[A post today to the Pro-Urb listserv]
Been out the last few days getting in touch with my edginess, so I'm just now catching up on the conversation from last week. 2 primary threads were hopping, but both are essentially: what is the future for the CNU? Not NU necessarily, but CNU. I'd like to add my $.02 in to the many excellent posts and thoughts, since I cranked up one of those threads with my 10,000 builder/developers idea. As a side note, it's great to see emails from a wider variety of folks than is usually present on the New Urbanist listservs.
Apparently it's politically correct for everyone to say "we've won" and I get the branding value of doing so, but it's just not in my DNA to nod and agree. What I'd suggest instead is an analogy: if New Urbanism were a political party, it would be the Democratic party (from a national standpoint). There is broad agreement with our principles in virtually everywhere that's "blue" on an electoral map, and we resonate very strongly with people under 30. The demographic and cultural trends are all in our favor. LOTS of work still to do, but the future looks very bright. And yet... there are huge geographic swaths of the US where our core principles are ridiculed, even outright attacked. While barriers to good urbanism are falling in many places, they stand strong in others. So have we won? A lot depends on which battlefield we're looking at.
I've never particularly liked the comparison of CNU to CIAM. For one, I don't know the correct way to pronounce it. I'd prefer to see CNU as much more like the early ULI. ULI was created by reform-minded developers such as Walter Schmidt and JC Nichols, and people who appreciated thoughtful planning and design. They cared deeply about improving American cities. They had a core set of principles, but also were concerned with getting things built and influencing the political agenda at every level. We tend to think of ULI today as a group of big-boy developers and design firms without a core ideology, but its early decades were quite different. CIAM was very design-focused, based around a set of modernist principles. When those principles began to be deeply questioned, the movement fell apart. Today, no one outside of architecture schools knows anything about CIAM, but you can bet people have heard of ULI. It would be more than a shame to see CNU follow in the footsteps of CIAM, which is why I think now is a good time to take stock and figure out how to transition to something else.
The good: We've been best individually and collectively when we are designing and building. Most importantly we've shown again how to do so at an incremental pace, to create authentic, successful, long-lasting communities. We should embrace this positive skill set.
The bad: We've been mediocre at best in dealing with public policy. There are legions of reasons for that, not the least of which is we just seem to lack the temperament for it, both individually and collectively. In fact, virtually all of our successes in this area grew out of work with developers, including form-based codes and charrettes. Even tactical urbanism is much more of a business or developer mindset. Public planning and policy requires patience, a top-down approach, and a deep concern for the common good. None of those have been strengths for us. Not to mention, if you want to truly affect public policy at the legislative level, you need at least one of two things: money or numbers. We don't have either. So if that's a goal, one or both of those have to change.
The ugly: A big part of our collective history is that we have had an allergy to any kind of true central organization. This frankly is also a developer (and designer) mentality. Developers love total control and centralization, except if someone else is in charge. IMO this has been a far greater negative for us than a positive.
I would suggest that CNU needs to grow up, not retreat. We should embrace what we're good at, which is design and building, but consciously make an effort to lead the next generation. We need to do so on purpose, not rely on our ideas going viral. We are indeed rich in ideas and passion, but that's not mutually exclusive to having an effective central organization. If we believe that city planning needs the both/and of top-down and bottom-up, we need to practice what we preach in our own efforts. My feeling is that if we don't seize the chance now before the founders all move on to what's next, CNU will indeed be like CIAM and disappear in about 10 years.
Instead I think we have a chance to be a companion (or competitor) to ULI. We would retain our core principles and emphasize small scale, incremental development (artisanal if you like) instead of the big, trendy development projects so loved by the ULI crowd. A core strategy should be to find and create those 10,000 new builder/developers that embrace New Urbanism. It will create members, money and influence, AND most importantly get our principles built.
As to logistics, I don't see the need for us to be in DC, at least not now. It's very expensive, and we lack any kind of real influence in the nation's capitol. Perhaps one day, but not now. It doesn't seem to me there's any compelling reason to do so until we've built some kind of recognizable capacity. If we were to move the HQ, it would make more sense to me to create a presence in a smaller state capitol city, particularly if the city was in a "swing" state politically. That would give us more of a direct presence and a laboratory for our physical and political ideals.
On the Congress, we spend way too much time hand-wringing about what it is. Most conventions are a reflection of the organization and its goals, and ours is as well. It's fun, stimulating and completely and utterly lacking direction or cohesion. It will always be that way, unless the CNU itself changes.
To sum up, I think CNU needs to be both top-down and bottom-up to have any lasting value beyond our books and the few places we've created that are notable. Successful organizations and movements cultivate the energy, ideas and passion from the bottom, and harness that at the top with a clear sense of purpose and organization to attract dollars and create legitimacy. It's time for this 21-year old to become a grown up.