Next month, a broad cross-section of America’s (and the world’s) best urban planners, designers, thinkers and doers will be gathering in West Palm Beach for the 20th annual Congress for the New Urbanism (CNU20). The CNU is the best-known banner for a wide range of innovations in urban development – in CNU President and CEO John Norquist’s preview, he notes that the organization “brought forth public charrettes, form-based codes, the Smart Code, the Transect, LEED-ND,” and many other new ways of thinking about building cities.


The movement’s godfather is Florida-based urban designer Andres Duany, who introduced many of its signature innovations with his pioneering design of the resort community of Seaside, Fla., in the early 1980s. Seaside – like much of the first phase of New Urbanism – was a conscious throwback, a community built to resemble the small southern towns Seaside developer Robert Davis remembered from his youth. New Urbanist design ideas quickly spread to cities across North America, inspiring a wave of classically proportioned, throwback-styled, highly walkable new community developments.


An urban planner friend of mine likes to compare the New Urbanism to the dawn of the Renaissance in Florentine Italy. Much as the Medicis were funding a self-conscious homage to classical Rome and Greece to re-ignite European society in the wake of the Dark Ages, the New Urbanism has aimed at inspiring a human-scale urban renaissance to counteract a century of sprawling development geared to the needs of motor vehicles.


I’ll be attending CNU20 – my first CNU – and so you can expect this space to take on an obsessively urbanist bent by mid-May or so. In the meantime, the Next American Cities blog has posted a series of interviews with some of CNU20’s most highly anticipated speakers:


Ellen Dunham-Jones, Georgia Tech architecture professor and co-author of “Retrofitting Suburbia.” Among the highlights of the linked chat is an eye-popping stat – two-thirds of America’s suburban households are child-free – and Dunham-Jones’ statement of purpose:


[W]e spent the past 50 years designing and developing suburbia, and yet all of the unintended consequences of that, and the continued resource depletion that we’re very well aware of, means that the big design project for the next generation is going to be retrofitting suburbia.

John Norquist, former mayor of Milwaukee and current CNU president. One of Norquist’s signature achievements in Milwaukee was the dismantling of its Park East Freeway, and he’s become a prominent advocate of highway removal as a path to smart growth. As he notes in the interview, “A robust street grid, with lots of connections, will distribute traffic much better than a few large freeways.”


Mike Lydon, founder of the Street Plans Collaborative and co-author of "The Smart Growth Manual." Lydon, an advocate for better cycling infrastructure and complete streets, makes the safety case for a street-level design revolution:


What we’re talking about are safer streets for everybody, and how that’s accomplished is by making the changes that make cycling easier. What that really means is not necessarily just accommodating doing things on a bike, but narrowing the number of lanes overall, widening sidewalks, shortening pedestrian crossing times, making cyclists and pedestrians more visible — all these things add up to a safer street, not just for cyclists but for people driving.

And for the final pre-CNU20 word, I’ll turn things over to Andres Duany himself, who argues in the short clip below that the global recession represents a unique opportunity to rethink the direction of urban growth. A pull quote: “If you take it with the right spirit, it’s a very creative period. I know that I feel absolutely exhilarated by ideas in the last three years in a way I haven’t been in a long time."



That’s all for now. If you’re heading to West Palm yourself, see you there!


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