Lexington needs an open process to envision its future, then plan for it

Aerial photo of downtown Lexington in 2013
Aerial photo of downtown Lexington in 2013 Herald-Leader

Some policy decisions that offer huge benefits in the short term can have long-term consequences, which prove disastrous for the future. Other decisions that don’t seem to be so beneficial in the short term, may prove to contribute to the vibrancy and sustainability of our community far into the future.

When I arrived at the University of Kentucky to teach architecture and urban design more than 50 years ago, Lexington was a city of less than 50,000 people. Today it is more than six times that size. The changes in quality have not begun to match the changes in quantity. As Lexington prospers and available buildable sites diminish, elected officials and urban planners must use all available means to increase the vitality and prospects for sustainability in the city and region.

A century ago, Lexington was a town of fine, compact neighborhoods with diverse homes close enough and similar enough in character, that the value of each home benefited from its relationship to its neighbors. Back then, the downtown was surrounded by livable neighborhoods, that are now surrounded by undistinguished subdivisions, which have contributed next to nothing to the to the sense of place and community — next to nothing to Lexington’s commons.

Such “parasitic development” amounts to a subtraction from the unique qualities of the Bluegrass landscape. Suburban sprawl has undercut the distinctive identity of Lexington, so much so that in Gertrude Stein’s famous words about Oakland, “there is no there, there.”

In the ongoing debate over its Urban Services Area, it’s time to ask: What do we want Lexington to look like when the community’s last major development has been filled in? What sorts of different scenarios might we imagine for Lexington’s mature future landscape that will enhance Lexington’s quality rather than opportunistically focus on quantity?

To be sure, Lexington has recently seen much progress in increasing the quality of its built environment, but most of these enhancements to the local commons have occurred in the public realm. We can only lament what CentrePointe might have become had the participatory approach of architect Jeanne Gang taken hold and guided this benighted project. A similar approach — based upon inclusion, negotiation and evaluation — would avoid the land-use battles that ensue every five years.

Instead, a civic forum of planners and engaged citizens could embark on an ongoing program of alternative, future scenario-building. Diverse groups and individuals would collaborate in developing competitive plans for the region.

Each of these competing scenarios would be assessed, debated and compared. Each would have strengths and weaknesses. In subsequent iterations of this process, the shapers of each scenario would tend to incorporate some of the strengths of competing scenarios and eliminate their own weaknesses, realizing that to be adopted and implemented, successful scenarios would likely tend toward overall consensus. As proposals are implemented, inclusion, consensus, cooperation and sustainability would be favored.

Sustainable city practice distinguishes between growth and development. Growth is seen as an expansion of quantitative physical resources, while development is seen as an increase in quality, often with steady or even a shrinkage in quantitative use of land-based resources.

Growth is not an absolute necessity. “Sustainable growth” is an oxymoron. Lexington can become denser as part of a sustainability strategy for qualitative development. Urban-regional sustainability, which is the clear choice for Lexington’s overarching planning goal, is not a five-year project. It must be an ongoing endeavor growing out of alternative, sustainability-oriented scenarios, generated by many community stakeholders and open to the future.

Our civic and ecological commons demands it if future generations of Lexingtonians are to look back at us with pride and gratitude.

Development must not continue to be a free rider that drives the declining quality of Lexington’s landscape. Lexington’s Urban Services Boundary must be maintained until a better practice of ensuring future sustainability is implemented.

Richard S. Levine of Lexington is principal architect for Center for Sustainable Cities Design Studio.