Durable Growth, Education

CNU 22: Techno narcissism

Former single-family home near Buffalo Niagara Convention Center, reflecting faded urban glory of Buffalo

Former single-family home near Buffalo Niagara Convention Center, reflecting faded urban glory of Buffalo

I returned a few days ago from CNU 22, the 22nd annual meeting of the Congress for the New Urbanism.  The conference was filled with urbanist ideas and will lead to many blog posts.  Going to a CNU annual meeting to learn more about urbanism is like standing under nearby Niagara Falls to slake a thirst.

This will be my third post based on CNU 22.  I began with some broad insights about urbanism that were honed by the conference.

Next, I began to focus in a little more tightly on urbanist themes, but not in depth.  Just short snippets of conversations or observations to give a flavor of the conference.  That’s the mode in which I’ll continue today.

Eventually, I’ll delve more deeply into to the CNU 22 content, but that level of analysis is still more than a week away.  For today, it’s strictly snapshots.

Techno Narcissism: I’ve written about James Howard Kunstler on multiple occasions, including a review of his book The Geography of Nowhere and his response to the Chris Christie bridge controversy in New Jersey.

At various times, I’ve described Kunstler as an urbanist rabble-rouser or an urbanist flame-thrower.  But at CNU 22, I decided that he was more the urbanist Hunter S. Thompson.  The image was cemented when he attended an early Saturday presentation, deep in the bowels of the convention center in a partially dimmed room far from sunlight, wearing the darkest possible sunglasses.  Perhaps he was hiding the damage from a busy Friday night.  Perhaps he was burnishing an image.  Either way, he made a statement.

But he’d made his greatest mark at CNU 22 when he spoke at a plenary session the day before.  He’s a fiery and compelling speaker.  As the speaker after him noted, the scariest three words on the urbanism speaking circuit are, “You follow Kunstler.”

He made numerous outrageous and incendiary comments, reminding me that I’m happy he’s on my side of the debate, not the other.

But that one comment that stuck out for me was his description of the vertical farms that have been proposed by a handful of architects.  The concept is large, multi-million-dollar green walls dedicated to growing produce for the population.  It seemed an odd and unnecessary idea to me, filling a need that could be met far more cost-effectively on an acre of bare land at the city fringes.  I suspected that architectural egos were overwhelming common sense.

Kunstler wasn’t as temperate in his response.  He described the concept as “techno narcissist bullshit”.

Not the words I would have chosen, but not ones with which I would disagree either.

(For the record, Kunstler is fine with urban gardens, using the flat rooftops that would otherwise sit empty.  It’s only the expensive vertical farms that attract his disdain.)

(Also for the record, I share most of Kunstler’s concerns about the path of civilization, but not the full extent of his pessimism.  I expect that we’ll muddle through with less catastrophic disruption than he does.  Although it’s past time to start muddling in the right direction.)

Under-Representation of Engineers:   On the first day of the conference, I attended a session on tactical urbanism, which is comprised of small-scale, low-cost interventions that try to prove up the concepts of urbanism without significant risk.

As the half-day session got underway, the organizers asked for a show of hands about the backgrounds of the participants.  Not surprisingly, most were urban planners, architects, or community activists.  But it was still disappointing that in a crowd of fifty-some people, there were only two engineers, including me.

I suspect that much of the conference had a similar ratio.  It’s a shame that more engineers don’t look at the bigger picture.  Perhaps it’s an indictment of the engineering education system.  Perhaps it’s the nature of the folks who are attracted to engineering as a career.  Either way, I’m pleased to fall several standard deviations from the mean.

Daffodils: At the tactical urbanism session, a community organizer from near Buffalo described a clandestine traffic project undertaken by him and his cohorts.  It was a great story that I’ll describe more fully in another post.

The climax came when the group, in the dead of the night, marked out an alternative curb line, trying to slow traffic and to improve pedestrian safety.  In addition to white paint, they marked the new line with orange traffic cones screwed into the pavement.

Then, to ensure that the citizens understood that it hadn’t been the public works department doing the work, the vigilante traffic engineers put a daffodil into each cone before they disappeared into the night.

To me, the thought of orange traffic cones topped with yellow daffodils is an enduring mental image of tactical urbanism.

IOBY:  An organization has been founded to help with crowd-funding of tactical urbanist projects.  The founder spoke at the tactical urbanist session, noting that her company accomplishes two goals, raising money and raising public awareness to opportunities and challenges.  She suspected that the latter will ultimately prove more important.

But the fun part was the name she chose for her organization.  Recognizing that NIMBYism (Not in My Back Yard) is often the opponent of tactical urbanism, she called her effort IOBY for “In Our Backyard”.   I love the message.

In my next post, more on CNU 22.

As always, your questions or comments will be appreciated.  Please comment below or email me.  And thanks for reading. – Dave Alden (davealden53@comcast.net)

Written by Dave Alden

Dave Alden

Dave Alden is a Registered Civil Engineer. A University of California graduate, he has worked on energy and land-use projects in California, Oregon, and Washington. He was also the president of a minor league baseball team for two seasons. He lives on the west side of Petaluma with his wife and two dogs. The blog that he writes can be found at http://northbaydesignkit.blogspot.com.

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