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Well-Designed Community


Can cities and metropolitan areas be designed? Can you imagine living in cities without traffic jams, failing school systems, deteriorating environments and high unemployment? Is it possible to use design to guide our cities and metro areas into the 21st century?

Boston is 40 miles across, from downtown to Worcester. Los Angeles has been described as the 100-mile city. If urban centers this large could be designed, would it benefit economic growth and community development, or quality of life?

Typically, “well-designed” is not thought of as applicable to daily decisions on road and transit systems, school systems, school curriculum, parks, airports, hospitals, medical services, seaports, cultural centers and programs. Yet, all these are designed.

Design refers to consciously developing and evaluating different choices and deciding what services transportation, infrastructure, educational and other systems should provide, where they should be located, and how much they should cost to build, maintain and operate. Ultimately, design should include how these variables work together to give foundation to community health and vibrancy. Unfortunately, attention to these details is missing in American cities.

In designing large-scale urban areas, we must see them as a fabric woven of many sub-systems such as transportation, economy, education, infrastructure and the environment.

Unfortunately, we have chosen to see these not as continuous systems but as separate pieces within each political unit. This is like creating a painting on a piece of glass, then breaking it and trying to see the beauty in individual pieces. Meanwhile, the holder of each piece jealously guards it and refuses to cooperate with others. Thus, the entire painting can't be seen.

That is what is happening in our massive metropolitan areas. Our highly fragmented system of government is divided both vertically (between the federal, state, and local governments) and horizontally (among cities, counties and states). It acts against our ability to achieve systematic solutions.

A “well-designed” community would deliver transportation systems that move more people more effectively, at lower costs, with less congestion, pollution and delays. It would create a higher quality environment along with functioning educational, medical and infrastructure systems. Most of all, it would weave these together to reinforce each other and avoid cost increase and performance reduction.

To make “well-designed” communities possible, countries with political systems as different as England and China have reformed their local governance. In England, the “Single Layer” of local government merged myriad municipalities and eliminated counties. The Chinese essentially did what the English did, merging municipalities into larger regional governments for higher efficiencies, lower costs and much less duplication.

Amazingly, as America enters the 21st century, it uses one of the most antiquated and inefficient forms of local government left in the modern world!

Our current form of local government is a significant barrier to efficiency. In an increasingly global economy, it drags on competitiveness. Yet, in a few instances across America, local governments have come together to cooperate voluntarily and achieve higher system efficiencies.

In Charlotte, NC, 33 cities in seven counties and two states agreed on a long-term growth framework called “Centers and Corridors.” It provides the foundation for developing a roads and transit strategy that shapes the future of the entire metropolitan area.

In the seven-county East Central Florida region, a group initially formed by the Orlando Chamber created a “system of systems” by 2002. Six years later, representatives from the seven counties signed a compact called “How Shall We Grow.” Unique in Central Florida is the successful weaving of the urban and economic network with the environmental systems.

We like the concept of allowing each area to make its own choices, but many do not have the leadership or money for such expensive planning. Even in the communities that did it successfully, it took years because they lacked a legal or jurisdictional foundation and suffered a lack of implementing powers or budgets.

If America is to thrive, it is imperative that our vast metropolitan areas design themselves. Eighty percent of the US population lives in the top 100 metro areas that hold a slightly greater share of the economy. As our large cities become more congested, with poorly performing school systems, deteriorating environments and loss of quality of life, we cannot expect they will remain economically productive and vibrant.

What it will take to make the 21st century another American century? “Well designed” communities will be an important component in achieving that goal.