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Good Design Matters

"Mountain Made" shop located on the historic town plaza in Pendleton, SC. Image courtesy NEA.

The following piece was written in 2005 by Ed McMahon, Charles E. Fraser Chair on Sustainable Development at the Urban Land Institute, as a contribution to a Your Town: Citizens' Institute on Rural Design newsletter. Ed has been a frequent and fantastic CIRD resource team member and his insights remain timeless:

"Travel teaches you many things, not the least of which is that the world doesn’t have to be ugly. 

I first learned this lesson while serving in the U.S. Army in Germany during the 1970s.  Heidelberg, where I lived, was clean, compact, and dripping with history.  The town center was packed with shops and sidewalk cafes.  Missing were cars, which you really didn’t need because you could walk from one end of town to the other in about 20 minutes. 

The countryside outside of town was gloriously free of strip shopping centers, billboards, and overhead power lines.  The roads were lined with trees and cyclists. Children walked to neighborhood schools and senior citizens visited friends after strolling to the pharmacy or corner store. 

This is not to say that Germans and other Europeans don’t love their cars.  They do. But they don’t have to use them all the time.  They can ride the “clean as a whistle” electric trolleys and high speed trains that go everywhere, or they can ride on an extensive network of bikeways. They can even walk. 

Footpaths! An entire network, extending all the way from the edge of town, up the hillsides, into the forests—eventually linking up with trails that crisscross the entire country. 

I often think back to Heidelberg and other European cities when I observe the changes we are making here at home.

From California to Carolina, we’ve been tearing up the good stuff and replacing it with the banal and worse.  We’ve let look-alike fast-food emporiums, soulless subdivisions, and cluttered commercial strips turn our communities into what author James Howard Kunstler calls the “geography of nowhere.” 

America can’t imitate Europe, and we shouldn’t try, but we can learn some lessons.  One important lesson is that good design matters. 

Challenge anyone to name his or her favorite place and then ask why.  Many of the reasons that attractive places are attractive have to do with design.  Without thoughtful attention to design, a town will become “Anywhere USA.” Design of a community communicates what it is. 

Design is also important because it relates directly to economic development and equals cold hard cash for many communities.  Mayor Michael Polovitz of Grand Forks, North Dakota, observed that “Design reflects on the city as a whole.  How a city looks to new businesses is very important to whether or not a business locates in your city.”  Likewise, Mayor David Musante of Northampton, Massachusetts, noted, “Design relates directly to an impression of livability and economic vitality.  It has a major impact on our city. 

Good design is especially important to those communities seeking to attract tourists and their dollars.  This is because the more a community does to protect and enhance its unique characteristics, whether natural or man-made, the more tourists it will attract.  On the other hand, the more a community comes to resemble everyplace else, the less reason there is to visit. 

While good design can mean more tourists, increased jobs, a better tax base, increased property values, and a better quality of life, bad design or no design can lead to polarization and citizen opposition to new development.  Without doubt, there would be far less opposition to new developments, of all types, if builders, developers, and public officials paid more attention to the appearance, design, and compatibility of the new development with the existing natural and architectural character of our communities.  Good design does matter.  All we need to do is to look around to see that this is true. 

Travel teaches us that those communities that have retained their unique character are places that use vision, planning, and design to preserve the features that make them special.  It also teaches us that progress does not demand degraded surroundings.  San Antonio can grow without destroying those things that make it unique."

-Edward T. McMahon, “Good Design Matters.” Your Town: Citizens Institute on Rural Design, Update, Spring, 2005, 2