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Thursday, May 20, 2010

CNU 18: Gettin' Schooled

So, here I am at the 18th Congress for the New Urbanism, which has come this year to Atlanta.

Yesterday, before the Congress officially convened, I attended a session entitled New Urbanism 101, which is designed to give newcomers an orientation to the history and ideas of the movement and the organization.

I’ve been familiar with the ideas of new urbanism for at least a decade: I’ve read some of the main texts, seen talks and videos of talks by some of the movement’s leaders, and I’ve followed up with some investigation of subsequent debates.

I was expecting some of the same old song.  New urbanism seemed to me, with my outsider’s perspective, to have settled into a comfortable ideological groove, or perhaps just to have packaged itself as a kind of standardized product in search of market share.

I was in for a pleasant surprise.

The first – and longest – talk was by Andres Duany, one of the founders and chief spokespeople for new urbanism. He said he was supposed to give a talk he’s already given hundreds of times, the one in which he compares suburban sprawl with traditional neighborhood design and draws the obvious conclusion: sprawl is bad, traditional neighborhoods are good.

He said he would not give that talk, because everything had changed.

With the onset of the financial crisis in 2008, he claimed, sprawl is basically dead and will not be coming back.  At the same time, many of the particular, practical goals and design standards promulgated by new urbanists are no longer in reach because the money is simply not available. In fact, some of the particular, practical goals and standards promulgated my new urbanists never were in reach because they were more basically flawed.

For example, he noted that new urbanists have often pushed for a design standard for urban centers that called for buildings of 4 or 5 stories . . . though such buildings are very expensive and, under prevailing conditions, require so many parking spaces that the only option in most cases is to build a deck.  Such construction entails a massive, up-front investment of capital for a benefit that may be deferred far into the future, since the surrounding built environment may not yet be able to support vital urban life at that density.

Instead, Duany called for a much more flexible approach he called “successional urbanism.” There is no need to assume that what we build now will be here for all time. That was the mistake of the suburbs. Instead, even if 4- or 5-story urbanism is the ultimate goal for many urban centers, it might be okay to start with 1-story commercial areas, using limited-term licenses rather than permits to authorize construction, which would allow for looser building standards. Eventually, those 1-story buildings will give way to larger, more expensive, mixed-use buildings, but only as changes in the surrounding fabric of the built environment will support them.

I won’t say any more here about Duany’s concrete proposals or some of his more provocative assertions – though I will say there were some intriguing bits about public processes and a longstanding mistake about the character of democracy. He’s clearly still developing these ideas, hoping at this Congress to have a chance to mull them over, and he can certainly speak for himself, very engagingly and at great length.

Instead, I’ll just say that what delighted me about Duany’s presentation is that he is still thinking about all this stuff, subjecting his own ideas and past practices to critical scrutiny. He explicitly called up on new urbanists to be self-critical, to keep questioning everything, especially as political, economic, and environmental circumstances change.

Without question, there are a number of people at this conference who are true believers in a kind of CNU gospel, and I’ve heard any number of thoughtless assertions that can only be characterized as knee-jerk urbanism.  But for Duany, at least, new urbanism seems not to be a comfortably settled ideology, but a more open-ended inquiry into the practice of making good places.

Needless to say, this appeals to me greatly.

One side note on the Congress. Duany was arguably the featured speaker in the session I attended yesterday morning, and David Byrne was the featured speaker at last night’s plenary, talking about bicycles and urban form.

So, my day started with the rock star of new urbanism and ended with the new urbanist of rock stars.

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