The 19th Congress for the New Urbanism kicks off next week in Madison, Wisconsin. While the New Urbanist movement was founded by architects, it has expanded far beyond that base and into nearly every profession that touches on the way we build or inhabit places. I've personally come to view New Urbanism as the best model to describe prosperous human habitat. It has continued to be the answer to all of the critical questions I have asked myself throughout my professional career.
Thank you to everyone who read and forwarded our work last week on the difference between a Complete Street and a Complete Road. Your feedback means a lot. Thanks to you, Strong Towns thinking is becoming a part of the debate we are having about the future of our towns and neighborhoods. Keep spreading the word.
I just spent two and a half days in Orlando, Florida, at a conference on Economic Gardening. I stayed at a hotel at Disneyworld and had the opportunity to spend a few hours at the Magic Kingdom, the theme park modeled on California's Disneyland. This is where my journey to New Urbanism began nearly three decades ago.
That may appall some traditional New Urbanists and other design-types that find all things Disney to be some type of placemkaing con job. Fake fronts and hyper-reality. Well, if that is your opinion, so be it. You can call the Magic Kingdom my gateway drug if you would like, but what it did was open my eyes to the difference that design makes.
As a young boy, I traveled in the back of a station wagon from our farm in rural Minnesota across the country to Orlando. My family and I had no real idea what we were about to see as none of us had ever been to Disneyworld. As many visitors were, I was in awe by the place. Yes, the rides were fantastic and good fun, but the place just blew me away. My prior experience with parks was the county fair - dirty, smelly, muddy and a little seedy. At Disney there didn't seem to be even a blade of grass out of place.
And then there was the lights. That was the moment I clearly remember as hooking me in. During the parade we were sitting down in Frontierland and I watched the special spotlights used for the parade automatically rise up from behind the facade of the building. I understood right there -- even as an adolescent -- that the people who had designed this place knew that a set of spotlights did not belong on the top of a building from the frontier age. They hid them and then, when everyone's attention was diverted to the parade, secretly lifted them up. When the parade was over I watched and, sure enough, they went away. I felt I was in on a deep Disney secret, and my love of such design details has only grown.
It was at Fort Dix New Jersey, sweating away the summer "vacation" between my junior and senior year of high school in Army Basic Training, that I decided I wanted to be a civil engineer. I was good at math, enjoyed science and while my second love was music, my first was my girlfriend (now my wife) and I did not think I could be a decent future husband on a musicians salary (you don't join the Army at age 17 unless you are either thinking ahead or not thinking at all). Civil engineering was an opportunity for me to "build cities", which is what my placemaking obsession had evolved to by that point.
And that I did. When I graduated, I got a job in my hometown and started building cities. Or at least parts of cities, largely new subdivisions. I did the occasional municipal sewer and water project and even did an airport expansion. It was challenging work and I liked it a lot. But there was something I was looking for that was missing.
This is about the time that I first heard of New Urbanism, and it came from the Disney Company's development of the town of Celebration. I was absolutely enthralled by it. The layout, the design, the architecture and, of course, the front porches. I had already built my own house -- complete with front porch -- but I yearned to live in a place like Celebration. Since they would not send marketing information to Minnesota, I had my best friend, Mike Tester, who was living in Texas at the time, order it for me. I still have it.
About this time I was being encouraged to go back to graduate school. I had plateaued at work and my mentor, George Orning, was suggesting the answers to the questions he had been helping to plant in my head may be found at the Humphrey Institute and their Masters of Urban and Regional Planning program.
Here was my second bite at the New Urbanism apple, and I'll never forget this moment in my first week there. The professor was talking about transit systems (a foreign concept to me) and casually threw out a question on which type of street network functioned better, a grid or a curvilinear. The answer was obvious to me as I had just spent six years designing and building curvilinear streets and, of course, I would only have done that if they were the best. As my eager hand went up someone said, "uh...grid" in a voice that sounded like "uh...duh" and, before my hand even went down, the professor said, "of course," then went on with the lecture as if such an obvious point was not even worth making.
Graduate school continued to expose me to the planning concepts surrounding New Urbanism. I found that it was more than just front porches and pleasant places, it actually had functional advantages that the subdivisions from the standard zoning manual did not have. People didn't have to drive everywhere. Neighborhoods could be reclaimed. Housing could be affordable. But I was a long ways gone and so it took a couple more bites at the apple for me to come around completely.
During graduate school I formed my own planning organization, Community Growth Institute, where I still work today. My modest mission for CGI was to "Save Rural America", which earned me a few giggles from my peers but, fortunately, a few contracts as well. We did a lot of zoning work originally -- kind of like an outsourced zoning department for small towns -- and my thought was that, if I could just put really smart people into these places, I could help those places do better.
It was only after years of trying this and failing that I started to see that it was not the people that needed replacing, it was the operating system. Modern zoning was the problem, and it could not be overcome with better or more dedicated people. In my search for answers, I attended a conference on the SmartCode in Miami and came face-to-face with more New Urbanism than I could ignore. I met Andres Duany, Steve Mouzon, Jeff Speck, Hazel Borys, Jennifer Hurley and Nathan Norris, amongst others. I spent my days in awe and my evenings in seclusion trying to process everything I was learning. This SmartCode was definitely part of the answer.
But I wasn't a New Urbanist yet. For that I had to make the final, financial connection. One of the things I had grown to understand back in my engineering days was that the finance of our development pattern did not make sense. At first I assumed that it just didn't make sense to me, but that people much smarter or more experienced must know what they were doing. As I met these people, I realized that they were really not all that smart. In fact, many were complete idiots.
As the design and regulatory questions subsided, the financial questions began to take more prominence in my life. I began to study finance and put pencil to paper on some of the developments I knew intimately. Then I looked beyond that. What I uncovered was that the underlying finance of our suburban development pattern is a simple Ponzi scheme, one that relies on ever-increasing amounts of new growth to subsidize the existing public liabilities. That truth is the founding revelation for what we do here at Strong Towns.
But if the current approach was destined to bankrupt us, what was a viable alternative? The answer to my question, once again, was New Urbanism.
I looked back at the way we had built cities here in the United States before the huge federal subsidies for mortgages, interstate highways, local sewer and water systems, oil and gas, agriculture, etc... to see what we did when our places had to actually be financially viable or they went away. What I found was urbanism.
We actually built places that people wanted to live in, not just drive through. We actually built public buildings to create value, not simply function for bureaucrats. We built places that were mixed use in every way, not artificially segmented along socio-economic lines. We accommodated old people without sequestering them into some type of low-security penitentiary setting. We accommodated young people by allowing them a chance to live with other youth, to grow up in the fabric of a community. And we did it all on a framework that we were able to afford to sustain, even as a very poor country of largely uneducated people.
And as I discovered the old urbanism that we had lost, I understood that this was what had been resurrected by the New Urbanists. This was the answer, and it had been in front of me all along.
I still deeply enjoy spending time at Disneyworld and jump at every opportunity I can to go there. I am a hyper-sensory person -- from smell to taste to sound -- and I find it is one of few environments that I feel totally comfortable in. (For example, I was told in a behind-the-scenes tour that every song in the park is in the same key, which explains why the melodies do not contrast as you walk around. This is very comforting to someone like me that hears every cheezy Barry Manilow organ arrangement piped in as ubiquitous background noise.) My hope is that, as the the practical realities of our financial situation meet our human desires to have lives that are fulfilling, we will find the principles of New Urbanism are not just for theme parks and experimental developments but are actually the DNA of prosperity.
I am proud to be a New Urbanist, a member of the movement's NextGen and a presenter at this year's Congress (more on that later this week). CNU 19 kicks off on June 1 in Madison, WI. I hope to see you all there. If you can't make it, I'll be blogging live and recording audio for future podcasts.
- CNU 18 Recap (May 24, 2010)
- Strong Towns presentation at CNU 18 (May 19, 2010)
- Podcast: NextGen Presentation (May 20, 2010)
- CNU Open Source Congress by Edward Erfurt (May 11, 2011)
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