ON ARCHITECTURE- Myth buster: Bill Lucy asks the hard questions

Bill Lucy has a soft-spoken, unassuming manner, but his ideas are anything but. Armed with statistics, a keen analytical mind, and a taste for irony, the 67-year old UVA architecture professor of urban and environmental planning has been shattering our common assumptions for over a decade. In fact, you might call him a certified myth buster. 

Take UVA's Lawn. Sacred place, right?

"Baloney," says Lucy. "The Downtown Mall is a sacred place. A sacred place is where people commune, share ideas, eat together. There's a helluva lot more intellectual exchange on the Downtown Mall than at UVA, and that's because UVA has destroyed it– not by destroying buildings, but by changing their uses."

For instance, Lucy says the recently approved South Lawn project is being driven by a "shallow" design concept that integrates none of the social dynamics that Thomas Jefferson envisioned. "The bridge, or plaza over JPA, will have absolutely no function. It's just a phony image with no sense to it," he says. 

In Lucy's world, a meaningful way to develop the Lawn would be to return to its original intention. 

"UVA has forgotten that faculty and students not only lived together there, but they also ate together there. They ate food from the gardens, and there were cows on the lawn," says Lucy. "Today, it's certainly a nice place to walk, but it's become a pass-through place to somewhere else."

Okay, well, how about a nice big house on a cul de sac? The American dream, right? 

"The adverse social consequences of our cul de sac mentality, which is based on false beliefs, is enormous," says Lucy, who recently wrote a book on the subject, Tomorrow's Cities, Tomorrow's Suburbs, with colleague David Phillips. 

"For 70 to 80 years people have thought of cul de sac neighborhoods as safe havens for their families, particularly children," Lucy says, "but it has led to a car culture in which 42,000 people are killed in traffic accidents every year. Most of those traffic fatalities are people who live in suburbs, whose lives depend on driving somewhere." 

According to Lucy, it's the smaller roads leading to these suburbs that are the most dangerous– only about 10 percent of traffic fatalities occur on interstate highways, he says. Lucy, with a keen sense of irony, also cites recent statistics showing that one of the most common traffic fatalities in cul de sacs involves people backing over children, most often with mini-vans or big SUVs.

For years Lucy has been compiling data that show how dangerous suburban culture has become, but he notes that we seem happy to ignore the danger in favor of more sensational fears. For instance, he notes that traffic fatality rates are nearly double the national murder rate. In fact, he says, Americans are 13 times more likely to be killed in a traffic accident than to be murdered by a stranger. In addition, we are more likely to be killed by someone in our own homes than elsewhere, and by someone we know than a stranger. 

"When people think about the 'danger of leaving home,'" he says, "they think the danger is where they're going, in the cities where they have to work. But really the danger is in their cars and where they choose to live."

Lucy also believes that cul de sacs and other suburbs are no picnic for teenagers, who often feel isolated and too dependent on their parents. Lucy observes that school shootings like Columbine seem to be an exclusively suburban phenomenon, as are annual springtime teenage traffic fatalities, which almost always involve some reckless, drunken flight in an automobile.

"So you see, car and location choice lead to these dangers," he says, "which is the opposite of how most people think about their cars or living in the suburbs. In fact, most people are lured to cul de sacs because they think they're safe places for their children and families. It's like an addiction to hard drugs, I suppose, where people just don't realize what they're doing."

Closer to home, Lucy brings the same big-picture perspective to his role as a City Planning Commissioner. For example, at a recent planning session, Lucy says, he listened to a group of Woolen Mills residents concerned about a new high-density housing project in the neighborhood.

"The Woolen Mills isn't as historic as the residents think it is," he says, pointing out that the majority of buildings in the area were built after World War II. In fact, Lucy says that nearly 50 percent of Charlottesville's houses were built between 1945 and 1970. "The residents felt the development didn't reflect the ‘historic' character of the Woolen Mills, but I told them it didn't reflect it enough.

"Basically, I was agreeing with them," he says, "but I was looking at it from a different perspective." Lucy suggested the units should be larger, just like a majority of the post-war houses around them. "So many people with families are looking for reasonably priced, quality houses that are just a little bit bigger, but there are so few of those in the City."

According to Lucy's research, of 146 city houses sold in January and February of this year, 57 sold for $300,000 or less, but the average square footage of those houses was 1,385.

"The bigger houses are being built in the county, not in the city," he says. As a result, Lucy theorizes, the city is losing the diverse population it needs to help the community thrive. This has been a national trend for sometime, he says, but it has increased dramatically in the last decade.

In 1980, the percentage of Charlottesville families with children under 18 living in poverty was about the same as in Albemarle County. However, by 1990 there were twice as many poor families in the city as in the county. Today, the city has three times as many families living in poverty.

"To have a balanced school system, you need a balanced housing market," says Lucy. "Of course, the Woolen Mills residents really had no awareness of these larger issues."

"Bill is good at asking the questions that people just don't ask," says Russ Linden, a management consultant in Charlottesville who has know Lucy for years. "Will we have a community where middle class families can live, or will we be like San Francisco, so expensive that families with kids, who want a bigger house, can't live here? Bill is someone who insists on looking well down the road."

This fall, Lucy plans to develop a class called "Beyond the In-Basket," which he says was inspired by his work on the Planning Commission.

"Most planning commissions focus too much on the in-basket, on making decisions about a specific site, with no real thought of the broader issues," explains Lucy. "It's important to think about how small site projects affect the entire community, even the world. People with small roles can tackle larger goals, which is how all of us live our lives, really."

There's a helluva lot more intellectual exchange on the Downtown Mall than at UVA," says urban planner Bill Lucy, "and that's because UVA has destroyed it. Not by destroying buildings, but by changing their uses."