Monday, August 17, 2015

Stories from CNU 23: Anarchy and More

The past April, I traveled to the annual meeting of the Congress for the New Urbanism, which this year was CNU 23.  Soon after my return from the Dallas meeting, I wrote several posts recounting moments of insight from the four-day meeting.  At the time, I didn’t try to dig deep.  My only goal was to give a hint of the thoughtful ideas and interchanges that flavor each CNU conference.  (The earlier posts were here, here, here, and here.)

Starting soon, I’ll begin exploring some of the topics raised at CNU 23 in greater depth.  But today, I’ll make one more pass through my notes, looking for final short thoughts that can help color in the picture of what a CNU conference is like.

Balancing Order and Anarchy: In a session that was described as an introduction for newcomers, but was insightful for all, Professor Emily Talen noted that “a lot of urban planning is rooted in anarchy”.  Then, a few minutes later, she also noted that the Age of Enlightenment, with its focus on knowledge and order, was a defining moment for urbanism, an observation that can seem to be in conflict with her earlier statement on anarchy.

After exploring this tension between a desire for order and an absence of order, she concluded with the thought that “A grand manner of order provides the urban framework on which diversity and chaos can hang.”

I found that this sentence captured the creative tension which, to my mind, often characterizes the struggle to build good urbanism.  It expresses the dichotomy between master planning by experienced professionals and the creative input of unpracticed but passionate locals.  (This is the same dichotomy that StrongTowns describes as top-down versus bottom-up.)  I don’t want to sidetrack today’s short thoughts, but will return to this topic in an upcoming post for a more detailed mulling.

City Efficient: The City Beautiful movement, spearheaded by Daniel Burnham and organized around an enthusiasm for grand urban settings triggered by the Columbian Exposition of 1893, is often considered a major thread in the urbanist history.  But Professor Talen noted some of the shortcomings of City Beautiful, specifically that it was more about vistas than about the details of daily life.

She suggested the follow-up movement, which focused more on housing, health, etc., and which she describes as the City Efficient effort, was ultimately more meaningful.

One Room for Urbanists and Environmentalists: Andres Duany, one of the founders of the Congress for the New Urbanism, took the podium after Talen.   Among his many themes was a concern about the direction that the environmental movement has taken, a direction that has often put environmentalists at odds with urbanists.

Noting that one of the key justifications for urbanism is the environmental benefits of compact living, Duany found this conflict to be harmful and he put much of the responsibility on the environmental side.  In his words as he addressed the CNU 23 session, “This is the only room in America where it is understood that urbanists and environmental are on the same side.”

Co-Opting the Competition: Duany also noted that CNU needn’t always overcome the other land-use organizations in order to spread the urbanist message.  Instead, the message of urbanism is so compelling that other organizations are often co-opted even as the membership of CNU remains steady.  As an example, Duany noted that editorial focus of “Urban Land”, the official magazine of the Urban Land Institute, has effectively shifted to the point where it also serves as the magazine for CNU.

The Game is Still Being Played: Urbanists can sometimes be dismayed the number of drivable suburban developments still being built, with the resulting sense that the game is nearing a conclusion with urbanism on the losing side.   I had a moment like that yesterday when I saw a new sprawling subdivision under construction near Vacaville.

But Edward Mazria, an architect who appeared late during CNU 23, noted that by 2030 sixty percent of the building stock in the world will have been built since 2015, so there is still a huge opportunity for urbanism to make a difference.

To those of us in the U.S., the sixty percent statistic may seem puzzling, but if we consider the ongoing building booms in China, India, and elsewhere in the under-developed world, the statistic becomes more comprehensible.

So the burden on U.S. urbanists is not only to change the direction of land use within the U.S., but to take a place among the role models for the rest of the world.

As always, I returned from a CNU conference with my head spinning with new ideas and ways of thinking.  Having now finished this quick review of my notes, digging deeper will soon commence.

The Healdsburg City Council recently took a step of unexpected independence.  The action has nothing to do with urbanism, but the independence can be inspiring for urbanists.  I’ll explain in my next post.

Schedule Note: For those interested in the potential for transit-oriented development near the downtown Petaluma SMART station, there is an upcoming meeting that should be of interest.

Wednesday evening, August 19, 6:00pm at the Petaluma Community Center on McDowell Boulevard, Pacifica Development of San Diego will present their plan for the proposed Haystack Landing project, a mixed-use development about a block from the train station and along the walking route between the train station and downtown.

I’ve had one previous opportunity to view the preliminary plans, but am looking forward to seeing them again at the upcoming meeting.  And I expect to share my thoughts in this space a couple of posts hence.

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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