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Use It or Lose it

Adding follow-up thoughts on downtown Charleston, the public squares of Savannah, the mayor of Toronto, and “It’s a Wonderful Life”.

Over the past two weeks, I’ve tried to empty my file of thoughts and links about past posts. Today is the end of the road. Any notes that aren’t used today will be tossed.

However, these are fun posts to write. I’ll probably begin a new list of follow-up ideas tomorrow. Look for a regular return of this type of post.

Also, if your lunch hour only allows enough time for you to click on one link, save it for the last one. It’s the best read of the bunch.

Charleston Commercial District: I recently wrote that Charleston’s downtown commercial district is a more enjoyable place to walk than Savannah’s downtown. A loyal reader from the Low Country agreed with me and added another point to the argument. Downtown Charleston has played a greater role in U.S. history.

In particular, he reminded me that the 1860 Democratic National Convention was held in a hall on Charleston’s Meeting Street. When the delegates reached an irreconcilable divide over the question of slavery, the convention fell apart. The two factions eventually nominated rival candidates. The schism opened the door for the election of Abraham Lincoln and the war was on. Indeed, some argue that the true start of the Civil War was not at Fort Sumter in Charleston Harbor, but at the convention hall on Meeting Street.

I was pleased with the history lesson. I remember seeing the hall on Meeting Street, now known as Hibernian Hall, and not being particularly impressed. Although I did find the historically significant buildings at the corner of King and Broad to be architecturally appealing.

In general however, I’m not convinced that history adds greatly to a downtown experience. For a subset of the public, in which I’m included, history is a nice bit of additional flavor. But a well-configured downtown doesn’t need history to be successful. History is like the cherry on top of a sundae. It’s a nice final addition, but if the sundae is well-made, it truly isn’t necessary.

Savannah Commercial District: Perhaps Charleston has the more enjoyably walkable setting, but Savannah isn’t doing badly. TheAtlanta Journal-Commerce writes of the economic strength of downtown Savannah. The article specifically notes the role of bicycles lanes and Richard Florida’s "creative class" in building vitality.

Florida is an urban theorist from Toronto who believes that the people who are engaged in creative endeavors have an outsized role in urban success. His name has arisen before in this blog and will continue to return often, including a short distance below.

Squares of Savannah: In December, I wrote of my deep affection for the public squares of Savannah. The Project for Public Places agrees with enthusiasm. I particularly enjoy James Howard Kunstler’s comment about Savannah and its squares, "It's an incredibly beautiful place. Savannah is like being on another planet that vaguely has U.S. characteristics, but you're not on the same earth. It's freaky."

Toronto Mayor: After writing about a bicycle lane controversy in Toronto, I noted that the car-friendly mayor had been removed from office because he failed to properly respond to a conflict of interest. I wrote too soon. An appellate court reversed the decision on a narrow technicality, so Mayor Ford continues in office.

But Richard Florida continues to believe that Ford is the wrong person to lead Toronto.  In The Globe and Mail, Florida argues that, for many countries, big city mayors are the most important political leaders and that what cities need are strong, charismatic leaders with creative agendas, not mean-spirited, small-thinking products of a deeply partisan electorate. It’s hard to argue with Florida.  It’s also hard to visualize how we get from where we are today to where Florida argues we should be.

It’s a Wonderful Life: On Christmas Eve, I suggested that the community spirit shown toward George Bailey at the conclusion of "It’s a Wonderful Life" was the result of the walkable urban character of Bedford Falls.

But even as I wrote those words, I was also aware of the other side. That for much of his life Bailey had been eager to leave Bedford Falls behind and to build non-walkable cities elsewhere. And that even when he was forced to remain in Bedford Falls, his biggest achievement had been Bailey Park, a drivable suburban development that rejected much of what made Bedford Falls special. It was as if the shadow of what StrongTowns calls the "Suburban Experiment" was hovering over the movie.

Patrick Deneen in What I Saw in America agrees and points out the full extent to which drivable suburbia was hiding just off stage.  If you know the movie, this is the link that I absolutely recommend you read and ponder.

As always, your questions or comments will be appreciated. Please comment below or email me. And thanks for reading. - Dave Alden (davealden53@comcast.net)

Dave Alden is a Registered Civil Engineer. He has worked on energy and land-use projects in California, Oregon, and Washington. He was also the president of a minor league baseball team for two seasons. He lives on the west side of Petaluma with his wife and three dogs. The blog that he writes can be found at http://northbaydesignkit.blogspot.com. He can also be followed on Facebook, LinkedIn, and Twitter.

This post is contributed by a community member. The views expressed in this blog are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Patch Media Corporation. Everyone is welcome to submit a post to Patch. If you'd like to post a blog, go here to get started.

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