By Matthew Moore (B.Arch candidate) | This column compares the negative effects of postwar urban sprawl on the Dilworth community and the careful and deliberate initial development of this area. Its designer, Edward Dilworth Latta sought to create a suburban community that functioned as a transitional place between the rural and urban environments.
Since the inception of the city of Charlotte, some of its governing individuals have sought to keep a green environment surrounding the original crossroads of development. Social, political, racial and religious turmoil and revolutions arise and are subdued through the change of time. One municipal feature has been constant is the growth of the Piedmont region from the original trading post to the thriving metropolis of today–a surrounding natural landscape. However, the postwar patterns of growth that currently mark Charlotte was never really conceivable to its founding leaders. Expansive city parks and green spaces were once planned and brought to fruition during the early years of Charlotte, yet through the years of tremendous growth, park plans were foiled and existing green spaces were parceled out, giving way to spontaneous suburban development. If we compare the negative effects of mass produced urban sprawl with the careful and deliberate development of the Dilworth community, they might inspire us to, once again, strive for an ideal suburban model of development.
Much of Charlotte’s growth is related to its economic stability as the region. Dating back to the first major gold rush in the country through the unscathed years of the Civil War with the arrival and expansion of the railroad, Charlotte became one of the fastest growing areas in the country. The influx of industry and commercial businesses would ensue, quickly transforming the previously small town to the largest city in the Carolinas. The wealth of industry and previously founded banking attracted more wealth from the likes of the Duke and Belk families among others of the surrounding regions, further increasing the growth rate of Charlotte and its economy. Edward Dilworth Latta was also attracted to the growth of Charlotte and its promising possibilities.
In 1890, Latta announced his plans to create the city’s first residential development just to the south of Charlotte’s Center City. What Latta proposed was more than a 400-acre plot of land featuring a park, pond, pavilions and residences. The new Dilworth community not only sought to remain devoid of any sign of industrialization, but, according to Brain Sturm’s “The Evolution of Green Space…” the development was intended to cultivate “those sweet emblems of fragrant nature the rose and the flower.” Future developments like Myers Park and Freedom Park would shortly ensue.
As the United States began its transition from a rural, agrarian society to urban metropolitan regions, a totally new ecosystem evolved which is the cityscape. A densely populated city core mixed with business, leisure and luxury created a home for a majority of the world’s population. Once these urban roots were planted, many lost their contact, knowledge and appreciation of nature and all of its positive impacts. Latta wanted to incorporate the open space of the natural environment into residential developments to reestablish mankind’s connection to the landscape. Realizing the benefits of environmental and human interactions without the harmful effects of industry became the pervasive model of Latta’s suburban planning ethos. According to Don Gill and Penelope Bonnett’s “Nature in the Urban Landscape” Edward Latta’s view for suburban development was seen as a deliberate integration of choice elements of the natural and the urban. If he could not completely exile the influence of industrialism, he could open spaces within an urban region to help mesh these two forces. This “mesh” according to Gill and Bonnett has a three-fold function: one is the psychological benefit to those with access by providing an appealing environment to one’s senses; another is that an urban landscape can properly develop and shape itself around it; finally, an open green space within the city helps “protect natural landscape features which are essential contributors to the ecological stability of any region.”
Adam Rome’s “Bulldozer in the Countryside” breaks down this third aspect even further. Engineers and conservation officials state that open green spaces and natural areas can compensate for the amount impervious hardscape within the city. These areas act as a sponge for runoff helping to reduce the need for extensive and costly public works. Trees and plant life help to remove some of the harmful pollutants in the air caused by surrounding industries while providing relief from the monotony of post-war sprawl. In addition, green spaces provide a buffer between other developments instilling a sense of community and belonging among the residents. Also, public green spaces are dynamic in function and are less costly to the citizens of the area providing a more desirable landscape. Although many positive physical and psychological impacts of green space may not have been realized during Latta’s time, he adamantly believed the natural environment should be apart of the daily human interaction.
A few decades after Latta proposed his new suburban plan, the city of Charlotte made changes to the Park and Recreation Commission. A couple years later the Great Depression set in. It is through this string of scenarios that green space and park development came to screeching halt for the next 20 years. Yet the development of recreational buildings continued. After the Depression and World Wars, parks and public green spaces began to be designed again throughout Charlotte’s landscape from privately funded parks to municipal allotments speckling the city. These designs of suburban development followed an industrialized, mass-produced style that permeated the area. These areas as indicated by the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Historic Landmarks Commission were not well received throughout history. Many of the parks and greeneries became plain and generic, without a recognizable aesthetic that represented the community where it was located. Failure to accommodate multiple functions of the green space caused these areas to become sub-par places to congregate and required further development and attention. Most developments had a primary focus throughout the 20th Century of maximizing profit. While Latta is believed to have maintained this similar motive, he also chose to provide vast green spaces within the developing community to provide a relief from the mundane everyday.
Fast-forward now to present day Charlotte where the city continues to grow exponentially and there is now a discrepancy of adequate green spaces corresponding to the number of citizens in the region. The US Census Bureau states that with such growth there is always a conditional loss of natural vegetation. However, between the 1980’s and 2000’s alone the city saw the amount of impervious surfaces increase by 194% while tree cover dropped by 42%. Increasing runoff surfaces while decreasing natural pollution filters (i.e. natural environment), significantly inhibit growth and the health standards of the surrounding region. In fact, the Charlotte area is dangerously close to the “nonattainment” air quality levels. Reaching this level of air quality puts the city below the national standard while also losing government funding for roads and other projects. A significant loss of $6 billion like that would severely debilitate city growth and send the local economy into a tailspin in search of new ways for funding. This loss of green spaces eventually fails to create a gap between the everyday city-goer and the natural environment. The delicate mesh that Edwards Latta so fervently idealized becomes quickly replaced by mixed-use developments that only seek to maximize square footage and profit negating the use of parks and green spaces.
As seen in the example of Charlotte’s own Dilworth community by Edward Dilworth Latte himself, the focus during the city’s early emergence was one that concentrated on residential development, not merely aimed at providing affordable housing for all but incorporating a natural landscape into the suburban and city design. The mesh between the natural and built environment is an essential buffer that not only provides a beneficial sensorial experience but also positive health impacts for the human community and the natural areas in which they are situated. Even now when the effort to conserve the environment as a whole and go green is at the forefront of everyone’s mind there is a failure to look at the immediate context that is currently occupied and perform in it, the measures one would to a foreign environment. Edward Latta’s design of Dilworth provides a positive example for the delicate mesh of the suburban development and the natural environment as well as a precedent for the future of Charlotte’s growth.
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