A Placemaking Journal

This Just In from CNU20: World not yet saved

The Congress for the New Urbanism’s annual convergence of giganto ideas and fine-grained pragmatism wrapped Saturday night with a party in a bar. The four days in West Palm Beach, Florida, marked the 20th anniversary of such gatherings, most of which also involved spill-over debates in venues with liquor licenses.

As usual, the CNU20 agenda was packed with passion and ambition, with a smidgeon of apocalyptic visioning to dampen out-of-control hopefulness. So what’s on the minds of the NU designers, planners and fellow travelers these days?

Well, first of all, frustration that everyone on the planet has not yet fully embraced New Urbanists’ prescriptions for fixing sprawl, poverty, climate change, public health, energy policy, auto-dependent transportation, education, water management issues, infrastructure crises and the 100 other items on our to-do list.

Unless you’re Dan Solomon, that is, who, in a spirited Thursday morning plenary session, expressed frustration with the prescriptions themselves, equating high-profile placemaking devices like LEED-ND and the SmartCode with the Athens Charter-based Modernist prescriptions they’re intended to replace.

Andrés Duany, his co-presenter and author of the SmartCode’s original draft, offered no apologies for playing the game at hand. “This is a nation of laws,” he said. “I would rather work under known rules than under the opinion of some committee.”

Perhaps both views are moot, however, at least so far as CNU doomslinger James Howard Kunstler is concerned. In his future view, “There will be no zoning reform. People will increasingly ignore our zoning and building codes and simply do as they please.”

The good news is that we decided to give everybody more time to keep debating, adopt the policies we recommend, and implement the plans and codes that emerge. But this offer can’t be extended forever. So get busy.

The other good news is that we’re not going to stop coming up with stuff. Only now, recognizing that we’re in an era in which nobody’s writing blank checks for changing the world in one fell swoop, we’re exploring more modest rescues. Frugality and simplicity served as common themes throughout the Congress, expressed by Duany as a need to be “not green, but lean” and by noted architect Léon Krier’s proclamation that “low-tech will be the high-tech of the future.”

Many others were also debated during sessions over the last few days and will be reported out on the CNU site.

For a set-up for the whither-goest debates of CNU20, take a look at this introductory overview by Anthony Flint of the Lincoln Institute. Then, check out two generational perspectives we sampled at the Congress, one from co-founding CNU member Gianni Longo and another from Gen-Y planner Eliza Harris, who was just elected to the CNU board.

By far the best overview of CNU members’ current perspectives is to be found in the interview segments shot on-site in West Palm by the guys from First+Main Media. The first is “Confessions,” in which prominent New Urbanists reflect on the mission’s over-reaches and missed opportunities:

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The second is “Dreams,” in which the same people, and others, look at our challenges and opportunities ahead:

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Finally, for an intro to the videos, we turned the tables on First+Main producer Chris Elisara, interviewing him for the video below:

Watch the First+Main videos. Pass around the links. Better than anything we can write here, these interviews capture the disappointments and the big dreams of New Urbanism in 2012.

–Ben Brown, with Scott Doyon

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