by Thomas E. Low
Is there a correlation between the Slow Food Movement and people’s general concern about the loss of quality of life associated with rampant development that threatens the character of their community? The Slow Food Movement started in Europe as a reaction to the onslaught of American fast food chains opening in historic towns and cities. These chains disrupted the tradition of restaurants and cafés that worked within a local and regional network of farm to market to table.
The Slow Food Manifesto states:
“We are enslaved by speed and have all succumbed to the same insidious virus: Fast Life, which disrupts our habits, pervades the privacy of our homes and forces us to eat Fast Foods. In the name of productivity, Fast Life has changed our way of being and threatens our environment and our landscapes. So Slow Food is now the only truly progressive answer.”
If a convivium is spawned to encourage the slow pleasure of eating, could a like movement envelope other quality-of-life issues? In Italy, a network of “Slow Cities” Has already been formed In regions of the U.S., where Smart Growth principles have been embraced, there is still growing interest in slowing down rampant growth.
Huntersville, North Carolina, has been supporting Smart Growth—locally called “New Urbanism”—for the last half-dozen years to control the rapid growth sprawling out from Charlotte. It is following the New Urbanist belief that the development and restoration of compact, mixed-use, pedestrian friendly neighborhoods are the best building blocks for a livable region. These strategies, many believe, are also key to revitalizing our inner cities and helping to mitigate the effects of suburban sprawl.
But people in Huntersville are not happy about the kind of development that is resulting even from a New Urbanist approach. This may be due to the way it being interpreted locally. Even though the development codes promote New Urbanism for new development, in developing areas of Huntersville the New Urbanist design stops at the border of each individual development. There is little thought given to neighborhood form, including connectivity between developments, and between new development and its surrounding context. Additionally, there is no overall study of the impact of development on existing infrastructure and development—hence, the continued increase in traffic woes, school shortages, loss of water quality, etc.
For every “good” neighborhood planning project there are dozens of massive subdivisions where course grain clumps of cookie-cutter houses (even though they do include front porches, albeit too shallow for rocking chairs) and townhouses (even though they do include rear alleys for all the garages, yet with ill-defined private yards) sit separately. Connectivity is weak and mostly limited to internal circulation. Mixed-use is missing—people still drive for miles just to spend a nickel. Sidewalks abruptly end at high-speed streets across from suburban-style schools only accessible by car. Public transit does not function in this kind of contrived environment.
In this ever-growing degradation of our quality of life, some people put the blame on New Urbanism. But New Urbanism is not at fault. The adoption of New Urbanism, even to a small extent, has helped slow that degradation. But until the principles of New Urbanism are applied to the town of Huntersville as a whole, it will continue to see the "New Urbanism on steroids" type of development—or a kind of fast-food version of Smart Growth.
Part of the reason for this local hybrid New Urbanism is that the well-intentioned revisions to the Huntersville zoning ordinance offer too much flexibility, including hybrid categories of zoning. High-volume production builders are taking advantage of the categories by following only the minimum letter of the law.
Fortunately Huntersville leaders are addressing the problem. A moratorium was enacted for several months to give the town time to create greater restrictions on where development should go in hopes of curbing these negatively received hybrids.
The newly passed rural and transitional zoning focusing more intense development towards transit is a big step in the right direction. But will growth boundaries alone improve the kind of development people associate with quality of life? There is still, alas, plenty of room inside the boundaries to wreak havoc.
I have begun to realize the only effective approach may be for everyone to slow down just enough to think about the kind of development they are trying to do. In fact, several very successful New Urbanist developers and planners have concluded through experience that successful and better projects can be more profitable by going slower.
So what would Huntersville’s development be like if the current zoning ordinance and planning policy was modified using elements of the Slow Food treatise and transforming some its guiding principles into a slowed-down version of New Urbanism—say Slow Urbanism?
A Slow Urbanism Treatise might sound something like this:
“Slow Urbanism encourages people to create whole neighborhoods; to celebrate local community building traditions; and to take time—this is the important (and fun part) -to enjoy community life with family and friends.”
Our motto will be “Make Haste Slowly.”
We’ll start Slow Urbanism Conviviums (or Clubs for the less pretentious) composed of distinguished citizens, architects, landscape architects, town planners, builders, interior designers, artists, gardeners, house designers, shop owners, musicians, environmentalists, Realtors, marketing people, restaurateurs, and municipal officials, politicians, and (even) developers. Most importantly, the conviviums will include just plain folk.
We’ll meet on week-ends in various neighborhoods—or future sites for neighborhoods—for “Slow Urbanism Socials.”
We’ll form a subcommittee for eco-urbanists and proclaim, “You can’t have ecology without urbanism and you can’t have urbanism without ecology!” And that “in order to grow a community well, you need authentic local sustainable models based on tradition.”
We’ll support local trades and suppliers. In Slow Urbanism the small scale builders and designers will be the heroes. Unlike mass production development, Slow Urbanism development will create places with a fine-grain and mixed variety. Building neighborhoods using traditional, low-tech methods—putting local building traditions at center stage.
Our Slow Urbanism Convivium will take field trips to visit great towns and neighborhoods for intellectual study and to have some fun away from the sprawl zones.
Our meetings will be held over a pleasurable meal and drinks, in a grouping of rocking chairs, in neighborhood cafes, coffee houses, parks, front porches, and squares.
During meetings we’ll take leisurely strolls along pedestrian friendly streets and get to know our neighbors. There won’t be any Jack-in-the-Boxes, Friday’s, Old Navies, or Wal-Marts glaring at us across parking lots.
Slow Urbanism will be for real people who want to live in meaningful neighborhoods. What better way to make a political statement than by living in a well-designed and well-built supportive neighborhood?
A neighborhood gathering of the Slow Urbanism Convivium would seem a world away from suburban sprawl zones and the boomtown pile-ups. It’s possible some people might even experience community life for the first time.
Slow Urbanism will be the antithesis to new urbanism on steroids. It could be real joy! Nurturing authentic and meaningful community as the core idea of the Slow Urbanism mission will make the movement appealing to everyone.
Anyone interested in joining? I’ll be the first to sign up!
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