For Release Friday, September 21, 2012
The word “sustainability” and its associated derivatives are thrown around to describe everything from architecture to Jay-Z’s diet. But what does it mean, really?
When the Democratic National Convention was in Charlotte earlier this month, I attended a related panel discussion about how Charlotte could move toward a more sustainable future. There was talk of sprawl and ozone, policy and transit. Statistics flew, and I wrote frantically to keep the numbers straight. How many people are moving to Charlotte? How much tree canopy has greater Charlotte lost? It was an important discussion, and I wanted to hear how far and wide Charlotte’s net was being cast. After all, my life in Charlotte was about 25 days old, and I have much to learn. I’m still in that newborn stage, where time is measured in days.
That day I re-learned the meaning of sustainability. It began when planning my 12-mile trip to downtown Charlotte from my workplace at the UNC Charlotte campus, which was built in a suburbanizing area far from the center of town. What were my travel options? 1) Bus: Ix-nay, takes too long and won’t accommodate my schedule. 2) Rail: Nope, no line here. 3) Walk or bike – way too far! 4) Carpool – don’t know anyone (remember, I’m a newbie). My only option was to drive in and take my chances with parking (crazy thinking; the DNC scrambled parking choices and hiked rates). Happily, I was able to park in my usual permitted area, but it was a good 20-minute hike to the panel discussion. I set out on foot, Google map in hand.
I was moving at a fast clip and was in unfamiliar territory, but I tried to take in what I could along the way. I passed a mysterious trolley station (no trolley runs there any more, I later learned) and kept walking. Lots of smiles and “Good mornings,” met me. I liked the sound of my heels beating out a rhythm on the brick sidewalks. It wasn’t sunny, but muggy with humidity, yet I was happy to be walking through such a lively atmosphere. Was that a Secret Service entourage at curbside, waiting for someone important? Who knew who might be getting into that blacked-out Suburban?
I made it on time for the panel discussion. It was great stuff – we need a transit system, not just a line. (Yes!) We need the political will to keep up the fight for transportation options. (Absolutely!) We want to attract young talent and support multi-income communities. (Perfect!) The hour went by too quickly. (Check out the link here for more information.)
Afterward, I had a less hurried walk back to my car, so I took time to absorb my surroundings. The architecture was beautiful. The graceful arch of overhead trees drew me down the street. I could hear the shrill chirp of a whistle blown in rapid succession. As I drew near a corner, crowds were gathered and laughing, entertained by something. Ah, there it was: A police officer directing traffic was putting on quite a show – dancing, really, as he sent cars this way and that. Cell phones were snapping pictures and video; no doubt tweets were posting. (To see a video clip, click here). I continued. From a pub on the next corner, “a little ditty ’bout Jack and Diane …” was spilling out. Without even thinking, I found myself adjusting my gait to the beat of the familiar song. Oh yeah, life goes o-on. I kept walking.
Here was a deli that claimed to have the best hamburgers in the city. I made plans to test them on that. Another tavern, a church, a library, a school, hotels, offices, a performing arts center … and life goes on. I stopped at a deli for a sandwich. Wouldn’t you know it, I overhear the server talking about her hometown in Florida, which was also my hometown! Turns out we went to the same high school. We comforted each other over how we missed the beach. … Back to the street and its rhythm, and I gradually made my way back to my car.
The drive back to campus was highlighted by a view of the back of a VW Jetta and several tractor-trailers, one of which blocked the sign for my exit, and so I found myself in the town of Concord, some 15 miles beyond campus. Remember, I’m a newbie.
What does this have to do with sustainability? The walkable, diverse and interesting downtown experience I just had couldn’t be more different from the car ride back. I missed the smiling faces, the street preachers, the sidewalk cafe eaters and the unknown young woman ahead of me with some really cute shoes on. I enjoyed feeling part of a community – this is my town now. Chance encounters on the street – yep, that just happened. Jane Jacobs would understand!
Sustainability is about many things, but most of them are tied up in quality of life and quality of choices. What we need are options – and options should transcend politics or scare tactics. We need the option to choose something other than a single-occupant car ride, the option to meet someone by chance, the option to live in a walkable world, the option to live a healthier lifestyle that includes exercise away from a gym.
The wise person is one who has learned to enjoy the journey on the way to where he or she is going. But that’s hard to do sometimes, if you have only a singular path to travel.
Melissa Currie is a landscape architect and a doctoral student in the department of geography at UNC Charlotte. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org. Views expressed here are hers and not necessarily the views of the UNC Charlotte Urban Institute or the University of North Carolina at Charlotte.
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