Live Blogging from CNU 19, Wednesday - NextGen 8

We're getting set up and ready to start here in Madison at NextGen 8 / CNU 19. I wanted to let people know that NextGen is in Ballroom B. If you are new to CNU -- especially if you are new -- I need to say a very friendly WELCOME. There is a lot going on here, but you'll also notice a lot of friendly faces. Feel free to say hi and latch on to any conversation going on....that's just the way a Congress rolls, you know. And if you want some orientation, head to Ballroom B for NextGen. You'll find me in the front row with my PC and audio recorder and I'd be happy to show you around or get you connected with someone who will.

Just a little word about what you are going to get from me here at CNU. I'm not a stenographer, and so you are not going to get a blow by blow. I am fascinated by concepts and ideas, so what I usually do here is riff off of what is being presented. I'll give you some direct quotes and some background and overview, but also a little interpretation of what is being said. I have the audio recorder set up too and so the plan is to make that available here in some type of edited format too.

One other disclaimer....I am kind of a messy first draft writer. In terms of grammar and spelling issues, please give me a few days respite.

Cultural Urbanism

The first session here at NextGen is on Cultural Urbanism. I had a chance to interact a little bit on Twitter with the first speaker, Kristin Jeffers (Twitter), who blogs at The Black Urbanist. She fits the NextGen mold (if there is such a thing) - young, articulate and insightful on the role that urbanism plays in improving the human condition. Coming from my own homogeneous part of the world (where mixed culture means Finns and Swedes), I would like to know more about Jeffers' and her view of the world.

The next speaker, James Rojas is talking about Latinos and the Latin American influence on the suburbs. I've often thought that we would all benefit in our communities from the influence of Latinos in terms of building community and occupying space. Some of the slides show this, including how suburban homes in L.A. have the front yard recaptured simply by moving the entrance of the property from the front stoop to a front gate. This gives the front yard - normally lost space in a standard suburb - into more of a courtyard typical of Latin America. A subtle but significant alteration.

Ah...and changing the "front yard" to a "courtyard" also allows a subtle transformation of the "street" into a "plaza". This is a great use of vocabulary that speaks to how these places can evolve over time.

Payton Chung (LinkedIn, Facebook), student and former CNU staff, talks about the Asian-American experience. He talks about how Asian influences have impacted our cities and what are some of the transferable lessons. He talked about capital (money) being recycled locally and how the Chinese here in America culturally place value on dealing with local banks and ensuring that money is recycled within a community.

He relayed this stunning fact that shows how different our world is here in the United States: "The density of Sichuan province - the breadbasket of China - exceeds the density of San Francisco."

Chung also has a lot of fascinating examples of development patterns from East Asia. For instance, it may surprise you to know that the trains in Japan are run at slight operating profit. They are run privately and the development of the lines are largely paid for through the returns on the development. Wow - sounds a lot like 1850's America (and a lot like a Strong Towns approach). He also wanted to point out that there is great urbanism outside of Europe and that Asia has some great examples, which is important because the next generation of Americans largely trace their origins outside of Europe. 

The next session features Greg Lawless (LinkedIn), who is the executive director of a group called Dane Buy Local ( Here is what their website says about them:

Dane Buy Local is a coalition of local independent businesses, organizations, and citizens in and around Dane County, Wisconsin, acting in alliance to keep our communities prosperous and sustainable.

He also mentioned a group named BALLE, the Business Alliance for Local Living Economies ( It is an organization that emphasizes things like buying local, although I suspect there is much more to it than that. He had a number of slides that showed the local economic impact per $1 million in sales for locally-owned and chain-owned businesses. It is not even close - the locally owned businesses keep the money in the community and has a much greater impact. This is such a hard lesson for local governments to learn. The chains have all of the resources and experience to navigate the bureaucracy, which is another reason to reform and simplify our regulatory process, especially our land use regulations. 

He also points out that local business owners support the community. I'll elaborate on this because it is a critical point. The General Manager of the local Wal-Mart is there as part of a stop on the corporate ladder. There is nothing wrong with such a person, but it needs to be acknowledged that their time in the community is transient. The merchant class that used to exist in all of our communities -- everything from the restaurant owner to the shoe salesman to the barber --  is something we sorely miss. This was the group that sponsored little league teams, served on volunteer boards and service organizations and thought about the long-term health of the community. This was the group that has been wiped out by our homogeneous development pattern, and all the subsidies that system entails.

A great point: To be a local business, you need to be able to make independent decisions on things like brand and suppliers. 

My own personal note: There is a natural intersection between the Buy Local concept and the Economic Gardening concept I wrote about a couple weeks ago. It is not a 1:1 relationship, but there is an intersection there that would be interesting to explore. I'll try and come back to that some time in the future.

Incremental Urbanism

This is a subject near and dear to my heart, one that is becoming more and more important in our new paradigm. 

Will Dowdy (bio) is the first speaker in this session and you are going to want to check back for the podcast of this later. He's throwing out a lot of good information, tying a firm grasp of reality with our current economy with how to build better places. A few of this thoughts:

  • There is a full palette of amazing New Urbanist project, but there is no funding for them right now.
  • Piece by piece, value-added incrementally, is the way we are going to operate. 
  • The upside of the Great Recession is that we are starting to focus more locally.
  • Generalists are needed, as opposed to specialists. These smaller projects are going to be done at the scale of the generalist.

Neil Heller, doing a true Pecha Kucha presentation, with some examples of incremental approaches. My favorite: build a wall. No, he does not mean build walls the way you think of walls today. What he is saying is to create places for people. A divider between "people space" and "auto space" will allow people to attract people.

It is really that simple, Neil, we just need to narrow the streets. He points out that it will slow the cars, which will allow bikes and people and - as he said earlier - people will bring in people.

Robert Sharp, architect, had a presentation with a lot of great examples and photos of projects he has worked on or seen. I recommend that you check out this blog -- the incremental sprawl repair blog -- as there is a lot of good stuff there as well.

Open Source

I was part of a great Open Source good in fact that I did not have time to transcribe my notes here before the next session started. I'll try and get back to this soon, although I have to let you know about a blog we talked about, that being

Ethan Kent - Project for Public Spaces

I had an opportunity to meet Ethan (Twitter) at the Orton gathering last October. I really like his work, which you should check out. He's also a good speaker and so he is another one that you will need to listen to on the podcast once that is up (I'll try and do that soon). Some of his thoughts:

  • We are seeing a convergence of different ideas and movements connected to place. Local food, climate change, public health,.... Place challenges them to relate in new ways and break out of their own silos.
  • We've built people out of the built environment. We need to focus on making communities work on the scale of the individual.
  • "It's hard to create a space that will not attract people. What is remarkable is how often this has been accomplished." - William H. Whyte
  • You are not a good place unless you have a parking problem.
  • Focusing on building places helps us meet other goals. For example, we can focus on economic development, but that will be it. If we focus on place, economic development will happen.

What is Placemaking? Ethan offers a definition: "Placemamaking is turning a neighborhood, town or city from a place that you can't wait to get through to one you don't want to leave." 

Ethan suggests that the approach we use to build places, with each discipline doing their own thing in isolation, overlooks any emphasis on place. A community, place-driven approach turns the standard approach around. It starts with stakeholders developing a place vision (defining uses and activities - not physical planning). How do you then get short-term changes to build capacity and bring you closer to the place envisioned.

Brilliant insight from Ethan: "If you plan for cars and traffic, you get cars and traffic. If you plan for people and places, you will get people and places." 

Another: "Cars are happiest when no other cars are around. People are happiest when other people are around."