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New Urbanism's Pivot Point

Adapted from "From Lab to Field" presented Wednesday, 9 May 2012

A recap of the 20th Congress for New Urbanism

We are at an critical juncture in our industry as architects, builders, craftsmen, and urbanists. The events and ensuing discussions at this year's Congress for New Urbanism in West Palm Beach reconfirmed that there is an emerging consensus around the reality that now is the time to evolve the new urbanism into its next logical iteration. 

But before we get too far ahead of ourselves, let's start by being absolutely clear: we have come a long way. We are indebted to those who came before us and we are lucky to still be able to learn from and partner with them. 

It is because of these titans of our industry that there was an early recognition of the fact that while our suburbanization was in some ways perhaps inevitable due to a litany of factors, that it was taking a form that was well outside our societal norms and that the particular models of development were extremely harmful to the environment, our inter-personal relationships, and common sensibilities towards beauty, durability, and economy. 

So in response a counter-proposal was made to the middle class. 

New Urbanism began with a response (Click to enlarge)New Urbanism has brought purpose and dignity to new public spacesWhere we once had built collector roads for cars, we now have retaught ourselves a language for building streets for people. We have reintroduced the building patterns that enliven these streets and firmly implant them in our memories as not only civic engineering functionaries but as coherent and legible places worth caring about. Almost immediately people have responded to their New Urban context in ways we had predicted they might. While it had become nearly verboten to be a biped in our built environment, where a pedestrian would almost have to apologize for entering the carscape, we have been successful in reestablishing public space with the dignity and purpose that was withheld from it in earlier post war dogmas. 

In standing back and looking at what we have accomplished together, we can confidently say that the theory has largely proved to be correct. Over the course of the last thirty years, we have firmly established mixed use, walkability and neighborhood structure as the new paradigm for development in lieu of suburban sprawl. This is no small effort and because of it we can stand atop these accomplishments and see what is out there as our next series of challenges begin to emerge.

But while we were busy researching and testing the rules of this “new” urban form: the appropriate widths of the street, the right proportions of our buildings and public spaces, and developing with renewed interest the "kit of parts" for our built environment, we failed to address some critical issues.  Indeed, we were investing in our new practical pursuits while defaulting on previous loans and investments. While we were making new investments in new towns, we were defaulting on previous obligations we had made in the city.We conveniently put aside the trials of working in our existing urban environments so that we could more cleanly and easily reset the conversation around a new model in a highly controlled setting.   

Like the fantastical visionaries that we initially were reacting against, we tried to solve our problems by primarily building outside of them.

Doing this was possible so long as the conversation revolved around form over substance and we were able to effectively externalize the costs inherent in doing so. 

For awhile, we tried to bring suburb solutions to the city.For a while we tried to bring the suburbs to the city, using some of the tools of the droughtbelt (formerly the sun belt) home building industry as an attempt to trick the southern migrators into thinking that the city where they grew up was every bit as relevant as the retirement golf course community they flocked to in droves. 

But of course we know the moral of the story by now. Instead of actually repopulating the cities we vacated either for the suburbs or the droughtbelt (both of which are fundamentally unsustainable models), we decided that our towns and cities were no longer relevant, no longer worth saving. We let our main streets literally erode away whilst we built our new highly sophisticated urban commercial streets elsewhere. 

And the world is full of these examples at all sorts of scales. 

Whether we were building Reston or Dadeland or even whole new cities envisioned using the same lexicon (albeit sometimes corrupted) as rank-and-file New Urbanism.  Some countries, such as shrinking and poor Georgia on the Black Sea, are ditching their entire portfolio of urbanism and settlement to start over on some of their most sensitive landscapes as means to somehow build a new economy.

It is amazing that even in a time when we face such dramatic disruptions to our economic and environmental health, we've let the idea fester that our old cities, towns, and neighborhoods—evolved over centuries—are either too difficult to work in or not up to the task of making strong and prosperous communities.

This idea sets up the stage for the greatest challenge and opportunity of our generation.

As a next generation of urbanists, we firmly believe that what we have built is not disposable.

 Our historic neighborhoods, towns and cities are not just our built heritage but hold the key to the sustainable future of communities across our country.

We have the great opportunity and responsibility to leverage what we have learned through building in a controlled, lab-like setting of our new towns, resort towns, and edge towns and get back to the urban field to begin the monumental task of regenerating our cities, towns, and neighborhoods. This was always intended to be the ultimate outcome of our now mature movement, as framed by the opening paragraph of our Charter: 

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.

This is already happening with great success in our existing gateway cities like New York and San Francisco. Even in second tier cities like Pittsburgh, we are coming together to colonize our urban centers like never before. But as these gateway cities and megaregions reach their eventual carrying capacity, we intuitively know that we will have to recolonize our old company towns, small hamlets and other second and third tier cities out of equal parts necessity and preference.

But as we survey this middle section of the built landscape between first tier cities and suburbia, we realize that places such as the old mill town of Braddock, Pennsylvania, languish with an insufficient toolkit to fully evaluate their honest regeneration potential and fully capitalize on their inherent strengths to revive themselves.

We have the opportunity to re-evaluate the rules of engagement for this new context. Prior to doing so, however, we must acknowledge that our profession needs to remodel itself to meet these new realities. The recession revealed to us that over-reliability on predictions creates a false quiet leading to misplaced assumptions. Instead we must look to once again adapting our environments and injecting flexibility and resilience into all that we plan build and reuse. 

Similarly, we can no longer externalize the costs of our decisions, assuming that future growth will pay down the debt incurred by what we finance today. This is critical as we are not in a period of debt-fueled growth but in one of slow and regenerative growth. And as we do grow and regenerate, we must do so in a way that pays for the services that have become inviolable to living in cities. Joe Minocozzi's session on the Economic Benefit of Good Urbanism illustrated with remarkable clarity just how to do that. 

We are in the Post-Burnham eraThese realities, of course, powerfully reshape our field of planning and design. The one-and-done $500,000 planning engagement is an endangered species. We are now expected to be engaged longer and more incrementally with our clients than we may once have liked to be. Ray Gindroz' work with the City of Norfolk, Virginia, is one such example of where this has worked to powerfully rebuild the city's core and supporting neighborhoods.

In listening to the presentations and conversations this week, we have to believe that we are the right generation to take on these challenges. Our generation demands urban living and working arrangements. For the first time since the intention of the automobile, young drivers’ license attainment is on the decline. It is now cooler to own the latest smartphone than the latest Chevy. Since we in large part live in urban areas ourselves, we have great credibility in designing and advocating for urban living at all scales. Our generation is also much more connected—both digitally and in person—than we ever have, allowing us to come together to accomplish what no one could do individually. In doing so we must continue to engage and learn from the leaders that came before us. Falling victim to Trust Fund Baby syndrome and taking for granted the great progress we have inherited will only set us back. 

New Urbanism is already shifting in response to new realitiesIf we step back and look at the work that was presented at the Congress last week, we see how this transformation has already yielded many parallel efforts such as StrongTowns, Open Source, Tactical Urbanism, etc. Together, this work has inspired our latest effort, The Braddock Initiative, to weave this energy into building the toolkit and shaping a regeneration process for our second and third tier towns and cities. At this year’s Congress we presented Braddock, Pennsylvania, just outside of Pittsburgh, as the appropriate place to start. Over the coming weeks we will be building the platform and outlining the approach to implementing the Initiative. More to come soon.


The slide deck from the original presentation:


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Reader Comments (3)

This! I hate I wasn't in the room for this, but what you are saying is very true. Good luck in Braddock! Let me know the date of the NextGen gathering up there

Joe, this is great. When you're in Braddock please get in touch with us at BikePGH. We'd love to show you around. By the way, were you on the Keg Ride? How did you find that picture?

May 24, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterScott

The next step in New Urbanism will have to tackle architecture education to fully realize what I agree the is the next logical step in its evolution. Today we find too many architecture schools, blogs, and magazines where modernist ideologues are still fighting the style wars of the last century. There is no one correct, virtuous, or honest, style for architects to work in as it is in many other art forms. Just like the New Urbanists addressed differint sites with an ear to local context, culture and history, so should the architects who re-build our long abandoned cities. Too many young architects are coming out of schools as if this where the 1950's and everything that immitated history was wrong, or worse, "nostalgic" Gross! The freedom to study the lessons that made the places we love needs to be brought to Architectural schools, where decoration, beauty and style are dirty words. The pre-occupation with originality, esspecially when modernism is itself a historical style, hinders many architects when designing infill projects for magazines rather than the end user . Let there be an honest discussion of beauty and it's role in not just great urbanism, but in the buildings that make great urbanism. Let's get back to when permanence, style, and beauty where things to be desired and not bemone in our new buildings.

May 24, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterThayer-D

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