It's Not Life and Death, It's More Important Than That

Last week, I hastily penned a post about the discontinuity of our civic conversation on urbanism and the atrophy of our common understanding of principles, goals and vision. Before we jump back into that, however, I must comment on the weekend.

It is clear that society places too much emphasis on matters of sport and our priorities are out of whack. We spend billions of dollars on games, while more serious issues go unaddressed. I get it, its lunacy. Perish the thought, however, of life without it. Did you see the games on Saturday? If not, you missed: a great catch to avoid a major upset; a keystone-cop-esque last second field goal; a down-on-their-luck traditional power pulling a massive upset; some dude running for a bajillion yards; and millions of redneck prayers being answered on this play (you can’t really call it Hail Mary since Alabamians don’t really go for Catholicism). I ask, where else in contemporary American society can one experience such a microcosm of the human experience. Oh, the joy of that extraordinary emotional swing- feeling the dread of certain defeat to a bitter rival to the manic jubilation of victory over seemingly insurmountable circumstances.

A couple of thoughts:

1) How good was SEC on CBS this year? They were lucky enough to broadcast such instant classics as Awbun/UGA, ‘Bama/LSU, Awbun/TAMU, LSU/UGA, ‘Bama/TAMU. Those games, as great as they were, are mere prelude to…
2) The most anticipated Iron Bowl ever. My beloved home state is home to the last four national championships (let that sink in). This year ‘Bama is ranked #1, Awbun is ranked #6. The day of reckoning is two weeks away with Awbun having a bye week and ‘Bama also having a bye playing Chattanooga. This game will wreck me, I feel like I’m going to throw up. As Bill Shankly once said of another kind of football, this game is not a matter of life and death…it’s more important than that. 

Lest I peak too early, we shall return closer to home and to issues of design and urbanism. The intent of the post last week was to observe that over the past eight-plus years a variety of factors have conspired to erode the community understanding of our shared principles and vision. To be certain, bits and pieces of various visions survive, there are a number of people in town with sophisticated understandings of urbanism, and there is an almost palpable energy coursing through the city.  There does seem to be, however, a certain lack of focus or common purpose. At risk of sounding like a broken record, I will again sing the praise of the Urban Design Studio. The Studio was a sort of “home base” for the community as it relates to issues of design and urbanism. The studio was the facilitator of community vision, and the keeper of the flame of that conversation. The strength of the studio was that it was a place of ideas, a place of education, a place of principles, a community resource, and the place that served as the steward of the community conversation. Our civic renaissance is directly attributable to this work.

I am of the opinion that there exists within the community a fundamental misunderstanding of the role and vital importance of vision. In this regard, we are a victim of our own success. We now take for granted that we can make big projects happen. We don’t just dream big, we build big. Because of our abilities, we are now prone to be more concerned about “doing things” than taking pause to consider what we’re doing. Because vision is ephemeral and intangible it is too often seen as being less important than action. The reality is that vision and action need each other. Do you think that the initial investments at the Riverfront would have been successful without the comprehensive community vision for reestablishing the “front porch” of the city? Do you think any of the development in the Southside would have come about without the community vision for creating a place for people to live, work and play?

The Design Studio was one of the most important, successful and influential players in the revitalization of the city. Despite that overall success, however, it had an abysmal record as a regulatory entity. Unfortunately, this is too often forgotten. There have been conversations regarding the creation of a new urban design resource for the city. Those conversations inevitably lead to questions of whether or not it is possible to create an entity that has the teeth to prevent bad development like BWW, Applebee’s or Publix. Those conversations always miss the point. Design Studios shouldn’t be wrapped up in that mess. If that is the goal, there are a number of better solutions to that problem. Studios should be concerned with the vitally important, indispensible, and essential task of facilitating the civic vision. The unfortunate reality is that many people can’t wrap their head around the idea that the success of our Studio was rooted in the intangible and ephemeral. Indeed, it is difficult to point at a project and say the design studio did this, or prevented that. Yet, everything we’ve accomplished is a direct result of their work.

The success of our historic revitalization is rooted in the fact that every project, public and private, contributed to an overarching shared vision of what the community wanted to be.  The country is littered with cities that have failed in their efforts at revitalization because they focused merely on building things. Our efforts were successful because we understood the absolute necessity of marrying vision and action. In my humble opinion, we are at risk of losing nothing less than our unique understanding of how to get things done...the right way. 

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