New Urbanists Are Open People and Other Lessons from the Congress for the New Urbanism

This week, I’m attending the Congress for the New Urbanism (CNU), now in it’s 20th year and currently in West Palm Beach Florida from May 9th to 12th. This is my first time attending but CNU has long been influential to my thinking. Many of my books devoted to urban topics are written by prominent leaders of CNU, and many of these authors are speaking or contributing to the conference.  These writers attempt to distill and articulate what really makes cities thrive, and how we went wrong in so much of America.

But CNU is also a movement and an organization that is embracing the need for fresh ideas. A sort of mini conference within the conference on Wednesday known as NextGen, has become an incubating dialogue for younger attendees to foster new ideas or approaches.

A packed house at the CNU Conference. Photo:Gary Kavanagh

It’s difficult to summarize exactly what CNU is and all it encompasses.  CNU is a gathering of very bright minds who give a damn about making our cities and towns more livable. Equally important is creating models to develop urban environments that are sustaining and viable, not just ecologically, but economically. Throwing in the most environmentally benign forms of transportation infrastructure itself isn’t good enough alone. The land use and return on investment served by that infrastructure must be in balance, not just in the short term, but over the long life of repair and eventual replacement of that infrastructure.

As of this writing I’ve been here for two days of CNU20, but I’ve consumed so many new things to think about it cannot adequately be reflected in today’s story.  Here are some things that stand out so far.

Pretty much everyone at CNU is approachable and not only willing but eager to chat, from that person who happens to be sitting next to you at a session, up to the renowned prolific authors or city builders. Whenever I made an effort, I could hop into a dialogue in the halls.  Jumping into any conversation you find interesting is actively encouraged. During “open source sessions,” with small break out groups, one of the few rules is to vote with your feet. If you aren’t either learning or contributing where you are at, walk somewhere else.

It’s also been a pleasure to talk further with Charles Mahron of the organization and influential blog Strong Towns, which has made a big impression on me in the past year.  If you‘re interested in America being a collection of financially viable places, and not a collection of dead end roads to bankruptcy, than you should be interested in what Strong Towns has to say about the balance sheet of our infrastructure investments.

In the Thursday session “Looking Forward: New Urbanism and The New World,” Daniel Solomon, one of the CNU co-founders and a prominent architect and urban designer, quite openly critiqued what he feels is an overly zealous effort to codify new urbanism into it’s own rigid orthodoxy replacing the old rigid orthodoxy. He referred to this effort as the “bureaucratization of virtue.”  In making this critique he takes a few jabs at fellow CNU co-founder Andés Duany, the following speaker, who then has to begin his talk slightly off script and on the defensive. Duany begins by agreeing with what Solomon said.  After begging the audience, “let me elucidate,” he makes a reasoned case for the proper application of coding while allowing flexibility within a larger framework. What was interesting to me about the exchange was that unlike so many organizations and groups of professionals these days, there appears to be a healthy amount of debate and self critique that is openly encouraged.

There is more to say about the experience at CNU, and it’s only half way through, but I also need to sleep at some point so I’ll save more for later. I’m also periodically live tweeting from sessions that I attend on my account@garyridesbikes if you’re interested in more bite size updates. The hashtag #cnu20 also ties into the twitter activity throughout the conference.