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 U.S.,
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
- It has to be comfortable
- It has to contribute to the overall framework of
- 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