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Natural Awakenings Charlotte

Taiwo Jaiyeoba, Charlotte City Assistant Manager on the Livability and Viability of Cities

Apr 01, 2021 07:45PM ● By Taiwo Jaiyeoba

To Make Cities Livable, First Make Them Vibrant!

We focus much of our time on making cities livable – a great feat if one can achieve it! I believe that making cities livable, but without vibrancy, misses the point of why cities’ exist. In his book, the City in History, Lewis Mumford said, “When cities were first founded, an old Egyptian scribe tells us, the mission of the founder was to 'put gods in their shrines.' The task of a vibrant city is not essentially different: to put the highest concerns of [people] at the center of all [our] activities.” 

A vibrant city or urban place elevates the highest concerns of people and their environment as its primary focus.

Truly, at every level, the coronavirus pandemic we’ve experienced over the past year has been tragic. It has taken the lives of hundreds of thousands of people, created an economic impact unlike anything we’ve seen since the Great Depression and fundamentally changed how we interact with fellow human beings.

Yet pandemics have historically re-made cities, not destroyed them. This pandemic has created an opportunity for us to assess the vibrancy of our cities. Over the past several months, cities have sought creative ways for people to occupy public spaces otherwise designed for cars. We have closed lanes of traffic for outdoor dining, shut down stretches of roads for people to walk and bike, and have taken over parking spaces for socially distanced festivals. These “temporary” accommodations should remain permanent, if we have the will to make it so. Places in cities that are intentionally designed for people are what make our cities vibrant.

If nothing, this pandemic has shown us that we have to plan smarter, rethink our assumptions about cities, and address problems with urgent and creative solutions. Our “new normal” must put people first.

A vibrant city is about people. “A city is about having a center, or an intersection people tend to associate with culture, gatherings, and activities.” (From CEOs for Cities). Before cities can be judged to be livable, they ought first to be vibrant: a community built with places where people gather, feel they belong, where amenities are  walkable, bikeable and transit services are not only frequent but reliable.

Like most cities, Charlotte has one of those prominent intersections: Independence Square. It is the intersection of Trade and Tryon Streets where, according to history, native American trade routes crossed and the Mecklenburg Declaration of Independence was signed in May 1775. In 1995 – more than two hundred years later – four statutes were placed at each corner of the intersection, each representing an aspect of the city’s history. A bronzed inscription on a brick embedded in the sidewalk says, "The historic figures of commerce, industry and transportation represent enterprises which have contributed to Charlotte's growth as a major commercial center. While honoring Charlotte's past, the three figures all look toward the fourth figure, the future." In addition, a streetcar line runs through that intersection connecting Historic West Side of Charlotte – a prominent culturally rich and vibrant African American community – with Uptown (Charlotte’s version of downtown). Four open plazas are on each corner of this square. 

Charlotte’s Independence Square is a classic example of an opportunity to create a vibrant space for Charlotteans. However, it is also an intersection that should strive to be more than it is: a shining example and stronger dedication toward people rather than cars. Discussions about this are in the works as Charlotte’s Center City develops a long range, strategic plan for Uptown and environment.

As a city, however, we should make it our primary aim to create more spaces like Independence Square, not only in Uptown, but within reach of everyone. To invest in 10-minute communities creates a city where everyone can work, live and play within walking distance, have access to essential services, community spaces and be near transit. Investments in people-driven solutions for the built-environment: public transit, walking, cycling, and active open spaces must remain our priority as we remake our cities.

It’s not enough to make cities livable. We must keep people the primary focus of cities to make them vibrant.

Taiwo Jaiyeoba is Director of Planning, Design and Development/Assistant City Manager for the City of Charlotte. 

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