Can New Urbanism Address Old Urbanism, Too?

The New Urbanism Transect, one of the leading tools of New Urbanists for systemizing development patterns.  Source: Center for Applied Transect Studies (transect.org)

As of yesterday, the Congress of the New Urbanism just completed its annual gathering in Buffalo, NY.  CNU 22, with its high-profile list of speakers and exhibitors of all thing New Urban, is perhaps one of the leading gatherings of people intensely interested in cities and places.  New Urbanism is a movement that has been building for nearly a generation, and the annual Congress celebrates its successes.

Consider me unmoved.

I’ve had conflicting feelings about the CNU for some time.  Shortly after its founding in the early ’90s, right around the opening of Seaside as a different kind of community, I was ready to join the movement.  But I’ve cooled on it considerably over the last 5-10 years.  It simply doesn’t speak to me.

I absolutely love what CNU promotes and advocates — walkability, sustainability, mixed uses, quality design, dominion over the public sphere — all things that contribute to the creation of great places.  But there has always been a strange tension, to me at least, between those who are advocates of mature cities, particularly Rust Belt cities, and New Urbanists.  New Urbanists love the bones that such cities have, but have difficulties with the flesh that surrounds them.

Buffalo News art critic Colin Dabkowski, who attended the CNU in Buffalo last week, nailed it in today’s Open Letter to the New Urbanist Movement.  Referring to planner and New Urbanist Jeff Speck’s call for cities to adopt an “urban triage” approach to infrastructure investment, meaning investing in successful areas first and least successful areas later, Dabkowski makes a valid critique that puts a ceiling on New Urbanism’s ability to gain broader appeal:

“As a movement, New Urbanism seems primarily concerned with making prosperous neighborhoods more prosperous and then hoping against hope that the benefits of that prosperity magically extend into sections of town untouched by their charming design sensibility.”

 My critique is similar.  I find New Urbanism to be a movement about transforming suburban communities rather than revitalizing urban ones, and that urban communities are only examined for their ability to inspire design ideas that will create better suburbs.

We need better cities and suburbs.

This may be an inaccurate assessment, even an outdated one.  True, I’ve never been to a single CNU national gathering.  But I do find that there are few if any connections between New Urbanists and those in the field of community development — the housing advocates, the non-profit developers, the economic development specialists, and those interested in addressing inequality in general.  There are few community development people who are touting New Urbanist principles and signing up for membership, and few New Urbanists who are front and center on addressing the concerns the plague our most distressed urban neighborhoods.

This same sentiment is apparent with new transit advocates, who tout the merits and benefits of bike lanes, car sharing, and expanded public transit infrastructure.  Members of both movements seem to be saying, “let build new things better.”  But to me the question that is always left unasked is, “how can we improve on what’s been left behind?”

I love that New Urbanism has reinvigorated the art of placemaking.  Lord knows that 70 years of suburbanization meant that we forgot much of what we knew and took for granted.  But I feel that New Urbanism owes a debt to the cities whose bones are their inspiration, and become more active in their revitalization.

5 thoughts on “Can New Urbanism Address Old Urbanism, Too?

  1. Ironically, Speck's triage discussion is exactly about how to identify on a micro-scale the highest impact investment opportunities in a urban neighborhoods and downtowns. You don't triage a suburban greenfield; there's no existing condition to examine and prioritize. One big misunderstanding is that he's not talking about prioritizing rich (“prosperous”) areas; he's talking about investing in streets where one or two improvements (e.g. adding on-street parking and street trees where the buildings are already pulled up to the street and walking distance from homes) would quickly make a street more walkable as opposed to places that are already too suburbanized and would require many elements to be changed at once to make anyone comfortable walking. Furthermore others New Urbanists (like Strong Towns) who are talking about investment at a more citywide or regional scale are absolutely making the case for directing modest investment towards existing urban neighborhoods (whether rich or poor) rather than extending oversized and overpriced infrastructure into the shiny and new suburbs.

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  2. Pete – here's my suggestion: please come to the next CNU Congress, in Dallas. You might be surprised by what you see and who you meet, but more importantly: the group needs you, your energy and your perspective. I say that as someone who's been to about 15 Congresses. You'll probably also find that people love a good debate, even a heated one.

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  3. Kevin, that's a fair thing to ask. I realize that any misperceptions can go both ways, and I would do myself a favor by attending a CNU Congress and consider things up close and personal. I do think it was good for CNU to have its Congress in Buffalo and expose itself to this critique, as opposed to having it in the many sprawling locales (Salt Lake City, Atlanta, etc.) they've had it recently.

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  4. Seconding Kevin's assessment. I need you in the room. We were at about 10% (this is me looking around and seeing who else is in the room) on the convention floor and 2% speaking (which is a recognized problem). Also, CNU's one of the few spaces where people can show up and demand to talk about whatever you want (through OpenSource, NextGen, etc. No, we don't have the proper mainstage representation, nor do we have a good press narrative yet, but we are not completely out on left field. Also, I'm at least one person concerned with the affairs of CDCs. We are also hoping to get more local CDCs free or reduced price tickets and I am probably going to plan the NextGen slate of Detroit and possibly Dallas, which is an area where we address gaps in presentations, and we also just sit around and discuss what needs to be discussed. We may not always agree, but we always listen.

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