Wednesday, May 13, 2015

Stories from CNU23: Zoning, Complexity, and Encouragement to Risk Mistakes

In my last post, I began recounting moments of insight from the recent 23rd annual meeting of the Congress for the New Urbanism.  Today, I’ll continue along that path.  Eventually, I’ll begin digging more deeply into the some of the topics covered during CNU 23, but for now, reporting the flashes of illumination, along with elucidation and comment as required, is my only goal.

Zoning Interrupted: In a long ago post, I dubiously reported a theory by urbanist flamethrower James Howard Kunstler that the unfortunate American architecture of the 1950s and 1960s was the result of Germany being a World War II enemy.  In Kunstler’s hypothesis, Hitler loved classical architecture, the U.S. hated Hitler, and the U.S. therefore rejected classical architecture.

I don’t claim to be an architectural historian, but suspect that Le Corbusier had a far greater role in creating the post World War II architectural aesthetic than did a rejection of everything Hitler.  I enjoy the barrages put down by Kunstler, but find that some of his more outlandish conjectures must be taken with a stiff dose of skepticism.

However, Professor Emily Talen, addressing a gathering of first-time CNU attendees (I observed from the back of the room), suggested a German war story that seemed far more credible.  She noted that it was in Germany where the concept of zoning was first invented during the 1870s.  By the 1910s when the U.S. was just beginning to dabble in zoning, the Germans had developed elaborate and effective theories about zoning.

But World War I resulted in a rupture from all ideas German, leading the U.S. to wander in the wilderness, including the failed experiment with sprawl, before gradually returning to some of the German concepts.

Permission Not Required:  Andres Duany takes pride in the great number of books that have been written by members of the CNU.  He also notes that much of the output is because of a lack of shackles, with prospective writers permitted to explore different ways of thinking about and presenting urbanism.  In his words, “Unlike the Catholic Church, being an urbanist and writing about urbanism doesn’t require official approval.”

Complexity: Both Talen and Duany made connections between CNU and CIAM, the Congrès internationaux d'architecture moderne or International Congresses of Modern Architecture.  CIAM was a leading player in the turn toward modern architecture.  Founded in 1928 (further undermining Kunstler’s theory about Hitler and modern architecture), CIAM was ineffective by the 1950s and folded in 1959.

Talen noted that, prior to CNU, CIAM had been the last organization to change the land-use world, so the founders of CNU had looked to CIAM for organizational ideas.

Duany did more to contrast the two organizations, noting that CIAM had focused on simplifying and streamlining the process of architecture, whereas CNU has embraced the ever evolving complexity of urbanism.   (This ties back to Duany’s comment about the CNU membership being fairly stable despite the continuing influx of new blood because current members tire of the complexity and migrate to organizations focusing on only one or two aspects of urbanism.)

Willingness to be Wrong: Consistent with nature of complex systems, Duany further noted that being a good urbanist means being willing to be wrong, including the possibility of making a fool of one’s self.  And he encouraged embracing the freedom to be wrong, as long as it’s done with a sense of humor.  In his words, “Unless the revolution is fun, no one comes to the second meeting.”

If the thought of being wrong is disconcerting, remember that absolute certainty about land-use solutions is what led to sprawl.  Working in incremental steps, including occasional missteps, is the only path to good solutions.  Indeed, it’s correctly called the scientific method.

Before closing, a note about Dallas.  The sculpture in the photo is present in several downtown parks.  The apparent intention is for tourists to stand in the middle, posing for photos as the “I” in “BIG”, representing the Dallas approach to life.  During my five days in town, I saw exactly one photo taken of the sculpture.  The role of the “I” was played by a young lady who was trying and failing to get into a handstand.  As a marketing gimmick, it was clever, but hadn’t taken hold.

My hope for the next post is to announce a step forward in the effort by Petaluma Urban Chat to prepare a redevelopment plan for a portion of the current Sonoma Marin Fairgrounds.  However, the timing is in the hands of another party.  I’ll make the announcement if I can.  Otherwise, I’ll continue with stories from CNU 23.

As always, your questions or comments will be appreciated.  Please comment below or email me.  And thanks for reading. - Dave Alden (

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