At the 20th Congress for the New Urbanism, a Movement Feels its Age

They used to be radicals, now they're establishment. Has it changed their approach to development?

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Courtesy: Congress for a New Urbanism

WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. — The season, as it’s known, ended in April, leaving Lily Pulitzer-clad stragglers shopping for sunglasses on Worth Avenue and ordering the steak au poivre at Flagler's. Until this week, when the stomping grounds of the Kennedys, Donald Trump, and Rod Stewart are descended upon by an entirely different brand of aging rocker: the New Urbanist.

The 20th gathering of the Congress for the New Urbanism runs through the weekend here, and the milestone raises some interesting questions about what happens when a revolutionary movement reaches middle age – and indeed in the world of planning and especially real estate development, becomes part of the establishment.

In the late 1980s and early 1990s, New Urbanism was hitting the cover of Time as a grassroots architectural and design movement dead-set against auto-dependent suburban sprawl. CNU preached compact, walkable, mixed-use development, and traditional town planning principles for grid street layouts and user-friendly parks. It was back to the future, before World War II and the age of the automobile, before the soulless exurban tracts around cul-de-sacs, that arch-enemy of the connected landscape.

Radical. Audacious. Heretical. Until it became gospel.

Like its sister movement Smart Growth, New Urbanism – and here the disclaimer that I am a member of CNU, along with APA and ULI and other professional associations – is well-accepted by planners and especially developers, who see a magic formula for retail and a successor to the enclosed shopping mall; even corporate homebuilders like Toll Brothers and Lennar are skipping far-flung subdivisions for urban infill. Model projects are not much different from those publicized by the Urban Land Institute, from Maryland's Kentlands to the redevelopment of the Stapleton airport in Denver.

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That’s not to say New Urbanism hasn’t had many critics. From the beginning the movement was mocked for being hegemonic in its own right, elitist and unaffordable, the “New Suburbanism,” or boutique sprawl. One of the first New Urbanist projects, Seaside, was famously the set for film The Truman Show, the story of a picture-perfect, scripted life. Empirical evidence was scarce that New Urbanist developments fostered any greater sense of community than conventional subdivisions. Modernism as foil could only go so far; the New Urbanist critiques made it seem as if, as one Harvard professor said, Le Corbusier-style horizontal windows were leading to the downfall of civilization.

What CNU has been looking for is some new foils. Property rights advocates, the Tea Party, and pro-suburbia commentators like Wendell Cox and Joel Kotkin provide some grist, but there are plenty of free-market libertarians in CNU, starting with the Miami based Cuban-American architect Andres Duany of DPZ. Duany has been enjoying picking fights with Harvard’s Charles Waldheim over the alternative approach to city-building, landscape urbanism. But it’s hard to imagine a more esoteric debate.

Florida will be a good place to take stock. The mayor of West Palm Beach famously embraced New Urbanism, and its revitalized downtown is a huge success. Miami adopted a form-based code of the kind CNU advocates – zoning more concerned with the collection of buildings than the use that goes on inside of them. Things like zoning and building codes remain a dreary but entirely necessary business for more sustainable cities. Plenty of places still forbid residential over retail in downtowns, or have ridiculous minimum parking requirements.

“If the first phase of CNU has culminated in a broader culture acceptance of urbanism as a force for good, the second phase will be defined by successfully pushing for policy and design reform that actually allows urbanism to get built,” says CNU president John Norquist, a former mayor of Milwaukee.

Big foundations like Rockefeller, Ford, and Kresge are supporting transit and see urbanism as the setting for advancing social justice. Others see great public health benefits. A big focus is to get at the anti-urban policies and standards and rules at the federal, state and local level, Norquist says.

If that sounds like nitty-gritty implementation, and a little bit nerdy, too, CNU has always had a mix of rock-star designers and those among the 1,500 architects, designers, planners, elected officials, developers and others expected for the conference, who like nothing better than a lengthy debate on the merits of different varieties of shade trees.

Still, as unglamorous as it is, re-writing the owner’s manual for urbanism makes sense. It’s what another architectural movement – the Congress International Architecture Moderne (CIAM), after which CNU is modeled – did. Leaders like Le Corbusier and Walter Gropius wasted little time embedding modernism in codes and academic curricula.

CNU is trying to undo the damage of expressways, separated-use zoning, and the destruction of the building craft fostered by CIAM, says Norquist. That means changing the rules put in place over a half-century: fighting fire with fire.

CIAM is an apt comparison, a messy, democratic organization, with a mission and a charter, but led by big and disparate egos. Notably, they put themselves out of business after about 30 years. The leaders saw that the seeds of modernism had been sown.

By that reckoning, to make change, if not stay relevant, CNU has about 10 more years to go.

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