Looking Forward: New Urbanism and the New World.
This morning when I walked into the West Palm Beach convention center, I was very excited to be able to meet and brainstorm with the thinkers at the forefront of my profession, or at least the people who share in the same urban design theology. I had heard rumblings about the culture of the Congress of New Urbanism and certainly knew that the founders of the movement were opinionated and outspoken. I have always admired this about them and was interested to see the vibe that the conference would have. The attraction and numbers of attendees have way outgrown the close dinner group that began New Urbanism more than 20 years ago, but the heavy hitters like Andres Duany, Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk, Ellen Dunham-Jones, and John Norquist, to name a few, no doubt still have a big hand in the direction and focus of the movement. With the combination of professionals who have the reputation for being devotees to their beliefs and fresh new blood like me, anything was possible.
I knew there was the possibility that CNU20 would be an exercise in brainwashing. After all, the movement certainly has this reputation from its critics. But I was pleasantly surprised to find just the opposite. The morning started off with the plenary session, Looking Forward: New Urbanism and the New World with Daniel Solomon and Andres Duany. The result was an introduction to New Urbanism with a debate on theology between two very prominent urban designers, which set the tone of challenging our own and each other’s beliefs in what New Urbanism is and should be. We were off to a good start, and I felt satisfied in my defense of the movement after all these years. It was clear that there was room for many ideas here.
This session was so powerful for me because the arguments that both Daniel Solomon and Andres Duany made, while contradicting each other, both resonate with me. After studying New Urbanism for my master’s-level urban design thesis, I knew that the movement was becoming water-downed by every Tom, Dick, and Harry development calling itself “New Urbanist“ even though the result on the ground, as far as I could tell, didn’t represent the CNU Charter in the least. The result was that the movement was unfairly being criticized for work that people thought was “theirs“ but that they had no right to claim. My research proved that there needed to be prescriptive direction and implementation techniques established so that New Urbanism would stay true to its promises. You can imagine my delight when the LEED-ND framework, which was written in large part by CNU, came on the scene. Finally, there was a standard by which to measure the principles found in the charter.
However, on the flip side, I had weathered what is hopefully the worst economic downturn I will ever see. There is almost no New Urbanism development happening at all, which has caused the movement to stall. Would people forget about New Urbanism? When the market picks back up will developers and planners condemn the stringent LEED-ND framework all together? New Urbanism has always been about ideas—were they getting lost?
Daniel Solomon thought so—in fact, he said that LEED-ND “strangles and sucks the life out of the American economy.” Solomon’s lecture, which he humorously named “My Dinner with Andres,” challenged the prescriptive and code-based turn New Urbanism had taken. He lamented the loss of when the movement revolved around the big discussions he used to have sitting around the dinner table, and pretty much blamed that on Duany’s Smart Code and Manual. Solomon described Duany as a man who was rigorous and defiant in his beliefs and simultaneously as a man who questioned his ideas constantly. My favorite quote of the whole day was, “Andres Duany creates an intellectual straightjacket that others wear, but that he won’t even put one arm in.” This made me ask the question: If Duany doesn’t wear his straightjacket, why should we? I think I understand why people gravitate towards concrete codes and manuals: they provide answers. We’re living in an uncertain time full or challenges for the future of our built environment. There are big problems that await us and, in response, people feel comforted by a set of rules that they can follow to solve them. Here’s a problem, and if I follow this, I can fix them. This equals confidence and control for urban designers and planners. Sitting around discussing ideas without offering solutions can be over overwhelming.
But perhaps Solomon’s most compelling argument was that this “reductive certitude” in New Urbanism was no different that Le Corbusier’s Athens Charter. Just the mention of this document makes planners shudder. It is blamed for some of the biggest idealistic planning screw-ups our country has ever seen. Solomon’s argument was that, like Duany’s smart code, it was written with certainty with what appeared to be little room for questioning. In my opinion, it was a quite a slam to compare Andres Duany, the founder of the very movement that all in attendance prescribe to, to Le Corbusier, the described destroyer of city life. Solomon questioned Duany’s theology, power, and influence. Man, were we in for a rebuttal.
And we got one.
I should go back and say that I was eagerly watching the first row for the response of some of these “heavy hitters” as I call them. Ellen Dunham-Jones leapt up immediately cheering and loudly applauding Solomon’s speech. It was obvious that there was a divide in this union, but it existed in a context that welcomed it.
Duany came out on fire in defense of his “straightjacket,” stating that the code allows for local calibration and adaption. But his real argument focused on the fact that the real world is a world of laws, not a world of opinions and ideas. The same system that was used to destroy the urban form is the same system that can be responsible for fixing it. He eradicated the notion that people think that if there is no code, then they will be free. The reality is that the default setting for the United States is one of code. It’s not going away and we need to use it to make change. In short, don’t fight the system, but use it to your advantage. Duany explained that the smart code planned—and is necessary—for complexity. While Solomon’s speech made me fantasize, Duany’s speech brought me back to the real world. But I found myself wanting to sit somewhere in the middle.
What really caught my attention was when Duany defended those that love the suburbs. This I was not expecting, and I have to acknowledge that he is right and I respect him for it. He described public involvement research exercises that involved scenario development. They would show people a picture of an idealistic, New Urbanism development and a picture of typical suburban sprawl. The former usually contained a compact, dense cottage with a picket fence and beautiful streetscape. The latter contained a plain house with garages for front doors sitting on large, empty streets, void of life. Despite the obvious attempt to sway opinion, 30% of people still chose the suburbs as their optimal place to live. Now, I don’t know who these people are (I certainly have never met them), but Duany assures me that they exist. The mature and admirable stance that he takes is that this is a free country and these people’s freedom to choose suburban wasteland must be protected; his smart code provides for that.
Duany continued by explaining his fascinating work in New Orleans, which will have to be the topic for another post in the future. His observations and respect for the culture of the city was extremely admirable. While he started off his talk with a passionate and sometimes angry rebuttal, I soon realized he was just in this reaction. The man is brilliant. I don’t think any of us need to ever where a straightjacket of ideas. Solomon is correct in that it can be very dangerous intellectually. But if we have to ever wear one, I’m confident I would wear Duany’s with pride.
I challenge you to watch the session here and ask yourselves the same questions of New Urbanism that these men do. If we prescribe ourselves to the beliefs this movement is based on, Solomon is right that we constantly question ourselves. My introspective journey has begun, and I look forward to sharing with you my response to the other sessions at CNU20 this week. Stay tuned….
Sustainable Cities Collective