When Rem Koolhaas disses you, should you pack up your geospacial software, go home, and sob quietly into your pillow in the bedroom of the apartment in your zoned mixed use neighborhood? Not according to John Norquist, CEO of the Congress on New Urbanism (CNU), and former mayor of Milwaukee. Norquist and a large cohort from the CNU gathered in Denver last month for their 17th annual Congress.
Koolhaas, who has called New Urbanist design in effect “not real enough,” is just one of the more famous of New Urbanisms detractors. As a fan of the movement, I wondered why there is such vitriol in some circles for a movement that seeks to make both public and private space more pleasant, sustainable, and livable. New Urbanism seeks to wrestle away community planning from an “automobile monoculture” and bring human beings and human interaction more fully into the equation. While a meeting like CNU 17 might conjure images of people standing in trees shouting “TRUTH!” and “BEAUTY!” the CNU represents a planning and development model gaining momentum as good business. Reporter Katherine Gregor noted that one of the overarching themes of CNU 17 was exactly this: smart planning supported by federal transportation policy and funding provide an engine for growth, wealth, and jobs. It seems New Urbanism might just be a pretty healthy mix of dreaming and getting things done.
New Urbanism takes its place among a larger movement often referred to as “Smart Growth.”As large tracts of McMansion style homes stand half-finished or still on the drawing board across the country, as studies show a reverse migration from suburb to town and city neighborhood, architects and developers are taking notice and changing their strategies. According to Norquist, even traditional tract home builders like Toll Brothers are beginning to focus on the space outside the homes and ¼ acre lots that up until very recently seemed to form the sum total of concern for both builder and buyer.
Winners of design prizes at CNU 17 demonstrate this shifting strategy both in the US and in the global economy. They include a regional plan for Buffalo, NY. In Buffalo, participants developed, in the words of the plan rationalle: “an interlocking array of plans for downtown, waterfront, and parks rationalized under the umbrella of a city-wide master plan with the former elements adoptedby reference as part of the latter. These elements nest within broader regional efforts at “smart growth,” cultural tourism, and regional economic development planning.” An international winner, in the student submission category, was a redevelopment of a theater complex, revitalizing a neighborhood in downtown Beijing, China.
CNU 17 highlighted the promise and obstacles faced as an economy recovers and as people look for habitation that fits their lifestyle and their aspirations. Maybe when truth and beauty meet up with economic opportunity, a (walking) path forward begins to emerge.