After years immersed in a particular major or profession, one’s view of the world is often changed to such an extent that it becomes difficult to see it the same as before diving in. This becomes all the more prevalent when speaking to someone outside one’s profession, with the realization that what may seem like second nature to one may not to another. This is the situation Gary Gaston, Executive Director at the Nashville Civic Design Center (NCDC) found himself in when a woman asked him, ‘What is the Built Environment?’, in a meeting where he was discussing a design proposal. This is a question I am sure he receives quite a bit as he works to educate the public by promoting great urban design in the Nashville Area. He answered her question by stating that “the Built Environment is everything that you encounter throughout your day.”

The story of the Nashville Civic Design Center started during the late 1990’s when the mayor at the time formed the Urban Design Forum with the goal of effecting public policy through planning and design. The Nashville Civic Design Center was then formed in 2000 in order to further promote good urban design, social justice, and affect public perception.  Through community-based meetings and charrettes, the Urban Design Forum and NCDC released the Plan of Nashville, a comprehensive vision for the 21st century future of Nashville’s  downtown core. One of the major proposals was the removal of the interstate and highway roads from within the urban core of downtown not only to improve pedestrian experiences but also to reconnect areas once divided by those roads. At the time, this idea seemed controversial but through proper communication and community outreach, now, constructing an interstate through the center of a city’s downtown is seen as a counter productive endeavor  that worsens the city’s overall health and wellness.

Through the years NCDC has run multiple charrettes, community workshops and design competitions all with the goal of creating more open green space, improve urban street design, and help promote a more pedestrian and bike oriented Nashville through better sidewalks and protected bike lanes. What is unique about what Gary and NCDC are doing is that they themselves don’t construct projects that they design or propose. The success of NCDC is shining light on often ignored or forgotten aspects of the city creating opportunities through vision for actual projects to happen. Through research NCDC has also identified the major zones of Nashville in order to propose unique and appropriate design approaches for each one. The seven zones, Natural, Rural, Suburban, Urban, Center, Downtown, and District, range in use and density which allow for different approaches to urban design.

NCDC’s impact on Nashville is undeniable and much work still needs to be done to create a more sustainable, walkable, and affordable Nashville as a whole. The work that Gary and NCDC are doing, through grassroots initiatives like TURBO and Parking Day, will play an important role in moving Nashville forward.

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