Thursday, August 28, 2014

'Do not try to design neighborhoods through a computer screen'

The photo at right arrived about 10 days ago from Davidson-based transportation planner John Cock.
Cock and I were among a group of fans of the late Warren Burgess, who died at age 56 in May 2005.

The plaque was installed a few weeks ago beside a bald cypress tree that had been planted in his honor in Davidson’s Roosevelt Wilson Park shortly after Burgess died.

Burgess – or Warren, as I’m more comfortable saying – was for more than 20 years an urban designer on the staff of the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Planning Commission. He was Davidson town planner from 2000 to 2003. To this day, he has a fan club of sorts, people like Cock and former Davidson planner Meredith Judy whom Warren mentored, as well as other urban designers and planners in the area, like David Walters, the just-retired head of UNC Charlotte’s Master of Urban Design program.

You may have noticed over the years that there are some occupations that lend themselves to memorial plaques,
statues, road-namings and the like. City planner is not typically one of them. But Warren was cut from a different bolt of cloth, and gave so much of his heart to Charlotte and Davidson that it’s only appropriate that it be noted somewhere.

After seeing the plaque photo, I looked back at two columns I wrote about Warren when I worked at the Charlotte Observer.  The first was in 2000, when he left Charlotte city hall for Davidson. I noticed something unusual at the sheetcake-and-punch ceremony for him at the government center. As I wrote then:

“Among the people saying nice things were Dottie Coplon, a relentless neighborhood activist who has battled both planners and developers, and Bailey Patrick Jr., lawyer and lobbyist for some of Charlotte's most successful developers. It’s not often those two are singing from the same song sheet. But getting people together is one of the things Burgess does best.

“… The Thursday event symbolized something important about him. …  When you think about it, Warren is really just a bureaucrat, but he’s a bureaucrat with a difference: He wears his heart on his sleeve. … Sometimes, when people talk about “fighting City Hall,” it’s planners and zoning laws that they’re fighting. Burgess , who works at City Hall, understands that, but he still tries to help.” 

 He always walked over and over through neighborhoods where he was doing a plan, to get to know its terrain, its history and its residents. He sketched relentlessly, making drawings at meetings to supplement his notes. He cared – as the plaque notes – about trees, but also about creeks, front porches, sidewalks, plazas and parks, all the things that make up a city. He had these words of advice to other planners:

“A city is made up of people,” he told the farewell party. “Do not try to design neighborhoods through a computer screen.” 

When Warren died in 2005, I wrote: 

“Burgess left his fingerprints all over this city, in the plans he drew, the enduring vision he had for his city and the people and places he touched.

“Cities need catalysts, and Warren was a catalyst. He was always putting one person in touch with just the right other person, and dropping a good idea in just the right place, and in doing so altering the course of the planet.”

He spoke for the trees. But just as important, he spoke for the people who plant the trees, for the people who make up a city.