After Savannah, we started our trip back home through the Great Smokey Mountains, with a stopover in Asheville North Carolina. Asheville is best known as the site of the Biltmore Mansion, the massive estate of George Vanderbuilt II, grandson of Cornelius Vanderbilt, one time richest man in the world. The immense French château style country house can only be described as a palace. The estate is on the edge of Asheville, just a few minutes drive from downtown. The giant stone mansion and assorted out buildings sit on grounds originally covering 125,000 acres of land, most of which is forested mountains (85,000 acres were later sold to the federal government to be forever preserved in the natural state). Our plan was to see the house but we missed the cut off time for tours by just minutes. This was lucky since it gave us more time to explore Asheville, a quite spectacular example of what we should strive for in all of our cities.
Asheville is a small mountain city with just over 83,000 people in a metro region of about 500,000. With a GDP of just 14.5 billion it is only about 1/3 the size of Buffalo. But don’t let its diminutive size fool you. Asheville punches way above its weight, easily ranking with America’s premier cities for high quality urbanism. I had heard a lot of good things about Asheville in the New Urbanist circles and I had even based a few Buffalo Rising stories on the work of one if its prominent designers, Joe Minicozzi. Coincidentally, Mr. Minicozzi will be in Buffalo this week to give a presentation sponsored by the organization One Region Forward. The event, part of their Economics of Sustainability Series; “The Measure of Development”, will be held this Tuesday, June 2 \starting at 6:00 pm at 2 Templeton Landing in Buffalo. It is free to the public. Minicozzi’s message is important for municipalities that want to stay competitive and provide high quality public services without going broke. It is a message that all public officials should be paying attention to. I wonder if any local officials will be in attendance.
Anyway, Getting back to Asheville; I thought “sure, it’s probably a nice cute town, but how good could some small backwoods southern city be?” I was prepared for a block or two of quaint storefronts and that’s it. The first hint that I might be wrong came while searching for a hotel. The downtown hotels were mostly booked and the rooms remaining open were in the $450 per night range! We ended up staying in a more affordable—read that as “crappy sprawltastic strip hotel outside of town for $200”. The contrast between the drab and soulless car centric environment of our hotel neighborhood and the spectacular, people based environment of downtown Asheville could not be more stark. Downtown Asheville is gorgeous, walkable, active and fun. The fact that a small city such as Asheville can pull off good urbanism in America is something to take note of. Good urbanism is typically reserved for the biggest American cities. Asheville lays waste to the lie that only our largest cities, such as Boston, can be support high quality walkable urban neighborhoods. We were In Asheville on a cool rainy night, but that did not deter the crowds from coming out to enjoy the city.
People filled the stores, restaurants, and sidewalks throughout the downtown area. Downtown Asheville is densely built on a rolling topography. It is a mix of mostly smaller scale historic buildings and a few newer examples. The storefronts were filled by mostly local establishments with perhaps 1/3 being chain stores such as Urban Outfitters. The restaurant choices were seemingly endless. What you did not find were rundown buildings or parking lots. There was at least one large parking garage tucked away in an obscure location but, we easily parked on the street on arrival. Street after street after street was a delight because his city catered to people, not cars.
Buffalo is a wonderful city. But it is only a shadow of what it can be because the car is still placed before people when planning and design decisions are made. Buffalo needs to stop catering to cars and start making the city a place for the people who want to be in the city. Sixty years of parking lots and highways have not brought the promised flow of suburbanites back into the city. Parkways should not be highways. Parks should not have highways cutting through them or next to them. The city should not be 100% separated from its most valuable asset, its waterfront, by highways. Buildings should not be surrounded by parking. Parking should not be invisible in the city. If Asheville can do good urbanism there is no reason, NO REASON, that Buffalo has to settle for less. It is time to turn back the destruction of sprawl in Buffalo. Sprawl based design is a dead-end road.