A Focus on What Divides Us

Democracy is messy. Big surprise! There are no philosopher kings with boundless wisdom available to make decisions for us. We are on our own and each citizen must decide for him or herself what is truth and falsehood and what is reasonable or what is unacceptable.

Battles between neighborhood residents and real estate developers are at this moment playing themselves out in cities across the country. Literally in my back yard, the fight in which I am most interested is over the use of a public school site in a mixed residential-commercial neighborhood which also is part of an historic district. Add that the centerpiece of the controversy is the development’s proximity to the recently (2009) renovated farmers market originally completed in 1873 and you get some sense of the scope of the challenge.

At its core, the battle is over the character of my Washington, D.C., neighborhood – an existing mixed-use and transit-connected neighborhood a mere seven blocks from the U. S. Capitol building. In contrast to the orderly street grid laid out by Pierre L’Enfant, the issues in this case are far from simple.

  • How dense is too dense and what is the proper proportion of mass to density?
  • How much parking is required for a development less than 300 yards from a public transit stop?
  • What is the right mix between residential, retail and other commercial space uses?
  • Will a planning process be allowed to reach its own conclusion or will one side push for legislative or judicial intervention?
  • What protections are essential when the historic structure at the center of a thriving neighborhood will be impacted by whatever development is finally decided upon?
  • What should neighbors expect from each other when lines are drawn and sides are chosen over an issue that undoubtedly will shape the future of civilization and all human kind as we know it from now until kingdom come?

The institutions of local government – advisory commissions, planning and zoning boards and city council committees – will have the chance to address these questions over the coming weeks. I am just idealistic enough to believe that a transparent process can harness competing interests and yield an outcome that accepts the will of a majority while protecting the views, interests and rights of a minority.

That hope is boosted by the latest writing from E. J. Dionne. In his new book, Our Divided Political Heart, Dionne suggests that our society has a proven capacity to find balance between the competing needs of the individual and the community. This theory echoes the view of Robert Putnam who also expresses his faith in the role of individuals and neighborhood groups to carry out efforts that achieve civic renewal. Now all that needs to be done is for the competing parties to agree to the size and shape of the bargaining table.

Pedestrian Firenze

During most times of the day throughout the entire year, the narrow and often times cobble stone streets of Firenze (Florence), Italy are not so much roadways as they are large sidewalks.  Mayor Matteo Renzi is serious about protecting and preserving the historic character of his city – the cradle of the Renaissance.  During his tenure, he has taken steps to enforce laws adopted earlier which establish a Zona a Traffico Limitato (ZTL) or a traffic restricted zone in the city center.  He also has launched new efforts to move people more efficiently using innovative mobility strategies gathered from other places around the world.

At some intersections, a simple chain is strung across the road to mark the no-drive zone.  In other places, round metal bollards with a flashing light on top protrude from the pavement to mark the pedestrian zone.  These gentle and not-so-gentle markers help define one of Europe’s most livable and walkable cities.  On foot and at a leisurely pace, one can cover the distance from the Academia where the statue of David by Michelangelo stands, past the Uffizi Gallery and across the River Arno to the Pitti Palace with hardly a concern about a speeding automobile.

Of course the streets of central Firenze are planned for mixed use neighborhoods.  Small shops and restaurants occupy the first floors and above, on the remaining floors, are residences.  There is no such thing as a central business district or a peripheral residential district.  People live and work and recreate in an all-encompassing space that both serves residents and draws visitors.  Merchants carry on a thriving business despite the absence of cars and parking.  In fact, the festive atmosphere of the street undoubtedly improves sales.

Vehicles are permitted under particular rules and residents have special permits allowing them to get to and from their homes.  A taxi can generally move through the cordon at strategic points to allow them to ply their trade.  Exceptions are of course made for emergency vehicles and others providing a public service.  It’s all very manageable and desirable on so many levels.  One can experience the rich social contact and participate in the gentle art of strolling and being at one with a place.

Granted, Firenze is a destination city with rich historical and architectural advantages and a cultural character that cannot be replicated elsewhere.  It is simply a unique and timeless place.  However, the principles being applied to maintain these advantages, to capitalize on the benefits of place and to renew the face of a city for the present millennia can be studied, appreciated and carried elsewhere for the benefit of other cities.