The Congress for the New Urbanism (CNU) – probably the most significant urban design movement in North America since Levittown and the rise of suburbia – turned 20 in West Palm Beach last week. CNU20 was my first congress, and it was by turns amazing, amusing and a bit dull, and overall it’s probably the most important conference I’ve attended since this convergence-of-climate-change-and-energy-scarcity thing I went to in 2006. Let me explain why.
Now, I was an easy sell on a CNU confab. I’m a city geek. I obsess about streetscapes, rock out to awesome mixed-use retrofits and wax poetic about transit. (Through the medieval gate at Freiburg on a whisper-quiet tram? That’s one fine ride. And don’t get me started on the Singapore Metro.) I read and write about this stuff a lot, sometimes even for a living.
Plus I know the CNU’s greatest hits by heart. I’ve been to Seaside – the neo-traditional beach town on the Gulf Coast of Florida that was built in the early 1980s and served as the test bed for some big ideas Andres Duany and Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk had about human-scale urban design. (It is most famous, to its creators’ eternal frustration, as the stage set for the film "The Truman Show.") I’ve been to Belmar in suburban Denver – a full-on multiblock classical downtown built on the ruins of a dead shopping mall. My brother-in-law used to live in McKenzie Towne here in Calgary – a half-success at best, a suburban neighborhood built too early in the New Urbanism’s rise, in a city not yet ready for such ambitious ideas about what a suburb could be.
So yeah: I was the guy in the T-shirt from the band’s last tour elbowing for front-row seats at this gig; I was predisposed to digging those CNU grooves. But never mind why I thought it was great; I want to talk about why you should. And the reason why you should is because there are few banners anywhere that do as excellent a job of gathering smart, skilled people in one place to figure out how to make cities sustainable in the age of climate change and energy scarcity. And since more than half of us live in cities now and 80 percent of us will live in cities by midcentury, there’s probably no single project as important as the one CNU has taken on. (Energy might be bigger, but it’s more like 10 related tangled projects fighting in a bag like feral cats, so let’s leave it aside for the moment.)
If you’re only interested in the talking point, that’s it: the Congress for the New Urbanism still has some great ideas about cities. Lots of ‘em. If you’d rather be watching YouTube clips of feral cats fighting in bags – presumably set to “Yakety Sax” – then you can skip the rest. If you’ve ever wondered what it might be like to actually be at a CNU confab, though, keep reading.
I could probably reflect on it all for a bit and come up with a big thematic notion or two about What CNU20 Meant – a design revolution at a crossroads or a rough road ahead or an urgent task at hand (all true to some degree, and all explored to some extent by other attendees). But that kind of talk turns to inside baseball too quick. (Hey, just how ticked was Duany when Dan Solomon launched the event by basically flipping the bird to the CNU Smart Code?) And I will be looking at specific themes and trends and projects in the coming weeks. But the general impression? What was it all like?
Well, it was like this: a thousand-plus people in a giant and more or less generic convention center in West Palm Beach, separated from the city’s fancy New Urbanist main drag by a 10-lane horrorshow of car-centered design called Okeechobee Boulevard. Which in turn meant that going from the Congress to lunch and back made for a study in why there’s a New Urbanism in the first place, because it takes a special kind of ignorance to design two-stage pedestrian crossings and still not leave enough time for a slower-than-average human being (or a large enough ambling crowd) to make it across each stage between “Don’t Walk” signals.
CNU20 was the usual confabbing mix of plenaries and keynotes and breakouts, tracks labelled "Architecture and Placemaking" and "Mobility and the Walkable City" and such, gossip in the hallways and drinks and dinner and more drinks afterward. (A general rule of thumb applicable to pretty much any kind of conference: It’s always dangerous to keep pace with the Aussies on the pub crawl.)
The opening session featured architect Dan Solomon tearing a strip out of the emerging CNU design standards with a mix of good cheer and razor-sharp invective. The organization’s “assault on orthodoxy,” he said, “has become an orthodoxy,” producing “a scattering of beautiful places” and “an intellectual straightjacket.” In re the Smart Code – the CNU’s attempt at distilling general principles from its varied experiments in post-automobile design – Solomon said it was “an epistemology of doom” (zing!), a kind of “idea-mongering [that] stands in the way of perception.”
Andres Duany – generally regarded as the CNU’s figurehead and top-dog theorist – took the Grand Ballroom stage next, and responded with what appeared to be an off-the-cuff rebuttal remarkable for its thoroughness and precision. The gist of it was: If the CNU doesn’t write good urban design codes, the urban world will continue to suffer under terrible ones. “The bureaucracy has to be given something to administer,” he said.
Duany then did some back-of-napkin math, estimated there were maybe 140,000 people employed in municipal bureaucracies in the U.S. who worked on planning and design, noted they wouldn’t all fit in the West Palm Beach Convention Center (nor even on Okeechobee Boulevard’s runway-sized medians), and said, “We can change what they administer.” Also: “The Smart Code ensures complexity . . . When you don’t code, you don’t get complexity. You get hyper-simplification.” And also – this was implied more than stated – you get Okeechobee Boulevard.
Duany said much else besides (he is, among many other things, a crazily gifted extemperaneous speaker). One big takeaway was that the Smart Code – and New Urbanism generally – was intended to be a baseline, the start of a process, not a rigid template; if you didn’t “calibrate” it to local uses and specs (and Duany suggested I believe it was 73 times that you should calibrate it), then you got “a generic American town” circa 1920, which is far from ideal but to his mind (and mine) beats the holy hell out of single-use modernist-zoned suburbia at least.
After the opening keynotes, everyone broke up into little pods to discuss certain key themes for the rest of the morning. I eavesdropped on the “Sprawl Repair” group for a bit, which was led by Georgia Tech architecture prof (and "Retrofitting Suburbia" co-author) Ellen Dunham-Jones and Duany Plater-Zyberk's Galina Tachieva. It was mainly about developing a sort of toolkit for building functional human-scale urbanism back into suburban landscapes, and it was fascinating in too many ways to squeeze in here.
Next up were the CNU Charter Awards, which were in a theatre on the main drag and thus involved another round of the real-life Frogger game known as crossing Okeechobee Boulevard. And which celebrated everything from urban redesign in the South Bronx to the passive solar design of the Cambridge (Mass.) Public Library’s new addition. And which gave the top award to a town plan for a farming village in South Africa. And which thus hopefully laid to rest the notion that the CNU is only about building quaint resort towns that look like something Jim Carrey got trapped in for a reality TV show.
We’ve only just finished lunch on Day One. I knew this would run long.
What else? “Incremental urbanism” – the slow, steady introduction of New Urbanist ideas into the landscape. Did you know just one-third of U.S. households now consists of the sort of mom-dad-and-two-kids nuclear family that inspired every sitcom on television in the 1980s? I didn’t. That’s why New Urbanists like Robert Sharp and Donald Powers are figuring out ways to build funky little townhouse villages and cottage clusters and micro-mixed-use developments into gaps in the contemporary urban fabric. (I wish there was space for Powers’ full story of his client in Fayetteville, Ark., who bought the building his T-shirt-making shop was in and retrofitted it and then sold it at peak of market and bought it back after the new owner and the new owner’s bank failed and has now doubled his investment again and should pretty much be the poster child for New Urbanist incremental urbanism in an age of abandoned exurban developments).
What else? James Howard Kunstler, running through his shopworn (though still laugh-out-loud funny) hellfire-and-brimstone critique of contemporary American society. I ducked out of that one part of the way through to hear Duany lecture on his forthcoming book, "Heterodoxia Architectura." I know next to nothing technical about architecture, but I now know what “classical orders” are and I gather that Duany intends to stand conventional wisdom about them on its head (while kicking the everloving stuffing out of sleek-boxed modernism in the process). After that it was back across Okeechobee Boulevard with only minor casualties to the Athena Award ceremony. The award went to the architecture team of Steven Peterson and Barbara Littenberg, who capped a lifetime of exemplary design by submitting an elegant, human-scaled, profoundly urbanist proposal for the redesign of the World Trade Center site. Because it was not insane, it of course lost out to a scale model of Daniel Libeskind’s ego.
That was Thursday. I’m really going to have to work to compress Friday and Saturday into something that can pass as a “summary.”
Tune back in shortly for Part Two of this Increasingly Overlong CNU20 "Rundown."
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