CNU and Living in the Past
The other day I caught a great episode of The Moth podcast featuring author Walter Mosley, titled “Let that weight go,” which you can listen to here: http://themoth.org/posts/stories/let-that-weight-go At the beginning he said,
“The older you are, the more you live in the past. And, that everybody, every person, as they live, every man and every woman, they’re going forward through the years and the decades, and they’re still influenced by these things behind them. These things are no longer true, they no longer really have validity, they’re no longer what’s real in the world today. But we can’t help it, we drag these things with us.”
In a similar vein, blogging tour-de-force Andrew Sullivan has this George Orwell quote at the top of his page,
“To see what is in front of one’s nose needs a constant struggle.”
Those quotes have struck a strong chord with me lately. Now well into my fourth decade, it’s obvious to me that Orwell, Sullivan and Mosley display the wisdom that comes from having lived long enough to deeply understand human nature. We carry with us an awful lot of emotion and thinking from our formative years, and it’s difficult as we age to keep our minds open to new realities.
I think of this when I consider how people can be so very rigid in their views, whether it comes to politics, business, culture and more. We carry with us some very definitive views and most people seem to double-down on those as they age, instead of opening up to the possibility that things are different. Those people who don’t exhibit those qualities seem rare, and are people that I admire.
Want a quick example of this phenomenon? In the world of real estate, the majority of builders, developers, realtors and more will still talk about parking and easy car access as the be-all, end-all of a successful project. Most of them simply refuse to acknowledge that, while that may have been true ten years ago, it’s not so true anymore. Technology, culture and preferences are all shifting, and with it go a previous era’s “rules” for success. It’s a little bit like someone insisting that a business still needs phone and fax lines.
But I also think about this in relation to an organization I’ve been proud to be associated with for 16 years now, the Congress for the New Urbanism.
This week, I’m attending and speaking at the 21st Congress for the New Urbanism in Salt Lake City, Utah. Twenty-one years is a substantial amount of time for any organization to exist. If an organization reaches that age, it means it’s likely found new blood beyond the original founders, and has a mission that’s been relevant in three different decades. That’s quite an accomplishment for anything or anyone.
But I can’t help but wonder lately if CNU, like much of urban America, is at a crossroads. And, what if anything, will this 21-year old mature into? Will it grow into a refined adult and take its place along long-standing professional associations like AIA, APA, ULI and ASLA? Or, will it be like a band that had several hit albums years ago, but eventually breaks up and fades away (with the inevitable reunion tour in ten or fifteen years)?
From my perspective, the fault lines, divisions and lack of clarity seem sharper now than at any previous time. Much of this is the byproduct of success. The principles originally espoused by the Charter are largely planning dogma now. People are embracing urban lifestyles in ways that were hoped for, but not envisioned, twenty to thirty years ago. The sharing economy and technology are enabling a twenty-first century version of urbanity that seems very hopeful.
Faced with this new reality, the CNU as a group seems not sure exactly what to do or where to focus its energies. Initiatives such as tactical urbanism, agricultural urbanism, sprawl repair, freeway teardowns, housing reform and so much more are all now part of the agenda. This “we can fix everything” attitude is bombastic and noble. And, no doubt, it’s also naive. When any group, business or person sets out to do everything well, it ends up doing almost nothing well. As someone interested in way too many things, I know this feeling quite well.
Interestingly enough, there seems to also exist a core group within the CNU that longs for an earlier, romantic time. That early time had great camaraderie, spirited debate and a sense of “us against the world.” And, in fact, that was the original need and goal for the group.
But is that really the need today? The world has changed and New Urbanism has changed. Are we seeing what is in front of our noses?
So, what should a fiery group of self-described radicals do? Close up shop and move on to the next thing? Become key parts of the power structure? It seems that big changes are afoot. I hope this week provides some insight.
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