A Placemaking Journal

CNU 19: The Uprising

Like my anniversary, family birthdays and selected holidays, the Congress for the New Urbanism is an annual ceremony that I faithfully attend. My lovely wife would confirm that I never question the necessary time and money spent to participate in the congresses. And, as expected, I thoroughly enjoyed my time at CNU 19 in Madison, Wisconsin, even though I had to leave a couple days in…

It was during a late night conversation with Steve Mouzon about marketing when I realized that I took a ceremonial approach to the Congresses. The demarcation, from when the congresses went from being a professional networking event to a more personal ritual, occurred during the CNU 13 — Pasadena. Because I was on the host committee helping to organize and coordinate the event, I spent the entire congress busily trying to keep the circus tent up and the quality of the event worthy of everyone’s time and money. It was while I was scurrying around Pasadena’s convention center, touring a bus through San Diego, and missing pretty much every session when I finally understood what Douglas Duany meant when he said, “the congress actually occurs in the hallways between the sessions.”

The real congress, hiding in plain sight.

Those hallways are where I met my colleagues, friends, and collaborators. It is where we made dinner/drinks arrangements, discussed projects, and took a few minutes to shake hands and say hello. Like walking down main street in new urban-topia, I bumped into people I knew, admired, and had been wanting to meet. It’s these moments that I enjoy as much as learning the latest techniques in the sessions, if not more. Because I can buy the book on the new technique, but I can’t buy the opportunity to watch Ian Rasmussen groove out as a DJ.

Ian Rasmussen: Funk Soul Brother. Credit: Jim Kumon

A few personal highlights from this year’s Congress included: getting my autographed copy of Bill Dennis’ self-published book of his watercolors, “Draw Your Own Conclusion;” our Mini-Magical Mystery Tour through Chicago, Milwaukee and Madison; watching the Camp brothers discuss their latest Cotton District a la Vicenzia rad building while on the NextGen pub crawl; and, finally, the audacity and invigoration of Ian Rasmussen, Glenn Kellogg, Payton Chung, Matthew Lambert and Karja Hansen’s Urban Project Lodge.

New Urban Jets and Sharks come to rumble. Credit: Dan Bartman.

The Project Lodge was so contemporary, and in-the-moment, that I felt like an elder statesman, which was new for me. The social media networks were blazing during the Project Lodge events. We responded to live Twitter feeds of our discussions while Steve Mouzon blogged an idea and I found out which restaurant Geoff ‘Checked In’ at on Facebook. Even this blog, now five days after the event, is already passé with the MindMixer crew currently discussing new ideas for next year’s CNU on their Public Square. And, judging from the picture above, the free red cups were a great marketing tool to promote the Project Lodge.

Sans any real debate outside of the hallways, as we really haven’t discussed this yet as a congress, it does appear that the New Urbanist approach is now America’s planning orthodoxy. Who doesn’t plan for mixed-use, walkable urbanism these days? No, I’m not saying that everyone knows HOW to build these types of places but, attend any planning and design conference, such as APA, or review any comp plan and without labeling whatever topic being discussed as New Urbanism, all of the elements we have been promoting over the past 20-30 years are now fully embedded — sacrosanct and unquestioned. See these offerings from Plantizen and Grist.

Hooray! We made it! So… now what?

Well, I recommend we keep our eyes on the kids who are organizing NextGen events, planning Project Lodge insurrections, tweeting Tactical Urbanism copies, and filling social networks with content. They are the ones wrangling the Great Recession with new ideas. They are living the religion of sustainability and will embody its built response. And, they are the ones who will work their entire professional careers in an unstable oil economy as it careens out of control and our country invades Venezuela or some such nonsense.

How they deal with the challenges of planning and urban design in the 21st century will probably end up defining the course that, over time, wider audiences will take. And, after watching them challenge a brand new orthodoxy last weekend, I sort of trust ‘em with that responsibility. I look forward to seeing them in the hallways next year in West Palm Beach. Something tells me it’s going to be worthwhile already.

The Urban Project Lodge spills out into the street. Credit: Aurash Khawarzad.

–Howard Blackson

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