Emily Badger is a former staff writer at CityLab. Her work has previously appeared in Pacific Standard, GOOD, The Christian Science Monitor, and The New York Times. She lives in the Washington, D.C. area.
Melanie Hammet wants to turn obscure zoning ordinances into the universal language of song.
Melanie Hammet jokes from the microphone about the many other potentially sexy subjects she could sing about. Maybe she’ll devote her next album to insomnia. Or vegetables. Or asphalt! Everyone in the audience laughs in that way that nerds do when they’re forced to admit most of the world finds their passion really boring (and we count ourselves among said nerds).
Hammet’s audience at a bar and restaurant in Northwest Washington, D.C. was made up of architects and urban planners, here for a regular happy hour with the local chapter of the Congress for the New Urbanism. Most of these people had never before heard of anyone like Hammet: a sassy elected official/singer-songwriter who strums the guitar to songs about zoning ordinances and land use.
“Who doesn’t love good street design!” Hammet belts, introducing her next number, a song called “(Anatomy of) the Street Where You Live.” And someone in the audience actually whoops and yells back, “I love it!”
This is Hammet’s kind of crowd, folks who get her songs on both levels. Her album, the delightfully titled “Edifice Complex,” is made up entirely of tunes about public spaces, land and infrastructure. If you didn’t know the language of urban planners, Hammet sounds like she’s singing about what plenty of other musicians do: her home. But if you do speak this language, she’s managed to turn the dry content and complex concepts of planning into surprisingly sing-able verses (from “Car Tune”: and then I park it safe inside the walls/ of its own palace the Garage Mahal).
“The number of people who get excited when I say, ‘oh, I wrote an album of songs about land use,’ I tell 10 people that, and maybe one of them gets vaguely interested,” Hammet says. “‘Oh, an album of songs about land use? Whoopee!’” But, as she always tells people, if you look at the history of lyrical song throughout time, musicians most commonly sing about two subjects: love and place.
“And these are songs about place,” she says. “I am so in the genre and historical tradition of what people write about. It’s really not as esoteric as it sounds.”
Hammet lives in Pine Lake, Georgia, a compact town of about 1,000 people just east of Atlanta. Seven years ago, she got into local government and is now the town’s mayor pro tem. It’s a part-time job. Hammet has been a full-time singer/songwiter for much longer (her next “documentary songwriting” project will in fact be about neither vegetables nor asphalt, but prison sentencing). Pine Lake has inspired a lot of her thinking about land use and planning. The town is full of small residential lots on a neat street grid, with a dense canopy overhead. It has a strong street culture and sense of community. In fact, it feels sort of like a new urbanist enclave, albeit one that grew up more organically than the movement’s planned communities in places like Seaside, Florida.
“Pine Lake looks exactly like Seaside,” Hammet laughs, “if Seaside got into a bar fight and got the crap beat out of it.”
Hammet got involved in local government in part to help protect the town’s unique charm against encroaching gentrification. Pine Lake didn’t have the planning regulations to do that well. And the more Hammet learned about land-use code, the more she came to appreciate why so many people are baffled by it.
“I thought, well, you know, what would help me understand it is to hear a song about it, or translate it into something – not to be corny – but a more universal language,” she says. And this is where the idea for the album came from. “I thought it would be really useful for people to understand that wow, good traffic engineering means your kids can play in the street. It means your canopy is protected. It means all of these things that are sort of counter-intuitive to a person who doesn’t know anything about zoning.”
She landed a month-long artist’s residency to write the album in, of all places, Seaside. She finished and released it in 2010, and has since been a hit performing from it at planning conferences. The title, like much of the playfulness throughout, is designed to disarm anyone wary of the topic.
Hammet jokes that she perpetually has trouble imagining why anyone else would not be fascinated by the subjects that move her. Who wouldn’t be interested in this stuff? She’s singing, she says, about what’s going on right under our feet every day.
“This is actually the most intimate relationship you have,” she argues. “It’s not with your mother, it’s not with your partner, it’s not with your children. It’s with what you are in constant contact with: your place, your land, your environment.”
Put that way, land use sounds almost sultry. But even Hammet concedes there are a few planning topics she just couldn’t figure out how to translate into song – like building ordinances designed to help people age in place. She’s been carrying around a rough idea for a number called “Guess who’s coming to dinner?” But she’s never quite been able to make it work. (What rhymes with “visitability”??)
“Sidewalks are such a big deal,” Hammet says. “But wow, talk about – for me at least – not a sexy subject. I’d really like to write about sidewalks, but yikes!”
Her nerdiest fans may forgive her this oversight. She did, after all, write that song about streets. We'll let her play us out with it, from a performance on Georgia Public Broadcasting: