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Reality check

Posted: November 5, 2013 2:25 p.m.
Updated: November 6, 2013 5:00 a.m.

From the Oath of Athens that the citizens of Athens, Greece recited over 2,000 years ago -- a timeless code of civic responsibility:

“…we will transmit this City not only, not less, but greater and more beautiful than it was transmitted to us.”

On October 22, in a day-long exercise, the Midlands Reality Check, a division of the Urban Land Institute, gathered in the Columbia Convention Center 300 stakeholders from across the Midlands representing housing, business, transportation, environmental, government, non-profit, civic interests, agriculture, and other sectors to set land use principles and develop alternative growth scenarios through 2035. At every stage of planning, they stressed that the cities in the Midlands have to pull together and work as a team.

As reported earlier, the Department of Commerce report ranked South Carolina’s economy as the 12th fastest growing in the nation, tied with North Carolina as the fastest growing state on the East Coast. The Urban Land Institute conservatively predicts that in the next 25 years, at least 450,000 people will be moving to the Midlands.

The challenge lies in preserving and enhancing the very beauty and graciousness that brings visitors and new residents and new industries here in the first place. Reality Check, as it plays out, will provide a region-wide vision for where these new residents will live, work, play and visit, while laying the foundation for smart growth.

Ed McMahon, the Charles Fraser Chair on Sustainable Development at the Urban Land Institute in Washington, D.C., who spoke at the Reality Check, asserts, “Round the world, cities are seeking the recipe for economic success in a rapidly changing global marketplace. Indispensable assets in a post-industrial economy include: well-educated people, the ability to generate new ideas and to turn those ideas into commercial realities, connectivity to global markets, and multi-modal transportation infrastructure. Another critical -- but often forgotten -- asset is community distinctiveness.”

“If I have learned anything from my career in urban planning,” he says, “it is this: a community’s appeal drives economic prosperity. I have also learned that, while change is inevitable, the destruction of a community’s unique character and identity is not. Progress does not demand degraded surroundings. Communities can grow without destroying the things that people love.”

In 2010, a Knight Foundation study found that the most important factors that create emotional bonds between people and their community were not jobs and the economy, but rather “physical beauty, opportunities for socializing and a city’s openness to all people.” The Knight Foundation also found that communities with the highest levels of attachment also had the highest rates of gross domestic product growth and the strongest economies.

Doug Kelbaugh, the dean of the University of Michigan School of Architecture, put it this way, “If a building, a landscape or a city is not beautiful, it will not be loved; if it is not loved, it won’t be maintained and improved. In short, it won’t be sustained.”

Again, Ed McMahon: “When it comes to 21st century economic development, a key concept is community differentiation. If you can’t differentiate your community from any other, you have no competitive advantage. “Keep Austin Weird” is more than a slogan; it is a recipe for economic success. A distinctive city is a city that the young and well-educated want to live in, that boomers want to retire to, and most certainly a city that people want to visit.”

According to The World Bank and the World Travel and Tourism Council, tourism is the largest industry in the world. According to Ed McMahon, tourism is about visiting places that are different, unusual and unique. “The more one city comes to look and feel just like every other city, the less reason there is to visit. On the other hand, the more a city does to enhance its uniqueness, whether that be cultural, natural or architectural, the more people will want to visit. It is no accident that Paris -- a city that looks and feels different -- gets 27 million visitors per year, more than any city on the planet, according to Lonely Planet.”

Arthur Frommer of the travel guide company says that among cities and towns with no recreational appeal, those that preserve their past continue to enjoy tourism. Those that haven’t, receive almost no tourism at all. Frommer has been quoted as saying, “Tourists simply won’t go to a city that has lost its soul.”

South Carolina has lived through a complex history. We are at the beginning of something new. And wonderful.

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