The Next 25 Years of New Urbanism
Kevin's Note: Continuing a series, these are expanded remarks from CNU 25 in Seattle, where I was asked to speak on the "Next 25 Years of New Urbanism," along with a panel of other invited guests.
I was told earlier by Nathan Norris that I need to speak for "Gen X" on this panel. I find that a difficult task, but since demographers only think there's about six of us in the whole country, it might be easier than I would guess. In any case, I'll keep my Gen X skepticism to a minimum.
At an rate, I think it's hard not to reflect on the previous of 25 years of New Urbanism and realize how amazing work has been completed. Ideas that were laughed out of meetings two decades ago have now become widely accepted in the planning profession and certainly in the real estate market.
Here's the thing, though: even after all of our successes, we just aren't achieving scale, especially for high-quality urbanism. That's especially so for the typical American cities, which are where I have spent most of my life and career. The market demand is there but not the implementation. As I see it, the problem is that most of our big systems, whether they be public, academic, private or NGO, are just too broken to fix. The right person in the right job can definitely make a big difference, and i would never dissuade someone from trying. If one of you can become the Mayor of your city or a key decision-maker, by all means do everything you can.
But the problem clearly is that once that person is gone, the system failures start working their way back to the forefront. Large organizations especially regress once a dynamic, thoughtful individual moves on. I'm amazed that after so much evidence, so many colleagues that I respect and admire still believe we can make some of our big Systems actually work for fine-grained and quality urbanism. I just don't see it anymore, and I don't honestly believe it's possible.
We've spent a lot of time trying to fix big systems over the years, and my first and most important proposal is that we should just stop doing that. Our energies and talents are best spent working on solutions that can happen outside of large, broken bureaucracies. CNU has never been a particularly large or well-heeled group of people. What we have been is smart, feisty, entrepreneurial and principle-driven. Those things all still matter, and in fact may matter even more in the years to come. Let's enhance that, not run away from it.
So in terms of specific suggestions, I want to leave you all with two. Since I'm a firm believer in working the bottom-up and top-down levers both (with an admitted preference for bottom-up), I'll do one of each.
For the "Bottom Up," we need to relentlessly pursue helping to create 10,000 new developers in this country. And by that I mean 10,000 developers with an understanding and appreciation for small-scale, traditional urbanism. This is America, and we have to realize that that's how politics and government processes here ultimately change. Related to this, we need to embrace and be less afraid of market economics. I'm still often surprised at the ignorance of basic economics with much of our work and advocacy, and I'd personally like to see more of the Market Urbanism group folded into our work. A final point on this is that this approach is how we'll get better architecture. Creating more and better clients who appreciate what we do is a far better use of our time than trying to convince people that don't really get it or care.
For the "Top Down,", we need to regroup and spend all of our energy to break the transportation paradigm. Despite 25 years of work, it endures as the single most damaging aspect of city and region building. This system continues to crush our spirits with regularity, despite so much writing, case studies and advocacy. In order to break this paradigm, we may have to embrace and make peace with some atypical New Urbanist solutions. For example, there are ideas from the 1950's and 1960's that may have more relevance now that the market has turned and people are returning to cities. The key tactic is that we need to build larger constituencies of people that will ultimately live car-free or car-light lifestyles, and do it much more quickly. If we don't, I fear that we'll lose out on an historic opportunity.
So that is all to say that the next 25 years (or even just the next 5) should focus specifically on how and where we can create excellence, in fairly small areas. Chris Leinberger said that even in Boston the region only needs 10% of the land area to accommodate the demand for walkable urbanism. Let's continue to shape new systems that make that 10% really great, and not waste precious time and energy on big, inflexible systems. Let's get back to our roots of building the alternate system since the current one can't be tweaked to achieve quality change quickly.