The 20th Congress for New Urbanism: Getting with the Program

There are those who simply do not understand what urbanism is, especially new urbanism. To hear the current individual in the Oval Office, speak urban, black, and poor all mean the same thing. While most people who are familiar with the urbanist movement recognize that others view it as a movement of liberal do-gooders who want to create their own little brand of utopia.

However, The Congress for New Urbanism is not an isolated group living on some commune wearing homespun clothing and refusing medical care. They are people from all walks of life who have a deep concern for their communities, who prefer to shop locally as opposed to having superstores come in and take up space as well as the lively-hoods of local shop owners. They prefer the local coffee shop to Starbucks, and more importantly that it is as easy as walking out the door and up the street to enjoy their favorite brew. A stop by the library on the way back, and that makes for a perfect morning.

CNU 20’s program was carried out by architects, city planners, developers, environmentalists, transportation and roadway experts and many others who came together and brought together their wealth of knowledge on revitalizing and sustaining small cities and towns rather than seeing them give way to one more sprawling suburb where superstores and fast food restaurants are considered a cultural outing.

Before the urbanist movement really began to gain in popularity many of these cities were like the children in that documentary on urban schools, Waiting for Superman. There was no money coming in to rebuild or revitalize older cities and towns. To a modern world, that is not considered growth. However, what some consider growth others consider a blight on the face of the earth and harmful to the environment as this is well known ever by a number of people who are involved.

At the 20th Congress, the discussion was not just about the existing communities, but how to get more small towns and cities involved. The discussion was about educating developing training programs. Speakers spoke on how urbanization means improved economics through collective sustainable cities. When people live where they work and go to school it saves the environment from harmful gasses and other pollutants. It saves lives from traffic accidents, and if people live within walking distance, or take city transit to work it saves them money.

The lectures focused on how urbanization is not a step back, but a step forward. This was not about pie in the sky idealism, but about innovation and using technology, science, and other advancements to create a better life from within rather than becoming a part of the suburban sprawl and by that very nature one of the thousands of cars on the road for two or more hours per day each day.

The CNU 20’s program focused on how urbanization was getting people outside of their living rooms and flat screen TVs, out of their in-home gyms and on the sidewalks, walking the dogs, riding bikes, or taking a walk to the town square. The homes in these small revitalized urban centers do not have large yards, the city is everyone’s back yard, and there everyone can come out to play. This was the vision of CNU 20.

The housing market was still suffering in 2012 when the 20th Congress convened. So few new homes were being built. That meant that architects who were also urbanists had no choice but to work on projects that did not benefit the urbanists lifestyle. It was either that or build apartments or homes for the purpose of renting them out, and that only defeats the purpose as it encourages a transient lifestyle. Transients lack investment and therefore do not contribute.

According to those in attendance, one of the most exciting parts of the program was NextGen, this one-day event focused on what the new generation of urbanists envisioned for the future, their plans, goals, and how their contributions would further the urbanist movement and build new communities.

One of the most important conversations that took place at CNU 20 was that of how the urbanist movement toward revitalization and sustainable cities differed from the concept of pop-up cities. These cities are meant to thrive and grow. However, this does not just take planning, it takes tactical strategizing, collaboration, and perseverance.

One of the themes presented at the 20th Congress was Engaging Cities. Here the discussions began with the popularity of tactical urbanism, and the three trends that lead to the need for dedicated and strategic planning for sustainable city living. The recession, shifting/evolving demographics, changes in how people communicate, get their information, and e-commerce all are factors. With all that is moving so fast, young families are wanting slow down and live in places that are walkable, where neighbors do know one another, and there is community involvement.

Concerns were also broached regarding the image of New Urbanism as being viewed as some sort of urbanized Stepford village. There is the view of the members of New Urbanism as the results of all this planning becoming so White and conservative, programmed, and not too far removed from – sub-urbanism. One of the goals of New Urbanism is to live deliberately, and not haphazardly. Recognizing and working to resolve problems should not be viewed as a means of control. It is more of a proactive stance toward maintaining control.

If these cities are allowed to run down again due to lagging interest, due to a lack of tactical planning, then large developers will come in and the sprawl of suburban will make its cry heard for the need of more highways, more superstores, more malls. There was a sense of urgency that was the underlying tone of the 20th Congress, that no matter the economic troubling times that New Urbanization is not just about saving the environment or cities, it is about improving lifestyles. Superman is not coming. Urbanization is about self-reliant communities.