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Let's start building a better Baltimore

The Baltimore Sun

"We shape our buildings; thereafter they shape us." Winston Churchill's declaration may be applied to our neighborhoods and cities with at least equal truth. Our buildings affect and reflect how we live as individuals, but our cities do the same for how we live as a culture. In making our buildings and cities we are also making our future selves.

The movement for "livable communities" has been gaining strength as more people recognize this interrelationship. This has become a very serious issue with very clear and immediate consequences for the Baltimore region. Livable communities are places where human health and well-being are supported directly by our patterns of development. Physical health, public safety and personal security, economic development, environmental preservation and improvement, social equity and support systems, energy efficiency and resource management, transportation options and traffic congestion, historic preservation, effective education, community and social cohesion - all of these issues can be correlated directly with how we choose to build.

The oversimplified patterns of our post-war development have reduced our lives to what they are today. We have managed to ignore the things that produce a healthy place to live by spreading out into relatively empty and inexpensive tracts of land, trading up for newer "products" and leaving behind successive rings of older communities and their problems (and residents).

This cycle is no longer tenable. As land becomes scarce, it is no longer possible to ignore existing neighborhoods. On the contrary, traditional neighborhoods and buildings already incorporate many of the values that we are now trying to rediscover.

Our health has suffered as a result of our active avoidance of the complexities of urbanism and livability over the past 50 years - much of it traceable to more time spent driving. Lack of livability also has social consequences. We wonder why we have become more alienated from each other, why our community support networks have disappeared. We wonder why crime becomes rampant in certain areas. We wonder why schools are not a more integral part of our communities.

And yet we have ignored the strong correlation between these problems and our changing patterns of settlement. Research has concluded that the shape of our cities is more than an aesthetic or environmental problem; it bears directly on such issues as urban disinvestment, race, crime and social networks.

Livability also has direct economic consequences. Natural resources and transportation routes are no longer the dominant engine for economic growth. Neither can Baltimore be considered a pool of cheap labor, compared with China or Malaysia.

People are now a precious economic resource, and the most well-educated, most highly trained people create the most value for the local economy. Skilled workers have the resources to locate where they choose. Companies that are dependent on these personnel will move where they do. Livability then becomes a primary economic driver for a city or a region. It is no accident that Seattle and other cities have made livability a priority.

The American Institute of Architects has developed 10 "Principles for Livable Communities." These principles are focused upon the neighborhood, as it is the key building block relating to the individual experience as well as the larger community. They are principles that any current or future political leader in Baltimore would do well to consider when thinking about our communities:

1. Design on a human scale: Compact, pedestrian-friendly communities should be promoted.

2. Provide choices: A city thrives on variety in housing, shopping, recreation, transportation and employment.

3. Encourage mixed-use development: Integrating different land uses and varied building types allows people to work and play near where they live.

4. Preserve urban centers: Restore, revitalize and "infill" areas where the city's heart beats.

5. Provide various transportation options: Give people the opportunity to walk, bike or use transit.

6. Build vibrant public spaces: Public places should be welcoming and well-defined.

7. Create a neighborhood identity: A unique character makes a neighborhood stronger.

8. Protect environmental resources: The needs of nature and development should be balanced.

9. Conserve landscapes: Open space and wildlife habitat should be accommodated and preserved.

10. Design matters: Communities result from a series of intentional design decisions; therefore, each decision matters.

Our regulations block most of these principles from becoming reality. Zoning codes have become object lessons in unintended consequences, created under the assumption that communities could be broken up into separate parts - and that the relationships among those parts could be controlled through a simple set of rules. Planning professionals, enlightened developers and community residents have begun to recognize that this system needs to change. The city and surrounding jurisdictions are looking at zoning reform, among other initiatives, as a means toward creating livable communities. Form-based zoning is one option: a system of regulation that primarily considers a building's shape and size before the functional use of the land. The communities we live in have an effect upon the quality of our lives. What is needed is public support for those who are trying to improve the daily lives of our citizens. It is time for a new take on nation building; call it community building.

Perhaps nation building starts at home.

Gordon T. Ingerson is past president of the American Institute of Architects, Baltimore component. His e-mail is gingerson@grantarchitects.com.

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