The contribution of New Urbanism


I’m involved pretty deeply with the Congress for the New Urbanism’s NextGen group, a collection of my professional peers – some incredibly smart people – who are passionate about what makes cities work. NextGen is an open group so if you want to be involved and are planning to be in Buffalo for CNU 22 in June, just show up to any event marked “NextGen” and you are thus involved. They’ll be a website, etc… as we get closer to the big date and I’ll share that here.

NextGen has an email list with the occasional passionate interchange, including a great set of questions from an essay from Witold Rybczynsi. Here’s the salient excerpt:

But while new urbanists have attempted to shed their small town/suburban/Truman Show image, they have had no similarly successful and exemplary big-city project. No High Line. No Disney Hall. No Fifteen Central Park West. What are the important ideas that have affected American cities in the last 20 years? The development of waterfronts. The renaissance in constructing urban parks. The move of genXers and retirees into downtowns. High-rise urban living and Vancouverism. The popularity of urban bicycling and bike-rental programs. Ditto for Zipcars. Urban farmers markets and community gardens. Urban charter schools. The dramatic expansion in attendance of urban cultural institutions, especially art museums. Urban tourism. Downtown trophy buildings. The emergence of influential big-city mayors. Have any of these been the result of the new urbanism movement?

Our good friend and Boot Camp contributor Joe Minicozzi responded thus, which I felt was worthy of sharing with you.

That's a nice 'statement' Witold made, as he always does.  I love his writing, and he is partially right.  If only we are in this for trophies.  But how does one consider the trophy that the understanding of our urban design has risen to a level where planning boards across the nation have recognized it?  The walkability of our communities is taken seriously now.  It’s not just the person who happened to have read Pattern Language (anyone remember the 80's?), everyone is talking about it.  The movement IS the establishment.  Perhaps engraining walkable communities into the zeitgeist of planning isn't a 'trophy' to be considered.  There's no ribbon to cut, or glossy photograph in an architectural journal.  But I don't think anyone was in it for that.  Maybe he should re-read the Charter and see if the CNU got close to accomplishing it?

I know that's not noticeable for folks in the big cities where people are already "urban", but for Omaha and Palm City to start to use the "urban" word in a non-threatening manner, where it means improving their city rather than a categorization for neighborhoods for the poor is a pretty big step, is it not?  

If I recall, the movement wasn't started to 'get a nice project' but more to 'get nice cities'.  And though the rock stars of the New Urbanism tended toward the precious resort communities or suburban developments, it also changed the rules of engagement for vast sections of this country and increased the ability for urban reinvestment.  

It also influenced the American Planning Association to adopt Urban Design as a serious profession.  Note that they finally made credentials for it this past year, even though "Urban Design" has been around as a profession since the 50's.  It only took the APA about half a century to catch on, and I doubt that would have happened without the New Urbanist movement.  

Just from my experience, in 1998, when I went to work in a planning department in a mid-sized city government with a brand-spanking-new Masters degree in Urban Design; a senior AICP-certified planner chewed me out because I was the City Urban Designer.  To put me in my place, he scolded "We're planners!  We don't tell people how to design things.  We leave that up to the market."  So I asked him why side setback in the RS-4 district in his Code was 6' and not 8'.  "Wouldn't 8' be safer and allow more 'light and air' than 6'?  Did you do a safety study before he adopted that number?'" That pretty much shut him up.  

The Planning profession had devolved to an unconscious "Processing" profession, and though it may be difficult for Witold to see this from Philly, most of America was plagued by the weakness of what Planning was.  And sadly, this is still an issue in many places where community design is an unconscious act.

Let's face it, it’s not about a trophy.  It’s about making places for people and changing the literacy of what 'urban' is.  In many cases, it’s not sexy.  It’s not on a cover of a magazine.  But he should agree that the trend of urban-core disinvestment has stopped, the movement of people to the core has taken place, and though sprawl hasn't fully stopped, it is dealt with better (and more skeptically) than before the CNU.

The first paragraphs of the CNU Charter says it quite succinctly.

The Congress for the New Urbanism views disinvestment in central cities, the spread of placeless sprawl, increasing separation by race and income, environmental deterioration, loss of agricultural lands and wilderness, and the erosion of society’s built heritage as one interrelated community-building challenge.

We stand for the restoration of existing urban centers and towns within coherent metropolitan regions, the reconfiguration of sprawling suburbs into communities of real neighborhoods and diverse districts, the conservation of natural environments, and the preservation of our built legacy.

You don’t have to be in CNU or advocate for New Urbanism to be part of the Strong Towns movement, but intellectually we have long found the CNU to be one of the best sources for ideas on how to actually reassemble a strong town.