5 Things I Learned at the 23rd Congress of the New Urbanism

Here's a quick recap of this event full of the best and brightest sharing their wisdom

By Matt Carmichael on May 7, 2015 at 1:51 pm CDT
Andres Duany

Public places should let people create the experiences they want to have.

Cynthia Nikitin, Project of Public Spaces

This year, I attended my first Congress for the New Urbanism. Like most conferences, there is just too much going on to catch all of it. I would, for instance, love to have done some of the walking tours of the Dallas area where the conference was held, but chose instead to stick to the sessions. Andres Duany, one of the founders of the New Urbanism founders said it best. The brightest minds in this space are all at this conference. They give the best talks, they write the best books and they are all the leaders in their various disciplines. The Congress pulls together a cross section of people involved in making our cities better places to live, work and thrive: Urban planners, developers, transit experts and architects. They all do their jobs a little better because they wind up with some fundamental understanding of how the other halves live. Needless to say, as a journalist I learned a lot. Here are a few points that will stick with me.

1) New Urbanism is not new

Emily Talen walked us through the history of New Urbanism, which is nearing a quarter century old. It’s a movement in city building that attempts to draw on the best of the movements that came before it. New Urbanism builds off of the Incrementalists like Jane Jacobs and Jane Addams, the "City Beautiful" movement lead by planners like Daniel Burnham Regionalists like Patrick Geddes and Lewis Mumford, “City Practical” and “Garden Cities” movements of the post-industrial era. Even today New Urbanism has several movements within it and branching from it. She likens the Incremental to today’s tactical urbanism and placemaking movements: the regionalists are now those focused on sustainability, the “city practical” are the more rule-and-regulation focused, and the “garden city” movement is today’s sprawl retrofitters.

Keeping the history in mind can help keep us all sane and remind us where to take risks and where to realize that the hard work has already been done.

“Many fights have been fought before under different names,” she says. Andres Duany would echo this later. He argues that we already know what works, you just have to read the books. “There are five reasons why a public space succeeds. It's done. Stop experimenting,” he says. “It's cruel to fail at the level of urbanism. You have to be conservative.” 

2) New Urbanism can cross political lines – and must to succeed

You might think that a planning movement focused on cities, density, transit, walkability, bike lanes, sustainability and other liberal-sounding things would be naturally democratic. Certainly conservatives and even Tea Partiers often show up in opposition to New Urbanist ideas. But when explained well, everyone can get on the same page. New Urbanism is often about fixing subsidies, relaxing zoning and red tape, and market-driven development. In some ways, the market has caught up to New Urbanism - people want this kind of development in droves – but in some ways it hasn’t; the supply of walkable urbanism isn’t meeting that demand. The balance will work itself out, but there is something here for everyone.

3) New Urbanism is not for everyone

I know, I just said there is “something here for everyone,” and that’s true. There are enough facets of this movement that one piece or another can appeal to even the most extreme sensibilities on both ends of the spectrum. But, and this is a big but, the movement itself only appeals to a certain kind of person. This was a point hammered home by Andres Duany. New Urbanists recognize that it’s a complicated world we live in.

“You can't say in a nation that has both Detroit and San Francisco that there is a simple solution to affordable housing. We refuse to simplify it. It's incredibly complicated,” he says.

For those looking for a “bumper sticker” answer to a city’s problems, this movement isn’t the place for you, he says, with seeming acceptance. His belief is that New Urbanism is a place for elites: The biggest thinkers, the smartest experts, the bible-writers of their particular disciplines. People who can’t handle it go back to focusing on one thing, like bike lanes, he says, and that’s OK. We need those people too.

But for all his lofty talk, he takes a very soft approach to selling projects, which will be the subject of our next post.

4) If we don’t fix our schools, we’re hosed

As a demographics guy, I really enjoyed the presentation by former Census Bureau director Steve Murdock. Maybe enjoyed isn’t the right word. It wasn’t a particularly cheery talk. Essentially, the populations that are growing in the U.S. (Hispanic Americans) do not on the whole have the same level of educational attainment as those that are growing more slowly or shrinking (Whites). At the same time, the areas that are growing don’t generally have the strongest school districts. Given that education is highly correlated to income potential, if we don’t do something to fix our schools and even the attainment gap, there will be a lot fewer households with the kind of spending power that has driven our economic growth in the past decade. This will be, as they say, a very bad thing.

5) There are all kinds of ways to make your own urbanism

Perhaps the most important lesson is that there is no one-size-fits-all approach. Creating better places to live happens at all levels. On one end, you have the city master planners and those who are rewriting zoning codes. On the other are the tactical urbanists making their own crosswalks and bike lanes with spray paint and hutzpah. You also have the placemakers doing “lighter, quicker, cheaper” projects on a small scale.

Cynthia Nikitin from the Project of Public Spaces says, during her session, “Public places should let people create the experiences they want to have.”

James Rojas would expand that to include private spaces. He points to Hispanic households in Los Angeles who have recreated the piazza-like designs in Mexico by fencing in their front yards, filling them with fountains and decorations and then essentially moving their “stoop” to the sidewalk, where social interaction and even light commerce take place.

Truth be told, I learned a lot more than five things. One serious topic that came up repeatedly is how to get the public on board with your project. I’ll lay out some differing opinions, so sign up for our blog alerts and be sure you don’t miss our next post.

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