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CNU 22: Some questions, some food for thought

The Congress for the New Urbanism is now 22 years old. The annual gathering this year is in Buffalo, and I'm sorry to say I won't be attending. It's always my favorite conference/gathering of the year, and I'll miss the many friends and colleagues that attend. I've written this in the past about the CNU, which I would still gladly repeat:

Why do I do this? What's special about CNU, compared to other professional organizations like AIA, APA, or even ULI?

For me, it's quite simple. CNU is THE place where the best, brightest and most thoughtful professionals come together - of all stripes. CNU is not just planners or architects talking to each other. It's where people who care about a set of principles and ideals (the Charter) all get together to try and figure out the best ways to get it done. Getting it done - that's a big deal with the CNU, not just talking and hoping.

Over the years, the discussions have ranged from the idealistic to the technical, but it's almost always been focused on achieving our aims. Always stimulating, CNU has been a key area for me to explore my passion, and a way for me to connect with others around the country and the world who feel the same way.

I say - join in the conversation. We love nothing more than a good debate, an intelligent challenge, and learning from someone who's doing it.

This is also a year of change for CNU. Lynn Richards takes the helm as President & CEO, replacing John Norquist and his ten years at the helm.

I wrote a piece last year titled, "What's next for CNU?" which expressed some thoughts about where the organization was headed in preparation for CNU 21 in Salt Lake City. Here's one excerpt:

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.

I'm just one voice of many, but as a member for 17 years and attendee to (I think) 15 Congresses, I do think I have a fair amount of perspective on things. And so, since I can't attend this year, I must insist on throwing some raw meat out there, in hopes it can be chewed on in the conference halls and streets of Buffalo. Here are some questions I have for CNU leadership in particular as it heads into a new era:

  1. How will CNU prioritize its limited resources? This isn't ULI, APA or AIA, after all, and has a small staff with limited funds. What specific priorities will be put forward, and as a consequence, what will be set aside? 
  2. Related to #1, should CNU move its HQ to an expensive but influential locale, such as Washington, DC, remain in Chicago, or move to a cheaper location where it can be a big fish?
  3. What is *more* important - winning hearts and minds or changing rules/standards/legislation?
  4. The original founders of CNU still exert enormous personal influence and presence on the organization. They deserve the spotlight, as they are all very accomplished. BUT - what is the plan to move forward? If a Congress in 2020 still is dominated by those same personalities, is it a success for them or a failure for the organization?

And, just for some, here's some food for CNU and NU thought and unfiltered opinions from yours truly:

  • The New Urbanism as a practice needs editing. We can't save or fix everything, nor should we. A great flaw of the modern era was to apply the ideals to everything, including historic cities. We should be careful to do the same. To that end, I'd generally say: let suburbia be suburbia. The early suburbs, before the interstate era, are ripe for improvement. Certainly some shopping malls and office parks can be made into town centers. But the push to make everything walkable does us more harm than good as a movement. Let's just let late suburbia be the best suburbia it can be.
  • Yes, I still think the focus primarily should be on more builders, more developers, more designers. Find them, train them, get them working. They'll make change at the local level, which will in turn make change beyond.
  • Now that we're older and wiser, it's time to get past those youthful desires to try and convince established players to do it differently. Whether it's big-box retail, drugstores, home builders, etc - our energies would be far better spent on working with people who already want to do it. Teach them how to do it well and make money - that's where there's power for change. Build on the entrepreneurial spirit bubbling up with tactical urbanism, Strong Towns and more.
  • Don't be like others and use lame data and surveys. We have a great case to make, we don't need to manufacture studies.
  • From a design standpoint, it's time to move beyond some early NU practices and theories. Many of those were built around the notion that we had to accommodate cars as much as possible, which was reality. But reality is changing quickly. A few things that need to go: A/B streets, large block sizes for mid-block parking garages, deference to big-box retail and the idea that bikes need special infrastructure only rarely. A few things we should embrace: pedestrian-only streets (version 2.0), respect for formal grids and American urbanism before the 1890's.

I hope everyone has a great weekend, CNU sparks much lively debate & festivities; and for those I know well: I'll catch you next year.

Development from the bottom-up

4 views of transportation in America 6.0

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