When a community builds a road or a park or a public building, both the integrity of the design and the level of quality express the values and aspirations of the people who live there. This public realm is the way that the community tells the world about itself. In a sense, cities are like people- they are not defined by what they think of themselves, or how they view themselves, they are defined by their actions.
The South is a special place. Regardless of whether or not others think we are “special”, we are undeniably distinct. We have a culture that sets us apart from the rest of America. Anyone with a Facebook feed has seen the glut of maps and infographics that illustrate the fact that we are, in fact, different from the rest of the country.
I see this as a very good thing (and not in a secessionist kind of way). We have our idiosyncrasies of language (“ya’ll” instead “you guys” and “Coke” instead of “soda”). We are a people of faith (the bible belt). We have our own sport (college football). We love and cherish our natural resources (by fishing, hunting, hiking, skiing, and climbing through them). Due to our agrarian roots we have an almost spiritual connection to the land. We pride ourselves on friendliness (southern hospitality). We are also largely conservative.
Our self-image is wrapped in all of these values, and this is how we present ourselves to the rest of the world. We have a self-image of being different and distinct from other places in the country- aspiring to lofty values. If we are true to those values and aspirations, it stands to reason that they will be in evidence in the cities we build. Unfortunately, the environments we’ve built don’t express the values we profess.
We consider ourselves gracious and hospitable. Yet when you drive through traffic in Birmingham, Atlanta, Jackson, or Chattanooga, grace and hospitality are not the first things that come to mind. If those are our dominant values shouldn’t they be the dominant characteristics of the city?
We say we value the natural environment- but our sprawl-driven development patterns degrade the land and water that we use to feed ourselves, that we use for recreation and that we have an almost spiritual connection to.
We’re largely conservative and bristle at the yoke of big government. But the fact is that the sub-urbs are the embodiment of Big Government imposing its will. Through decades of the subsidization of infrastructure, gasoline, and the administration of zoning and subdivision regulations, the government has dictated to the market what can and will be built. For decades we have built cities where there is virtually no real choice for how and where our citizens live.
All of this is to say that the environment we have created for ourselves does not reflect the values we profess.
Our cities should have public realms that exude Southern Hospitality. Southern cities should protect and preserve the natural environment that we hold dear. We should exhibit the best characteristics of our faith- generosity, caring, and compassion for all of our brothers and sisters. We should provide real choices and freedom for our citizens to live as they see fit. We should be able to have the same level of pride in our built environment as we do in our culture.
This is why design matters. Are designers and architects not those who impart form and give visual presence to the programmatic needs of the city? Is it not their responsibility to clients and community to impart a visual language that embodies our individual and shared values? Are they not uniquely qualified to give physical form to abstract ideas? Who else understands how to design space that is gracious and that exudes hospitality? Who else will demonstrate the concept that there are indeed values that cannot be accounted for in numbers or dollars?
In the end – good urbanism and good urban design are about having good manners. It’s about respecting context: our neighbors and community. Nothing is more Southern than good manners, and it is from that principle that we must move toward an urbanism of the South.