that it extends to every corner of the community- a promise that I daresay has not been fulfilled to this point.
We face a number of complex issues, and frankly I’m not sure what the urban design community can do to help. Chattanooga is not unique in facing these difficulties. We are, however, a special place in that we have figured out ways to overcome seemingly insurmountable problems in the past.