Trouble in Arcadia: Development, traffic threaten TJ's dream

The Arcadian tradition so clearly represented in the architecture of UVA– and other designs by Thomas Jefferson– contains an inherent contradiction that's headed for a major controversy in Charlottesville's development plans. 

Arcadia is the mythical place where humans live in harmony with nature. The Arcadian aesthetic tradition therefore depicts agrarian scenes with buildings that seem to grow from the landscape and are surrounded by wilderness. Thomas Jefferson was an arcadian in his views and architecture. Spacious lawns were integral to the design and function of his buildings, and his columns were echos of trees.

Jefferson's ethos was to build America around this rural ideal. He was suspicious of cities and the greed of moneymakers. However, building and operating his kind of arcadian vision required slaves. This was the contradiction he and his followers on their plantations had to confront. Each day they lived their dream of proximity to nature, but each day was filled with activities that depended on slaves. They recognized and regretted it, but they apparently could see no viable alternative if they wanted to make their arcadian vision work. Slavery became a fundamental part of their social fabric.

It took a civil war to tear this social fabric and free the slaves. But the cataclysm ushered in a new world where slaves were replaced by mechanical processes, and the age of industrialism spread across America. 

The Arcadian vision remained in architecture, however, and continues today, finding its expression most often in the large arcadian villas on the urban fringe of American cities where the desire to live closer to nature and away from the city prevails. 

But here we find another contradiction. Living this arcadian vision requires a different kind of slavery, a dependence on the mechanical mobility of automobiles. Each day, people may glimpse their natural surroundings, but each day must be spent in traffic. They don't like it, but they see no alternative that would permit them to  live their vision of the good life. It's the modern-day version of pre-Civil War slavery.

In Charlottesville, especially at UVA, it's possible to walk around the wonderful arcadian architecture of Thomas Jefferson and be overcome by traffic fumes along every street– which might explain the stirrings of a local "civil war" challenging automobile dependence. 

The battle begins with the global issues of climate change, the oil crisis, and the loss of land to burgeoning suburbs. But it's related to the growing problem of traffic– even in a small place like Charlottesville, where streets just can't seem to cope anymore. And that fact has led to visions of a more urban lifestyle based on quality transit that makes most things close enough to reach by a short walk. This is the vision of Smart Growth, of New Urbanism, of Sustainable Cities. 

Across America, the new vision of the good life in cities is at war with the old arcadian vision. One hundred cities are building new rail systems and transit oriented development around the new stations. In the past five years, cities in 33 states have voted to fund $110 billion to build new transit systems.

In Charlottesville, the City Council has enacted strong zoning policies to encourage redevelopment and has established the Streetcar Task Force to examine the feasibility of a quality light rail system running between Downtown and UVA. This is expected to help create a much better transit system and to attract further development around it, along Main Street and at both ends of the system. 

This should be good news to students and people coming to Charlottesville seeking easier access to services but who don't want to drive. But it will clash with those whose perceptions of what is good are mostly arcadian. They don't want to see more dense urban development anywhere, especially not in Charlottesville– and certainly not near Mr. Jefferson's academical village. 

How can this clash of values be resolved? Design. Design. Design. The reality is that Charlottesville is not going to be New York, but it will be more densely developed than ever before.

But that doesn't mean it has to be a dull set of glass towers. Interesting green buildings can bring natural light and breezes, as well as solar heating and cooling and all that the best arcadian traditions of water-sensitive design and landscaping can provide. The original buildings and vistas of Jefferson's vision can maintain their ties to arcadia while more dense development can enable all students to live within a short distance of their campus destinations. 

The resolution of this issue will be painful and slow, and will require much dialogue and many hours of drawings. But it will perhaps provide some resolution to the arcadian contradiction. 

The author came to Charlottesville last year on a Fulbright Scholarship, but he has recently left his stint at UVA's school of architecture to return to Western Australia where he heads the Institute for Sustainability and Technology Policy at Murdoch University.


1 comment

Nice article, although there are some points of these issues that were missed.

First of all, the Civil War didn't remove the need for cheap slave labor. What it did was change the balance to favor an industrial economy. We still have slavery, but now its overseas where we can't see it. That way we can buy our goods at Walmart without having to think about the slave labor camps that were used to make the product.

Secondly, a really important piece of using high density and New Urbanism is leaving greenspace. This isn't a trivial matter either. Real Estate is a national market, so simply creating a "growth area" doesn't necessarily decrease a demand since a local community can't possible solve the housing needs of everyone in the U.S. Protecting open space and creating new green spaces allow people to connect to a natural aesthetic in an urban environment.

In addition, changing the aesthetic of public and private spaces to reflect a more rural and natural feel is also critical. Lorrie Otto was perhaps the first person to pioneer natural landscaping in the U.S. By using native plants, and minimizing traditional lawns, we can maintain a sense of place and create a more ecologically sustainable environment. Jefferson himself was a pioneer in using American natives in landscaping and you can see many examples of this in the grounds of UVa and at Monticello. He even has a native wildflower named after him (Jeffersonia diphylla)

Locally, I think these two pieces of information can help us make some better development decisions. First of all, the more we can use local businesses, and emphasize local agriculture the better we can maintain a sense of place. For example, there should be a permanant space for the City Market. This will reduce the homogenization caused by chains like Walmart and also the human exploitation caused by such businesses. Secondly, we should reform local ordaninaces to provide incentives for using native species, especially those that uniquely characterize our area (like Umbrella magnolia, Paw Paw, etc.) and remove penalties that discourage natural landscaping (like the phrasing of our local weed ordinance).