I started off the day planning to blog live, even going so far as to invest an obscene amount of money in paying for a wireless connection through the hotel (my Sprint wireless card does not work well in the conference areas). Only problem is, once I got down there, the wireless didn't work. I later found out that the connection I paid for works only in my room. Short story long, I scribbled notes furiously and am going to do my best here to share my insights.
Before I get into my notes, however, I have some broad oversights that I really want to share with everyone.
First, I am taken in by the excitement in the air here. This is a movement that has done its time in the wilderness but, with the failure of our system of development becoming apparent to all, there is a pervasive sense that the New Urbanist time has come. The theme of the conference is "A Convenient Remedy", a play on Al Gore's Inconvenient Truth, pointing out that New Urbanism is economically the answer, and a whole lot more (see my posting from this past Monday).
Second, while there is a lot of "seasoned" planners here, there is a lot of young people too. CNU has made reaching out to young planners an obvious priority. My theory on that is that they have experienced what CGI has: you need to find people that have not been too warped by the planning profession.
Third, it is obvious that the people intimately involved in New Urbanism have struggled to explain it over the years. I say that not because they still struggle, but because they explain it brilliantly, in colorful quips and biting prose. The time in the wilderness has been used to its fullest.
Finally, while there is this sense of seize-the-moment and a concerted effort to reach out and build the New Urbanist flock, there is no sense that either of those things will be done with a compromise of principle. The people here have drunk the cool-aid, so to speak. They are believers. They have the cockiness that comes with knowing you are right, have been for a long time, and now the world is just finding out.
I like it here. I'm very glad I came.
I have eight pages of notes. I'm not going to try and get them all in here, but will hit the highlights. I spent my entire day in the New Urbanism 101 session.
Those of you that regularly read this blog know that I have am a huge admirer of Duany. If I could have dinner with five people of my choice, he would without question be one of the five. He had two hours to go through his presentation. When he started he began by talking about the speaker before him, giving her a proper introduction she humbly did not give herself. This led to other thoughts, which led to others, and yet others. An hour and fifteen minutes into his two hours, he noted that he should probably start his presentation. I took notes the entire time and will just give you quotes and snippets here:
- "Each generation of planning historically has need to destroy that which was done before in order to create the new." This was interesting - he built this up by talking about the old cities of Europe. I wrote this down because it is part of the problem small towns face that big cities do not. With the greenfield blocks away and not miles away, the market forces prompted redevelopment are much more difficult to create.
- Duany talked about Jane Jacobs and noted that she had no statistics. Her genius was based on her observations. He made a strong case that the best planning was done when its principles were based on human observations, not on statistics. That is a powerful thought. My mind immediately went to the ever-present "paving of the street" argument we see in small towns. Engineers surface, widen and straighten the street, all in the name of safety. They have the "statistics" to justify this, yet any rational human looks and knows that cars will now drive faster, making the street inherently less safe, not more.
- At the end of the 19th Century, industrialization and railroads had made American and its cities into a "disaster", spawning the planning profession. The original planners focused on public health and improving life, which "did more to improve lives than doctors". This gave planners and "top down" planning credibility, and planners were "treated like gods". After WW II, "planners started to invent new approaches, not observe" (see prior bullet point). This "failed miserably, and as a reaction, power was taken away from planners and given to process." This is the bottom-up planning we see today.
- "New Urbanism is fundamentally pragmatic." I am smiling just writing that.
- Duany acknowledged one of the difficulties we face: that suburban development works well.....in the short term. "New Urbanism works best in the long run". It allows all uses and allocates them across the landscape in a way that is mutually supportive. Thinking back to what the Mayor of Charlotte said yesterday, if you look long-term at New Urbanist developments you will not observe decline, as we inevitably do in convention developments (see the writings of Jane Jacobs). What you will observe is constant change and adaptation. To me, that vibrancy is one of the great strengths of New Urbanism.
- Duany said that we should not rely on statistics but should "measure happiness". He said human happiness is "the only reason I do this". There is more: "The advent of statistics coincides with the worst planning we have done. We need to have confidence in our observations." Years ago as agraduate student I worked on a study on "indicators" - essentially measurements of performance that are supposed to inform planning processes. As a recovering engineer with a rather technical mind, I still found it a horrible waste of time.
- "New Urbanism is not arrogant, it is certain. This certainty is due to observations."
- "It is only where humans hate their places that they spread out. We should not create urban growth boundaries but instead build great urban places."
- Duany talked about planning as an art and craft that was disrupted by the Great Depression. The post-WW II planning profession was a dumbed-down version of that original planning. "Suburbia is easy to administer." This thought may be strongly disputed by some in the profession, but if you step back and look at it, suburbia is a cookbook and it is relatively easy to navigate the cookbook. To truly vision and plan great places is much more difficult. I spent a great deal of time thinking about this because it is part of what the Strong Town struggle is. Think about this with me:
- "Old Urbanism", which spatially much of New Urbanism is based on, was largely created without codes (especially in small towns) and without anyone administering anything. It was simple and it worked.
- Current codes don't work, but they are fairly simple to administer.
- They have to be simple, since most small-town ordinances are administered by people without any formal training in the planning profession. Often it is the deputy clerk that got a 50-cent raise to also serve as zoning administrator.
- How do we create a simple code for small towns that, despite the simplicity, is still effective? Perhaps the difficulty is why it has not been done.
- The suburbs came with three promises.
- A house. This promise was fulfilled.
- Closeness to nature. Been to a suburb lately? Promise unfulfilled.
- Freedom, due largely to the independence of the automobile. Congestion got in the way of fulfilling this promise.
- "Suburbia has a hideous public realm and a wonderful private realm." A little later: "Retirement communities are designed to mitigate the dysfunction of suburbia."
- And finally, as a closing thought, Duany talked about the current economy and the planning profession and said,
"The currency today is not experience, it is ideas."
I think that makes me (and now you) a little richer.