The most wonderful quality about urban design is that because of its vocational nature it is accessible by everyone. On the first day of my urban design masters course my professor said, “by the end of this degree you will become an expert in what you’ve known your whole life.” I have had instincts from a very young age about the built environment. I’ve always known that architectural design and suburban development was suffering, I just didn’t have the vocabulary to say why. Education has given me the greatest gift, and that is a voice to speak about what I love.
I recently came across the most refreshing person, who is not an urban designer by training, but has become one through his intuition and commitment to design. Through exploring what he sees as common sense, he has built an urban design and development practice as part of his ever-growing and impressive person brand. Wayne Hemingway is an Englishman who gained his fame from starting the Red or Dead fashion label in London in the 1980s. His urban design career began when he publicly criticized Taylor Wimpey, the largest housing developer in the country, about the lack of imagination and personability in their designs. They responded him with the challenge of masterplanning their next development, which he did, and it became the most well-loved in their portfolio.
The best thing about Wayne is he is just so darn funny and relatable. He speaks about design in a way that makes the average Joe stop and think about he lives his life. The reason why Wayne Hemingway is so successful, with no degrees or professional titles to his name, is because he can communicate. This is the most important thing they teach you when you’re becoming a designer: you can have the greatest ideas in the world, but if you don’t know how to explain them to your audience, you might as well not bothered.
Of course because urban design is such an accessible subject and the built environment belongs to everyone, sometimes people think they are experts in it, when they aren’t. I was reminded of this a couple of days ago as I was driving down the newest highway, US 74, in Charlotte with my mother. This city has transformed this main artery into a highway, eradicating the life on both sides of it. Houses and businesses have been relocated and torn down. Possibly the worst consequence of this new highway is that it permanently divides the struggling neighborhoods on either side of it from connecting with one another other and parts of the city that are thriving. It’s so disappointing to see this happening in a city that I love. Haven’t we learned our lessons?!
My mother’s response? “Well I have to get the beach and now I can do it faster!” She could not understand how this road was so detrimental. She thought because there were mature bushes and brick walls on the side of the road that it was “beautiful.” That literally made my stomach turn. I was shocked how committed she was to the idea of this highway…she wouldn’t budge. I couldn’t blame her, I think a lot of people are trained by the status quo around them to think the same thing. In this moment I thought, what would Wayne say? While I don’t have the sarcasm and irony of Wayne Hemingway, I instead relied on my knowledge. I explained how a system of boulevards that were connected with a greater network of streets would have moved traffic just as quickly while preserving the identity and future prospects of the surrounding neighborhoods. This was the most socially, economically, and environmentally responsible way of re-designing US 74 until at least the city limits. I think I at least got her to think. My best weapons in communicating? Knowledge and being kind. What are yours?
We might have missed our chance in turning a US 74 and Independence Boulevard into a catalyst for regeneration in Charlotte. But for this project there are an infinite other corridors waiting to be redeveloped. We all need to take a page out of Wayne Hemingway’s book: learning how to communicate our design ideas better and make them more relatable to our audience. Click Here for Wayne’s website, and click below to check out one of his classic lecture on urban design and placemaking. The good stuff is between 48:30-1:18.