Blog - June 17, 2013

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The Congress for the New Urbanism Becomes an Adult and Faces the 21st Century


Abbey Oklak, AICP, LEED AP, a certified planner/intern architect at Cooper Carry, and board member of CNU DC, recently attended the CNU 21 conference in Salt Lake City, UT. She shares her perspectives on the conference and the future of CNU in the following post.

The Congress for the New Urbanism (CNU) recently hosted their 21st national conference in Salt Lake City, UT and like many organizations is going through some growing pains.  Multiple speakers (from CNU Co-founder Andres Duany to the current CNU Board Chair Ellen Dunham-Jones) decreed that CNU is now legal to drink and is struggling to find its place in adulthood. The organization is questioning its beliefs and purpose. What will CNU do in the future?  How will CNU be relevant? Where is CNU’s place in the design and development community?

Adults are familiar with the strains of growing up.  The transition from idealistic college learning to the real world struggle to make ends meet is typical.  Most of the founders of CNU worked in the real world, and decided they didn’t like the way suburbs were taking over the cities and becoming the primary development pattern.  They created new places using the romantic ideals of traditional urbanism, like Seaside, Florida and Kentlands, Maryland in the 1980s. This turned the suburban pattern of development on its head.  These places, as well as CNU, faced many criticisms in its early years, but now the movement has been embraced by most planners, architects and developers.  There is no longer a struggle to show that walkable, connected, mixed use neighborhoods are the best ways to combat climate change, the rising costs of personal transportation and even health.  Other organizations have also become prominent that share similar missions to develop transit, density, walkable, mixed and vibrant communities.  Transit for America, Smart Growth for America, and others are also working toward this goal through their own means.

But where does this leave CNU?

Conference Concept Sketch

Above: Sketch from Conference

The many speakers, presenters and participants at CNU21 in Salt Lake City had thoughts on this topic.  Sessions clustered around implementation, financing and form.  Small-scale initiatives seem to be the way to the future.

  • Andres Duany in his opening plenary called for “lean” to be the way of the future.  He included things like less bureaucracy and regulations, incremental building, light sustainable practices, and flexibility.
  • Mike Lydon talked about small, light changes on the ground in existing places that can be trialed  to see if they work, and can be removed if the idea fails.
  • John Anderson pointed out that small buildings and main streets with many developers will become the practice of the future rather than large multi-block projects with a single developer.
  • Richard Oram pointed out that CNU helped pass new regulation through Congress that allows 35% of a building to be mixed-use with traditional financing. He stated that “form follows money- changes in finance will cause new city development patterns.”
  • Chuck Marohn demonstrated that traditional urbanism has more financial returns for cities than suburban development.
  • Paul Knight argued for grids because they are walkable, navigable and adaptable but are just a framework for urban development.
Andres Duany Speaking in Courtayard

Above: Andres Duany Speaking

These speakers and the multitudes not mentioned, all gathered around the fact that the 21st century will be about action and change.  CNU has won the war on creating places with a variety of housing types, offices and stores, and its practices are now mainstream philosophies.  But now is the time to transition from writing codes and changing the direction of policy to executing these ideas and figuring out how to get it done right.  Quick and smart implementation, small scale projects, new regulations and traditional urban forms will be key for development in the coming years.  Only through today’s tough work can the desired future be built.  It will take the hard work not just for CNU and its members, but for the whole country and world to understand that building a better life starts at local streets and continues up to the global network.  CNU is growing up and now must learn to work together with other organizations and missions for the common goal of creating great places to call home.