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Apr 09

What Makes A City Great?

Posted on April 9, 2018 at 9:15 AM by Whitney Slightham

We all aspire to greatness in one form or another.  Some may seek to be a great athlete, others a great scientist, a great leader, a great friend, or a great parent.  As we come together in community, we are no different. We seek to make our churches, our schools, our neighborhoods, and our City great.  So, what exactly does a great city look like?  What are its attributes and character?  How does it differ from other cities?  In this post, I will explore a few of these questions and see what is, and is not, applicable to us here in Roanoke. 

Characteristics and Features of a Great City

So, what do those who think about these things feel are the characteristics and features of a great city?  The architecture? The economy? The culture?  Maybe, but nearly all agree that most significantly, it is the people that form the basis for the greatness of a city.  Alexander Garvin, respected city planner and author of the book, “What Makes a Great City” posits that the real questions should be how do you keep people in your city? Attract them to your city and keep them coming? Garvin and others assert this is best advanced by focusing on the “public realm” – that portion of the city we all own and use every day, what matters most to us.  In Roanoke, is this the mountains? The Star? Grandin Village? Melrose Avenue?  As Garvin states in his book it is all of these types of places and artifacts and more.

How Are We Doing in Roanoke?

If the aforementioned characteristics are key, then how are we doing here in Roanoke?  Do we have the type of public realm worth defending? Worth staying or coming for? Do we build or add to this? Are we investing in our public realm equitably? Are we realizing any benefits from our efforts?  In Roanoke, one is drawn to the mountains that surround us as a key element of our public realm.  In this regard, I think we have done well and continue to improve as time passes.  We now hike, bike and photograph where areas were once clear-cut.  Together we have managed to preserve one of the largest urban open space areas in the Nation in Carvin’s Cove Natural Reserve and we have access to hundreds of miles of hiking and biking trails within easy reach.

I also think of our neighborhood parks, our neighborhood libraries, our greenways, and village centers.  Again, in most instances, I think we fair well and believe the number of greenway users, library circulation, and busy Friday nights in Grandin Village attest to this.

We are a City of nearly 50 square miles with a diverse population.  So how are we doing in terms of equity in the quality of our public realm?  In some areas, quite well – think of our libraries.  Because of some very smart thinking some years back, we see libraries adding vibrancy to many of our neighborhoods.  Additionally, parks are in most of our neighborhoods and the web of greenways reaches further into every corner of our City year by year.  Unfortunately, we have not done as well in nurturing our village centers.  While South Roanoke and Grandin Village thrive, and Wasena is coming back to life, centers in the northwest and southeast portions of the City struggle to reclaim even a portion of their earlier vitality.  As in most of the United States, our most common element of the public realm, streets, has suffered greatly – generally focused on accommodating the automobile at the cost of the transit rider, bicyclist, and pedestrian.  These deficiencies are most notable in our struggling neighborhoods.

What Does This Mean for Roanoke?

To be a successful city – to be a great city, Roanoke, like all cities, must be able to keep and attract people while being a place where they are able to thrive.  Returning to Garvin, we can look at six elements that he asserts must be present to yield a great public realm:

  • The space or feature must be open to everyone
  • It must provide something for everyone
  • It must constantly evolve to keep attracting people
  • It has to be comfortable
  • It has to contribute to the overall framework of the City
  • It must help sustain civil society – that is it enables interactions without harming anyone

How do you think we are doing with this list here in Roanoke? How do you think our public realm stacks up?  Do you agree that it matters? What do you think it takes to be a great city?

- Bob Cowell


Robert Farmer
April 9, 2018 at 12:39 PM
It is all about having people feel safe. Feeling safe is many things; safe financially; safe physically; safe socially. Making people feel safe needs to be at the core of everything the city does. When people feel safe in the future of their city all aspects of their lives are better. Some big changes are coming and change can be scary. Having city leaders with a clear and positive vision for the future, that can project their positivity to the people, are essential to going forward. The changes that are coming should be addressed early to make people feel safe like when transportation changes to electric propulsion. Such things as expanding and promoting the cities fleet of electric cars, public car charging and promoting solar PV within the city would make these changes less daunting. Robert E Farmer 276-233-5316

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