‘Tis the season to rejoice and enjoy the brotherhood of all mankind, as well as that of our in-laws…
As we ease into 2012, I am officially announcing a New Urbanism victory across North America, as we recently witnessed the end of building suburbia and its physically isolated, segregated lifestyle. Proof? Just this week, the award-winning New Urban News, a publication dedicated to all things New Urbanism, officially changed their title to “Better! Cities and Towns.”
There hasn’t been a New Urbanist Council gathering for a while. Which is why a lot of pent-up anxiety — and hope — found release in Council sessions in Montgomery, Alabama, October 14-16.
These regionally organized Councils are intended to grapple with topics that should be on the table for annual Congress for the New Urbanism meetings but require give-and-take from a smaller group to better focus issues. So some 50 or so folks came to Montgomery to critique recent ideas and projects and to wrestle with propositions to position New Urbanism for the New Normal.
Call me naive.
When I was first exposed to the New Urbanism in the 1990s, it was as a 9 to 5 ad-man with an appreciation for music and art. Killing time one day in my dentist’s waiting room, I stumbled upon “Bye-Bye Suburban Dream,” the cover story of the latest Newsweek magazine.
I still remember the feeling I had as I read it. Unbelievable, I thought. This is a movement creating places where people, community, beauty and culture are once again prioritized. Where the interconnected everyday experiences that color our lives are valued. Where commerce and art can both thrive.
The restoration of degraded, traumatized, and distressed communities has been a high priority for the Obama Administration. The EPA, HUD and DOT are all allocating revitalization funds for places as large as Detroit and Cleveland, and as small as Ranson, West Virginia.
That’s the kind of solid support needed at the big picture level, where communities can be considered — and treated — as the living organisms they are. But what about revitalization at a smaller scale? Because that’s when it stops being about the relative health of the collective and gets down to the level of individual lives.
Put the village on hold. For the time being, it’s gonna take a parent, a councilman and a developer to raise a child.
Flashback 2003: Attending the New Partners for Smart Growth conference in New Orleans, I caught the keynote from a planning official for Vancouver, British Columbia. Now, under normal circumstances, I don’t suppose I’d remember much of what he said but, at the time, my daughter was just over three years old and something he used as the overall framing for his making Smart Growth work presentation really resonated with me.
“If it works for kids,” he said, “it works for everyone.”
Next week, the 19th annual gathering of New Urbanism cultists takes place in Madison, Wisconsin. I’m one of them, and I’m sorry not to be making the Congress this year. This has the feel of one of those turning-point moments.
First, the good part. A lot more folks have bought into the New Urbanist perspective for building and enriching community through thoughtful design. Federal and state policy-makers, even the slow-to-change Department of Transportation types, now talk about integrating land use and transportation. And requests for proposals from regional planning agencies routinely reference principles embodied in the Charter for the New Urbanism, even if the authors of those RFPs are clueless as to where they got the ideas. So there’s reason to celebrate.
Still, as the evidence mounts that we’ve got piles of work to do, we’re too easily distracted by food fights that sap energy and waste time.
I just heard from a colleague who had a developer tell him something along the lines of: “New Urbanism is too risky and too expensive because, you know, Kentlands failed.” That’s not an uncommon belief. What is uncommon, however, for anyone on the receiving end of such broad brush generalizations, is an easy response that fleshes out the finer, and truer, details. So here’s mine: