I’ve just returned from the annual gathering of architects, town planners, and advocates for new urbanist ideals called The Congress for the New Urbanism or CNU19, held June 1-4 in Madison, Wisconsin.
In all the years that I’ve followed this movement I’ve never been to this event, though I’ve read much about it. I have to thank the Chicago based CNU for the invitation and event pass to this year’s conference in beautiful Madison. Without the invitation, I don’t think I might have attended and it has nothing to do with cost (it’s not expensive). But it has more to do with the conversation itself and the perception that it’s a closed one for insiders only–a perception that caused me to create this blog.
Now I don’t see how I can miss another Congress.
For years I’ve babbled on passionately about the importance of consumers (moms, dads, new graduates, retirees – “us”) understanding the goal and focus of new urbanism. It’s simply not enough for us to base our knowledge of new urbanism on real estate marketing material touting how awesome it is to purchase homes that enable us to “live, work and play” all in the same community.
New urbanism is no marketing ploy. It’s a movement. But for any movement to take hold it has to capture the hearts and imaginations of the intended audience – you and me. This event captured my imagination and buoyed my confidence in the brilliant men and women who are putting so much thought and creativity into taking the technical aspects of urban planning and home and landscape architecture and re-working it according to powerful social and environmental imperatives shaping our world today.
Here’s some of what I heard at CNU19 in Madison.
Andres Duany – More Focus on Real Sustainability
I have to admit it was a little unnerving to finally see (and meet!) Andre Duany – the co-founder of CNU and the person most recognized worldwide as the leading force in the New Urbanism movement. I listened intently as Duany spoke about agrarian urbanism a fast emerging trend which really speaks to the whole local food movement, the theme of this year’s Congress.
While sustainability is reflected in the principles of new urbanism there aren’t many NU communities that are self sustaining in the way we would hope they would be based on the marketing. Most of the pretty new urbanism communities that I know barely offer a sufficient supply of employment and business opportunities close to the community and that’s a complaint I read about again and again.
In fact I would suggest that most NU residents in my region still have to jump in their cars (bad) or intermittent transit (ongoing issue) to get to work (and even entertainment) a decent commute away.
So when I listened to Duany speak about agrarian urbanism as a way of building real, functioning villages–the kind of places NU communities are meant to replicate, I was excited.
Apparently what we could be seeing more of in our new communities – both inner city/suburban redevelopments and new developments – are attempts to make communities more self sufficient through the cultivation of local agricultural efforts to both grow and process produce locally. Design-wise we might see more homes emphasizing the garden space and more public spaces focused on these agrarian themes and initiatives.
In fact, that’s already a hot trend both in my suburb and in our large urban center.
What’s more, I listened to a presenter from an organization in Central Ohio discuss how his region is developing communities that will be using urban agriculture and the processing of produce as a means of rejuvenating blighted areas in the cities and the suburbs. From creating jobs, to encouraging healthier eating, such developments embody new urbanism in the most life changing ways.
I was thrilled to see the student presence at CNU19. I met Kristen Jeffers, a Public Affairs graduate student with deep interest in the effects of urban design on the lives of people in urban centers. Kristen is part of the CNU’s innovative “Next Gen” group which is a tract/section the Congress nurtures for younger planners, architects and advocates – including students.
Awards: Notre Dame University’s Graduate School of Architecture won the CNU Charter Awards Grand Prize for their comprehensive vision for Skaneateles, New York. Their submission looked at sustainable strategies for the city’s future growth. What caught my attention was how the students linked this project to larger issues. Notre Dame is of course the nation’s preeminent Catholic university and the team explained that the values and principles of new urbanism are a great match for what they’ve learned in terms of Catholic social teachings.
Catholic social teachings encompass an appreciation and emphasis on sustainability and the well being of everyone in a community, regardless of income, abilities etc.
After meeting some of these young people I have to tell you that I feel we are in such good hands (and we did such a good job raising them!).
What Families, Retirees, Young Adults Are Missing
While CNU19 touched on many topics from passenger rail, to how to plan city roads that will be safe for anyone on a bike – including couriers and parents with toddlers – one topic that was addressed I need to share here was communication.
To date urban planners and advocates have done a great job of lobbying cities to develop codes and regulations that support the design and construction of smart communities that address many of our issues (e.g. curbing suburban sprawl with higher density developments). But for more efficient, lasting and far reaching change, the conversation needs to happen between families, friends and neighbors.
That’s why I started this blog – to reach moms who in many instances are the main decision makers in households regarding home buying/renting. But really my kids in college need to start thinking about this as does my retired father.
New urbanism is a conversation that needs to extend beyond the wonderful circle of architects and planners who envision and plan our communities. We can help to ensure that decisions are being made in our communities that reflect the conscientious and environmentally focused principles of new urbanism. That’s a job that more of us can take on once a broader, more universal understanding of new urbanism is achieved in our country.
So What Can you Do?
Whether you own your home or rent I encourage you to:
- Seek out and ensure your community has access to locally grown food (e.g. a farmers’ market) – promote this to your friends
- Think twice about buying or renting a home that would increase your commute to work. If that’s unavoidable think about telecommuting or other work (entrepreneurial) options closer to home.
- Research the builders and developments you are considering for your next move. Do they reflect new urbanism principles? Will the work they do enhance or hurt your region?
- Be a voice in your community and push for codes and by-laws that support green developments; safe biking in residential and commercial areas; locally grown food and; local business growth (this list could be infinitely longer, but you get the idea).
- Bike more whenever possible. If you haven’t ridden a bike since grade 4, don’t be afraid – you’re likely not alone! Riding a bike teaches our children healthy habits and will encourage more adult bike riders in the years to come (and more sensitive drivers).
- Visual appearances have an impact on our children and their development – support efforts in your community to bring art, inspirational landscapes and healthy options to your streets and neighborhoods.
To read highlights from the CNU19 click here.
I can’t wait to attend next year’s CNU20 in West Palm Beach, Florida. Until then, here’s hoping there’ll be more in our main stream media and in our own local conversations about new urbanism and it’s vital role beyond the real estate pages.