Skip to main content

Still walking the talk: The gospel according to Godschalk is smart growth

For a time after David Godschalk started lecturing at the University, he and his wife Lallie lived in a rented log cabin on the outskirts of Chapel Hill.

They planned to build their dream house eventually, but that project took on sudden urgency after their landlord booted them out.


David Godschalk’s career at Carolina spans five decades. He retired this past summer, but his influence as a teacher and a leader of the Buildings and Grounds Committee will be felt — and seen — for years to come.
Still, Godschalk proceeded methodically.

First, he took stock of the money they had stashed, and then he perused the classified ads to get a sense of how far it might stretch.

Then he pulled out a map of the town and campus and drew a circle with a half-mile radius from his office in New East.

When he failed to find a vacant lot that close, he drew another circle, this one with a mile radius from his office. This time, he got lucky. There was a vacant lot on Glendale Drive to the east of campus that fell within his outer limit of being close enough to be able to walk to work.

Godschalk is not the first person in the world to think that living close to his job is a good idea. But as a regional planner, choosing how and where to live is less of a personal choice than a fixed principle etched in his bones.

Being a regional planner, Godschalk is an architect who took as much care in deciding on a house design as he did in choosing a lot.

He and Lallie settled finally on a two-story Deck House design, a “housing system” featuring a refined post-and-beam structure with exposed beams, cedar ceilings and a beautiful mahogany door and window frames, cedar tongue-and-groove decking on the roof and curtain walls that could be shifted easily to accommodate changing needs.

“It was a very rational structure,” Godschalk said, even if the window and doorframes had to be hauled all the way from Boston on a flatbed truck.

If there was something irrational about the building, it would have to be the kitchen, Godschalk said. Or at least Lallie thought so, and Godschalk knew better than to argue.

“I must have redesigned the kitchen 30 times before I could make it the way she liked it,” he said.

More than 30 years later, he and Lallie still live in that same house, and neighbors can still spot him in the morning leaving for his walk to work.

Never mind that he retired at the end of June.

He has devoted his career to touting the principles of smart growth, and he refuses to see retirement as a reason to stop.

At the center of the smart-growth school of thought is the notion that urban sprawl has become the scourge of modern life.

Sprawl forces people to waste precious hours trapped in traffic, which pollutes the air.

The sprawling suburbs gobble up forests and farms, leaving in their place rooftops, sidewalks and driveways that allow stormwater runoff to pollute streams, lakes and underground water supplies.

To add insult to injury, taxpayers foot the bill for all expenses that sprawl creates, from new schools to sewer lines.

It is Godschalk’s stellar record of championing smart growth that has made him a nationally recognized regional planner and is among the reasons he was honored with a 2004 C. Knox Massey Award shortly before he retired.

The citation called him a “visionary and craftsman,” who “created the foundations on which the accomplishments of generations are built.”

‘A sensitive and thoughtful leader’

Although Godschalk began lecturing in the Department of City and Regional Planning in 1969, he first came here in 1962 to earn his master’s degree in the discipline.

By that phase of his life, he had already finished two stints in the U.S. Navy – the first one from 1953 to 1956 and the second from 1961 to 1962 when the Navy recalled him during the crisis in Berlin.

In between his Navy tours, he managed to earn an architectural degree from the University of Florida in 1959.

After earning his master’s degree in regional planning here, he took a job as planning director of the city of Gainesville in Florida before returning to Chapel Hill to complete his Ph.D. in city and regional planning in 1971. From 1978 to 1983, Godschalk served as department chair.

Friend and longtime colleague Jonathan Howes said Godschalk came to personify the department and lent to it the same kind of dignity and respect as its founder, Jack Parker, once had.

But Howes, a former Chapel Hill mayor who serves as special assistant to Chancellor James Moeser for local relations issues, said there is another dimension to Godschalk that sets him apart.

“David was an academic leader in building the department and was a true teacher in his relationship with students, but what distinguished him even more was the degree to which he was an engaged academician and still is,” Howes said.

In 1984, for instance, Godschalk served on a citizen’s committee that recommended to the town of Chapel Hill a public-facilities ordinance that would allow growth only after adequate infrastructure and public facilities were in place to support it.

His leadership on the committee led to his being named to fill a vacant seat on the town board. Nine months later, he ran for and won a four-year term.

“The thing that was really impressed on me was how much the process of governing requires constant efforts at public education,” Godschalk said. “I also found that my teaching skills proved to be my most valuable skills because often there was so little understanding of the issues we were dealing with.

“People would understand a corner of it here and an angle of it there, but they wouldn’t have the full picture. And I’m not just talking about citizens. This was sometimes true of my fellow elected officials.”

In July of 1994, he was appointed to an endowed chair as the Stephen Baxter Professor.

Since 1995, he has served as the chair of the Building and Grounds Committee to contribute his knowledge and know-how to help develop two master plans for central campus and two land-use plans for Carolina North (formerly known as the Horace Williams tract).

“I couldn’t have designed a better committee to serve on because it fit my architectural background and was like being in the middle of this ongoing laboratory,” Godschalk said. “It never seemed to me to be a distraction because the issues we addressed were in the forefront of things I was working on.”

One co-worker said of Godschalk, “Whether establishing new campus signage guidelines, determining the best process for locating and maintaining new campus artwork, critiquing an architect’s preliminary designs for a new campus building, testifying before the Chapel Hill Town Council about the University’s plans or managing continuing conflict between real programmatic needs and encroachment of these needs on campus greenspace, he has been a sensitive and thoughtful leader.”

Far from the retiring type

His professional affiliations, honors and offices constitute 33 entries on his curriculum vitae. He is the author of 11 books, and his published chapters, monographs, articles, book reviews, working papers and conference presentations number well into the triple digits.

Almost assuredly, more entries will be added.

On a raining Wednesday morning in September, Godschalk was at his desk in New East working on a chapter on emergency management that will become part of a book being produced by the International City Managers’ Association.

Even in an age of increased terrorist threats, the natural hazards of hurricanes and floods remain great threats — as the people of Florida have seen in recent weeks.

In a strange way, there is more time to get work done now that he’s retired.

“To some extent, that’s true,” Godschalk said. “I have a lot more control over my schedule because I’m not teaching classes and going to faculty meetings. I’m able to work when I want to work on things I want to work on.”

Being retired allows more time for traveling, whether for work or play.

He and Lallie will vacation on a Greek island in October. When they get home, Godschalk will fly to Portland to deliver three papers at the annual conference of the Association of Collegiate Schools of Planning.

Later this month, he’ll be going to Washington, D.C., for a meeting in connection with a study Congress requested on the costs and benefits of hazardous materials mitigation. A side benefit to the trip will be the chance to visit his son and daughter-in-law and his grandson born 17 months ago.

“I guess you can say he came along at just about the right time,” Godschalk said.

As for winning the Massey, Godschalk said, “I was extremely honored, particularly by the ceremony we went through with the whole Massey family. It’s a wonderful award, and I was deeply touched.”

Originally published by University Gazette: Sept. 15,2004

Comments are closed.