Durable Growth

CNU 23: First impressions

Public art in Dallas

Public art in Dallas

I’ve recently returned from the 23rd annual meeting of the Congress for the New Urbanism.  As always, I return wearied by the long days crammed with information and insights, but full of enthusiasm and new ideas that I’m eager to bring to bear on North Bay land-use issues.

My plan is for CNU 23 to dominate this blog over the next few weeks, but not to the exclusion of North Bay thinking.  I’ll try to walk the fine line between sharing my experiences and keeping an eye on local stuff.

Today, I’ll begin my thoughts from CNU 23.  Next week, I’ll offer a sampling of the best individual comments from the Congress, followed in later weeks by deeper explorations of the content.  But for today, I’ll write only about the theme that struck me most forcibly at CNU 23.

In the past, I’ve found the use of the word “Congress” to describe the group as a slightly curious, although acceptable, word choice.  In my thinking, I was using the “assembly” definition of “congress”.  But in a re-education that began with the first session I attended, I was educated that “Congress” had been selection intended in the more legislative sense.

A CNU Congress is intended as a place where the best and most insightful thinkers about land-use planning can gather to exchange perspectives, to seek common ground, and to consider compromises that give the best syntheses for contemporary urbanism.

(In a humorous note that was made several times during CNU 23, it was remembered that some of CNU founders thought that four Congresses should be sufficient to reconcile any differences and to settle on a single approach to urbanism.  Twenty-three Congresses have now been completed, the next two are already being planned for Detroit and Seattle, and the end of the Congresses is no longer discussed.)

My enhanced education began with Professor Emily Talen talking about the four disparate philosophies that have fed urbanism over the past century and continue to play roles today.  Her terms for the four streams were incremental urbanism, regional planning, zoning, and garden cities.  She traced the roots of each stream and then described the role that each has assumed in contemporary urbanism, including the tensions that remain between them.

This new and more profound understanding of the past and future of urbanism isn’t necessarily a comfortable place to be.  Talen’s vision of urbanism, although it includes bedrock principles, isn’t of a single formulation that can universally applied, but of a philosophy that must constantly evolve as new information is brought to the table and as new situations are faced.

My personal example of this thinking is the connection between climate change and urbanism.  Going back to the founding of CNU, and in my own experience as recently as 2011 when this blog was started, climate change has had a role in the urbanist conversation, but wasn’t necessarily the central factor.

This relationship between urbanism and climate change is now quickly changing, with climate change becoming perhaps the strongest argument for new urbanism.

In the abstract, I’m comfortable with this continual evolution although I find the constant sense of motion to be unsettling at times.

Following Talen, Andres Duany connected this on-going evolution to the CNU membership tallies.  As he described it, the membership total of CNU remains stable at about 3,000 people despite an annual influx of 500 new members.

Duany’s explanation is that 500 people also depart each year, many because of a difficulty of accepting the continual tension between the different urbanist streams.  His belief is that many of the former CNU members have instead joined groups that focus on single aspects of urbanism, such as complete streets or public places.

Duany doesn’t bemoan those who have moved on, but celebrates CNU as the place where cutting edge thinking continues to happen.

I look forward to sharing more about CNU 23 in the coming weeks.

Schedule Reminders

I have two calendar reminders today.

As described in my last post, the agenda for the upcoming meeting of the Petaluma Transit Advisory Committee touches upon aspects of transit funding and regional coordination beyond where the committee agendas often go.  As the committee chair, I can promise discussions that will give grist for further thought.  If this sounds interesting, please join us.  The meeting will be Thursday, May 7 at 4:00pm in the City Council Chambers at City Hall, 11 English Street.

Also, the regular monthly meeting of Petaluma Urban Chat will be Tuesday, May 12, 5:30pm at the Aqus Café, 2nd and H Streets.  I’m awaiting a couple of final confirmations so can’t yet announce the subject, but am planning a topic that I think will interest many.  For now, please put the meeting on your calendar and then look for more details two posts hence.

My next post will come from my recent travels.  My route to Dallas, where CNU 23 was held and where the photo of the public art was taken, was circuitous.  On my way to the Big D, I attended a family wedding in West Virginia, took advantage of a spare day to watch a ballgame in and to wander the downtown of Morgantown, and joined an old friend for an early evening tour of Pittsburgh.  The next post will describe a public plaza in Pittsburgh that caught my attention, although not necessarily in the way the designer intended.

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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