Great cities aren’t the result of ‘little plans’

Published 12:00 am Sunday, February 3, 2013

“Make no little plans. They have no magic to stir men’s blood and probably will not themselves be realized.”
— Daniel Burnham, 19th century architect and urban planner

By Joe Morris

For the Salisbury Post
Although there is no factual evidence that Burnham spoke these precise words, they have become widely attributed to him, and they are emblematic of his spirit and commitment to public service. They have become synonymous with him and provide the foundation of his legacy as a proponent of meaningful civic design.
This past year, the American Planning Association, an organization that prescribes to Burnham’s aspirational philosophy, recognized downtown Salisbury as “A Great Place in America.” This award is of national stature and speaks to the community’s long-standing commitment to planning, preservation, public engagement and economic development as a means of transforming, for the better, our cherished urban places.
Others have taken notice of our efforts. Last week, more than 350 visitors, as part of the North Carolina Main Street Conference, traveled to Salisbury to benefit from our success. The lessons learned by conference participants will be taken back to their communities. Strategies and techniques implemented here, and in other small cities and towns, will be applied to emerging central business districts across our state, in order to preserve and build upon proven redevelopment models. The value of such efforts cannot be overstated.

The land area that is Salisbury (21.9 square miles) is roughly 4 percent of the land area of Rowan County (524 square miles), and yet Salisbury provides 23 percent of the county’s tax base. It is also important to note that 21 percent of Rowan County’s jobs are located within the Salisbury city limits. The point is, as the largest urban center within Rowan County, Salisbury provides a net outflow of tax revenue and employment that vastly exceeds the land area the community occupies. The primary municipal services (police, fire and solid waste collection) are generated from city taxpayers, with no dependence on county subsidy (with the exception of 911 services, which city residents pay as part of their phone bills). Water, sewer and broadband utilities are paid by rate payers. Those rate payers who live in service communities outside of Salisbury pay the same rate (for water and sewer) as a Salisbury resident. There is no premium paid by customers living in the client communities of Spencer, Granite Quarry, China Grove or Rockwell. The expenses are equally shared.
I was once shouted down by an angry participant in an annexation public hearing when, as a member of the city planning staff, I suggested that residents of Salisbury enjoy certain amenities associated with being a city resident. “What amenities?” she screamed. “Well,” I thought to myself, hopefully maintaining a modicum of professional demeanor, “there are many.” Salisbury has great parks, banks, retail establishments, a hospital and a variety of medical services, schools, colleges, neighborhoods and places of employment, restaurants, historic sites, cultural institutions and museums. The city also offers a slew of county services (yes, Salisbury is located in Rowan County) such as the library, the judicial complex and a big, beautiful, county administrative building — which provides our commissioners with very fine, and necessary, facilities from which to operate our county on the behalf of its citizens. I am very proud of it.

No. This is not about the proposed school central administrative office building. But it could be. To me, it is really about whether a community takes pride in itself. It is about whether a community will continually engage in the self-examination required to do better for itself and its future residents. It is about a community’s commitment to progress. I have no doubt that Salisbury possesses the aspirational, civic-minded DNA derived from Daniel Burnham. I have witnessed it time and time again. The idea that Salisbury, as community, would aspire to a building, worthy of its purpose, to house the elected officials and administrators who are guiding our public education system, to be located prominently within our city, within our county, is an undeniable and positive attribute.
Finally, on the occasion of my retirement after 34 years public service, I am inclined to reflect upon the Creed of the Ancient Athenians, who, some 24 centuries before Burnham, pledged allegiance to their city by stating, “We will ever strive for the ideals and sacred things of the city, both alone and with many; we will unceasingly seek to quicken the sense of public duty; we will revere and obey the city’s laws; we will transmit this city, not less, but greater, better and more bountiful than it was transmitted to us.”
I am ever mindful of this ideal. I can only hope that, as a public servant, in some small way, I have approached the expectations that the citizens of Salisbury had in me.
Joe Morris retired Friday as director of Community Planning Services for Salisbury. He is now development director for the LandTrust for Central North Carolina.