Earlier this week, we published our report on CNU20 that took place in West Palm Beach. In it we deduced that New Urbanism is at a critical pivot point in its evolution. Conceived as an alternative to sprawl, which was the predominant development model for the second half of the 20th century in the United States, New Urbanism has matured into a fully developed paradigm, one that has reinstated walkability, mixed use and neighborhood structure as the DNA for new development.
However, New Urbanism has had its fair share of critics. We have been labeled as nostalgics, old fashioned, faux environmentalists and unaffordable, amongst other things. While most of these accusations continue to be publicly debated, there is one aspect of New Urbanism that we, as practitioners in the movement find particularly vexing ourselves: our best-known work has come from within the safe confines of highly controlled, master-planned environments. We have created an alternative to greenfield sprawl, but have done so largely upon greenfield sites in the form of new towns and resort towns.
While the value of this endeavor cannot be dismissed, it, by itself, is merely a piece of a larger vision set forth by the founding members of the movement:
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.
So in essence, the new challenge for our generation has become: “To translate the theory we have developed in our “urban labs” and apply it in the field.”
In fact, now is a critical time to re-evaluate and chart our course for the next decade. Still in the throes of the largest systemic failure we have experienced in the history of this country, our economic, social and ecological ”norms” are rapidly being reshaped; challenging our current ways of living and our collective definition of prosperity.
With this new lens, as we survey the physical landscape of the United States today, we see three basic trenches of settlements.
These are the alpha cities of the United States, where the promise of urban living is on display in all its glory. Cities like New York, San Francisco, and Chicago have millions of inhabitants and billions of dollars worth of investment embedded in them. With the ongoing stasis of the suburban experiment, most of these are currently experiencing a renaissance, regaining population and prosperity. While the ultimate test of this model for settlements will unfold itself in the decades to come as climate, food and water security play themselves out, these cities will continue to thrive in the near term. For now, there are millions of passionate urbanists tending to these beautiful gardens that we as a society have built over hundreds of years. These cities represent a third of our national GDP and will likely continue to be the anchors of large population centers, mostly along our coasts.
The Suburban Experiment:
On the other end of the spectrum, we have the suburban experiment which has momentarily slowed down, but is in no way a thing of the past. Built on a faulty DNA, most of these places are highly unsustainable. With their auto-oriented, segregated uses and complete dependence on subsidized fossil fuel supply, these places are out of touch with not only the new reality of resource constraints, but also with the shifting trends in demographics in the United States. With the baby boomers and Gen-Y both gravitating towards urban areas, the suburbs are loosing their appeal to 2 large chunks of the american population. Within the New Urbanist school of thought, there are strong proponents of repairing sprawl. While these places do need a lot of fixing up, their inadequate chassis makes them highly susceptible to imploding, despite our best efforts. We personally do not believe that sprawl repair is the most critical task of our generation.
The New Frontier:
Between the two ends lies the most dynamic piece of the American built environment: our second and third tier cities and towns.These places vary in size from a few thousand people to a couple hundred thousand residents. These are the places that are currently in the most flux. They are at the same time small enough to be affected by incremental change and large enough to matter. They provide the right kind of opportunities for young urbanists: the stimulus of direct action followed by relatively quick, tangible change. This is the New American Frontier. This is where we must focus our efforts to create lovable, enduring places. Places that are resilient enough to adapt, grow and prosper using sensible rules of urbanism.
At this point, we must acknowledge that not all places are equal within this New Frontier . Some thrive while other are struggle.
So before we intervene / engage, we must ask our selves: “Which of these places are most likely to survive?”
This is a critical question because in the coming age of fiscal austerity and diminishing natural resources, all these places will be exposed to Darwinian evolution and only the fittest will survive. To answer this question, we are developing the criteria that can help us measure the honest potential for the revival / survival of a place. These are common sense observations we have made by looking at the most enduring places and identifying the basic reasons behind their longevity. During CNU20, we held an open source work session and solicited input from a large group of attendees that further helped us refine these thoughts.
1.Places with a stable supply of food and water
These are basic human needs that cannot be overlooked. Currently they are taken for granted and provided for, regardless of the geography, hydrology and climate of a place. Much of this is achieved by piggy backing on a fossil fuel economy that is rapidly dwindling globally. As the global population grows and transporting stuff becomes forbiddingly expensive, every community will have to secure its local supply of food and water.
Add to this the phenomena of the unsustainable farming practices that are eroding our capacity to grow food and we have a real problem that just cannot be ignored. Fresh water is an amazing resource which we plunder without thought: this is bound to change in the near future as well. Food also has great transformative potential for bringing back some of these places. We engage in the consumption of food, thrice daily. As activities, the growth, preparation and consumption of food can bring communities together to foster dialogue, entrepreneurship and a communal vision.
2.Places with access to creative knowledge
While food is a local, everyday need, creative knowledge has become a global skill without which we just cannot compete economically. Here, diversity is a key factor to consider. In a hyper connected world, places with a singular source of knowledge will always remain susceptible to the ebbs and flows of global capital. To avoid getting sucked into future boom and busts, we will need both white and blue collar jobs, both of which pay well today. To attract these, we will need a diversity of creative knowledge sources. Coupled with a good quality of life it can create a healthy and enduring local economy. Cities such as Pittsburgh, PA, are prime examples of this phenomenon. Coming out of the collapse of its singular steel industry, Pittsburgh has gradually diversified its economy to include education, health care and film production among other things. The result is a thriving place that has been voted the most livable city in the United States. Moving forward, we will have to replicate this model at all scales. The internet has greatly facilitated information exchange and places that tap into these emerging technologies to diversify their creative knowledge base will have a competitive edge. We must clarify here that the term “Creative Knowledge” is not limited to the service economy. Creative Knowledge refers to any subset of skills that allows an individual to partake in the process of value creation and addition, whether it be in the fields of software consultancy or speciality manufacturing.
3.Places with light, manageable infrastructure
Most american infrastructure is either overbuilt or over-engineered. Ironically, places that never received the mega engineering projects or places that do not necessarily need them to function have a better chance of survival in the times ahead. Moving forward, places that use infrastructure development as a tool to achieve quality of life, not an end in itself, will thrive. The concept of “shared infrastructure” from open streets to smart power grids will become the new normal. We will also have to rely more on natural systems to respond to certain needs such as storm water management, water table recharge and even sewage treatment. The practice to put everything in large concrete pipes will no longer be a feasible option.
4.Places that are connected to other places
Mobility cannot be ignored in the American context, but it must be redefined. Contrary to popular belief, Americans are less mobile today than ever before, when it come to relocating for jobs etc. Many young people are choosing to live with their parents for the first time in decades due to economic benefits and changes in social norms.
Mobility will become much more important at the local and regional scale. Multi modal regional connectivity will be essential to the survival of places in a post carbon era. Places that already have rail and water transportation infrastructure in place must utilize it to its fullest potential to transport goods and people. At the local level, walking and biking will be relied upon as real mobility options, not just for recreation. Compact places will automatically have an advantage and we will have to think a lot more about topography and how we negotiate it.
5.Places with heritage and culture
Although intangible parameters, we will have to carefully examine the heritage and living culture of places to fully gauge their potential for survival. As we move into the DIY phase of urbanism, this will matter more and more. If a place has no living culture or heritage, the chances of its survival are slim. The heritage of a place defines its very DNA. Examining it can lead us to great insight on how it evolved and potentially provide solutions as to how it may be revived. The heritage of a place exhibits its embodied knowledge, be it industrial, economic or social which in turn provides us with a framework to begin the process of regeneration. The living culture of a place consists of customs old and new that are loved by the community. Identifying these can help us decide where to start. Places that have common threads tying their residents together are more likely to survive. Building on these customs, we can foster a common vision for the future of these places.
6.Places with enlightened leadership and engaged citizens
Just as a lot of New Urbanists have become entrenched in their rigidly defined ways to design, code and implement ideas, a majority of leaders of towns and cities are neck deep in bureaucratic processes and regulations. To survive, we will need leaders who are willing to stand up and challenge the status quo. We will have to shed a lot of burden of useless rules and think more creatively. In frontiers, we act freely, moved by necessity and strive towards the art of the possible. This is the DIY version of community building. This requires citizens who are willing to demand the right to a good place to live and build it with their own hands in incremental ways.
Having come up with a basic criteria to gauge the honest potential of these places to survive, we asked ourselves: “Where are these places?” Not surprisingly, we found them everywhere across the american landscape. Every state has dozens of small towns waiting for us to repopulate them. To inhabit them, to fix them and to call them home.
One such place is Braddock, PA. Over the coming weeks, we will be profiling this “melancholically beautiful” town. We are launching an initiative to learn from Braddock and help it revive itself in small, meaningful ways. As a part of this initiative, we have outlined the following tasks that we will be undertaking over the coming weeks:
- Connecting the Braddock Initiative to the natural evolution of CNU as a movement through a series ofarticles.
- Build a web-based platform
- Create a mapping database that will allow people to locate towns like Braddock and analyze their regeneration potential using a simple, interactive scorecard. Hopefully, we can also enable people to upload photos that are geo tagged. This will be a freeware / app open to the public.
- Connect with the mayor, John Fetterman
- Create a work plan based on the feedback we get from the mayor and residents
- Get to work in Braddock
We hope this can evolve into a replicable strategy that can enable our generation to chart the course of New Urbanism for the next decade. Stay tuned.