If you haven’t already read all 1,600 words of my description of the first day of CNU20, then what follows will be comprehensible, yes, but lacking in its full depth, nuance, and – as we literary types like to say – longwindedness. So click here for the unvarnished, unrestrained, unabridged first chapter.
All done? Welcome back. I’ll try to be brief(er). I’ll fail. Let’s jump right in with the morning keynote on Friday – Day Two of CNU20.
The morning keynote was by Peter Calthorpe, another CNU founding father. Calthorpe was a late addition, which unfortunately meant we only got to hear 45 minutes of what would’ve surely been the most enlightening couple hours of keynoting I’ve ever heard. In any case, his "Urbanism in the Age of Climate Change" is a must-read and the work he’s doing to channel Chinese urban growth in sustainable directions should be awarded the kind of prizes, accolades and outsized influence that currently go to 3-D renderings of chalk outlines of whatever Frank Gehry sneezed on his cocktail napkin last night.
Here’s Calthorpe, all smushed together: “Climate change for the next 100 years will be the challenge of the globe and mankind ... America happens to be in the denial stage of grief ... What we need from the planet is more than the planet can actually deliver. This is startling.”
Regarding his work on instant Chinese megacities, Calthorpe began by noting that it was refreshingly frictionless to make big change because, “unlike us, they are fact-based.” Furthermore: “Urbanism is easier at these densities ... It would be hard to get a plaza wrong. ... They can’t imagine why they would dedicate good public space to dead cars.” Also: “If the street is right, how good the façade is might not be the key issue of our time.” In other words, a radical Calthorpe redesign of Okeechobee Boulevard would be worth a dozen Frank Gehry awnings to the overall value of West Palm Beach. That’s not how he put it, of course, but readers of Part One will be well familiar with my thoughts on the Circle of Traffic Hell that is Okeechobee Boulevard.
What else? Cayala, Guatemala. Cayala, Guatemala! A stunning New Urbanist neighborhood recently completed in Guatemala City, the discussion of which included renowned architect Leon Krier and Notre Dame University architecture dean Richard Economakis. And yet despite such illustrious company in a teensy conference room so full (and full of heavyweight urbanists) that Calthorpe was stuck in a back row and Jim Kunstler was, for a time, seated on a trash can (for real), it was Maria Fernandez Sanchez of Estudio Urbano who brought the house down with her passionate, uplifting description of what New Urbanism’s human-scale, neotraditional design has brought to her violent and anxious city.
“The value of tradition is that it promotes true civility,” she said, noting that Cayala had already become a destination for family parties, wedding photos and weekend strollers in general – all this in a city whose street life had mostly moved behind security gates. Also: “We seek to establish a grammar of harmony” in “a place that conveys a human story of meaning and belonging. ... We are leaving behind a city of despair and getting closer to a city of hope.” And if you can listen to a thing like that and shrug and say something about nostalgia and "The Truman Show" and wouldn’t they be better off with a Libeskind or at least an Eisenman, then I guess there’s no convincing some people.
Anyway, up next (in my ping-pong navigation of the conference, anyway) was “Adaptation and Resilience,” presented in modified PechaKucha style, which meant eight presenters in barely an hour. Karja Hansen has some great thoughts about the spread of the Better Block movement and how to use co-work sites to “kickstart a neighborhood.” Robert Orr’s done some interesting thinking about “jobs-oriented development” in hollowed-out Rust Belt cities. Duncan Crary (who hosts and produces the KunstlerCast podcast) is involved in resurrecting freight shipping on the Erie Canal, which how can you not love that? There was more to the session than that, but I continue to pretend to aim for brevity.
What else? Robert Davis (the founder of Seaside) and David Pace (property manager of the pioneering New Urbanist shopping-mall retrofit at Mizner Park in Boca Raton) freely admit their experiments had flaws, but they’ve endured 20-plus years in a volatile market nevertheless and both have become destinations. More than 60 percent of Seaside’s rental tenants have been there more than 20 years. Mizner Park’s no longer inspiring its opponents to disband the development board that approved it. That sort of thing.
What else? Richard Florida. (Richard Florida!) Once called “an intellectual rock star.” Not hyperbole. Dude can riff. Also he’d like you to know he’s from working-class Newark and not an elitist and he’s smarter than most of his critics. Also his “Creative Class” idea was not intended to suggest that gay software developers sipping lattes was in and of itself the engine of urban economic renewal (my example, not his, but that’s what he was driving at). And for the record I think he’s pretty much right on all counts.
Plus also if you have to send someone into a ballroom full of rubber-chicken-fed regional sales managers and senior bureaucrats who need to understand in less than an hour why New Urbanism and sustainability and a radical retrofit of basically everything they know and love for the age of climate change and energy scarcity is not only necessary but awesome, you do not send Andres Duany to lecture them on classical orders or Jim Kunstler to mock their fashion sense or even Peter Calthorpe to explain what’s happening in China. You send Richard Florida. They won’t even know what they just bought into until their kids explain it to them over a latte years later at the solar-powered mixed-use Lively Living Center for Retired Regional Sales Managers and Gay Software Developers. Send Florida. He’ll rock ‘em hard. Seriously.
Saturday. Finally. But hey, why hurry now, right?
Anyway, Saturday: I’ll be honest, I slept in (recall in Part One where I warned about matching Australians drink for drink?) and missed Leon Krier’s morning keynote, which I’m sure was excellent. Rest of the day for me was mostly about “Tactical Urbanism” and “Sprawl Repair,” two new toolkits being developed to stitch sustainable design into the existing urban (and especially suburban) fabric. The New Urbanism’s marquee successes to date have been standalone projects – often on greenfield sites free of existing residents, policies and vested interests - so to my mind the New Urbanist design toolkit will make or break itself on this stuff. On retrofit and intervention, reinvention and infill. I’ll be revisiting individual projects and ideas in their own posts in the coming weeks, so let’s do the condensed version.
“Tactical urbanism”: The term was coined by Mike Lydon of Brooklyn-based Street Plans Collaborative, who is the kind of tireless Gen-Y self-starter who lands in Miami and borrows a bike to ride all the way up the coast to West Palm and arrives at the opening reception on Wednesday looking less rumpled than I do (which admittedly is not that hard to do). He probably rebuilt a school for disadvantaged youth on his way home using only the junk I left strewn about my hotel room.
Anyway, when Lydon talks about tactical urbanism, he’s referring to simple, cheap, temporary, often unsanctioned interventions in the urban landscape – pop-up cafes on streetside parking spots, parking lots turned into greenspace for the summer, “Better Block” projects, food truck markets, that sort of thing. To cite just one specific (and excellent) example: in the “El Paso Transnational Trolley Project,” the photographer Peter Svarzbein started plastering the city of El Paso with posters claiming “The Trolley Is Coming” and promising a crossborder link from El Paso to drug-war-ravaged Juarez in Mexico. The fake posters ignited a real conversation and now there’s an actual proposal at City Hall in El Paso to look into better transit links with Juarez.
Tactical urbanists, as Lydon and others explained at CNU20, were not just installation artists or pranksters. The point wasn’t the “intervention” itself so much as where it led – tactical urbanism implies real intent, momentum, a goal or many goals in mind. The continuum, though fast evolving, seems to run about like this: at one end, you’ve got food trucks, which serve actual food and more and more often evolve into bricks-and-mortar restaurants and instigate conversations at city hall about permits and the uses of underperforming civic space; at the other, you’ve got, say, yarnbombing, which, though adorable, does not generally aspire to become fencing.
Many of the tactical urbanists were also in the following sessions on sprawl repair, which basically aims to do the same sorts of things using conventional development tools. Though darkest suburbia is the main target, it was noted that the same problems recur everywhere the automobile is king. (There is, for example, a drive-thru bank two blocks from the courthouse square in Fayetteville, Ark.)
My notes grow pretty point-formish at this point. There was a PowerPoint slide of a dead strip mall and its broad, weed-strewn cracked-asphalt parking lot, with accompanying text: “40 Acres of Flat: the bar is low.” Pictures and descriptions of loft-like live/work spaces popping up in old car dealerships and bowling alleys. Stewart Brand’s "How Buildings Learn" cited multiply. “Underpass parks.” Architect Rob Sharp noting that banks treat mixed-use development “like it’s on the flood plain” – risky, difficult, dangerous.
Then there was Steve Mouzon, who ran down the size of various “ped sheds,” which are basically measures of the distance a pedestrian might reasonably be expected to walk, and which are used as New Urbanist building blocks in large-scale city redesigns. Central London’s ped shed: 2 miles. A typical old-fashioned main street: 3/4 mile. Curving suburban residential street: 250 feet. “Parking-backed” street (i.e. a suburban commuter artery lined with parking lots, leaving pedestrians to cling precariously to a strip of concrete between high-speed traffic and parked cars): 25 feet. (25 feet!)
This is the situation created by the predominant commercial and residential development form in North American cities today, where multi-lane divided avenues snake between “power centers” – concentrations of big-box retail separated by broad asphalt expanses. The default setting for city building right now is of a type that makes a sane person feel squicky after 25 feet of walking. Which, come to think of it, is how you tend to feel as you get halfway to the median when you’re crossing Okeechobee Boulevard. Bet that’s about 25 feet, give or take.
The final keynote at CNU20 was delivered by Richard Jackson, a physician formerly of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, who conducted years of research into emerging public health epidemics such as obesity and Type II diabetes and realized they were only being treated at the hospital, by which point they could only be managed not prevented. Whereas, Jackson had come to realize, the single most effective thing we could be doing from a preventive public health perspective would be to design the places we live and work in so that you don’t feel squicky after walking 25 feet. “Creating neighborhoods people want to walk in,” he said, “is a public health gift.”
Definitely. Also a gift to the planet’s health, to reduced fossil-fuel dependence, to community development, to integration and interaction and innovation, to growing up free-range and to aging in place. Walkable human-scale urban space – New Urbanist or otherwise – is a gift to people, to humanity. This, even 20 years on, remains New Urbanism’s mantra, its raison d’etre, its apparently revolutionary challenge to business as usual: it suggests that people should be the focus of city building. It has developed some pretty nifty tools for doing so. It is, despite rumors to the contrary, wide open to new and contrary notions. It is, at least from what I saw, far more interested in outcomes than in processes (or codes or manifestos).
The New Urbanism might – just might – have the wherewithal to kill Okeechobee Boulevard dead. And that would be a gift to all humankind.
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