Make your Own Dance and Learn from The Rest of Us: Recommendations for the Congress for the New Urbanism members

“Planning was lost to design for so, so many years.  CNU exists because people who cared about design and loved design realized that they needed to take planning back from the non-designers.”

–Jeff Speck, opening comments at Congress for the New Urbanism annual awards presentation in Buffalo, New York, June 2014.


I’m disturbed.  I have been for months.


Ever since my first in-person exposure to the Congress for the New Urbanism a couple of months ago.  I heard a lot of things there that worried me.  And that’s very uncomfortable, because a lot of people I like and admire wholeheartedly endorse CNU.   And I’ve been reading CNU stuff for years.  And I agree with all the principles – restore existing urban centers, diverse neighborhoods, multi transit modes, universally accessible spaces, etc. etc.  Sold.  I am a planner and a historic preservation advocate, after all.

But I saw and heard (or didn’t see and hear) a good deal that worried me.  And I would say that this was perhaps none of my business – I’m not a member, after all – except for a few little facts:


  1. The important principles embedded in CNU can get lost in the backwash of these other issues,
  2. The ability to actually make the kind of impact everyone in CNU wants appears to be hamstrung by these kinds of issues, and
  3. There’s really good people doing good work who are drawing on CNU for ideas and energy, but in some cases these issues are creating damaging blind spots.


There’s been other things written about CNU in the wake of the June event a couple of months ago, and they’ve touched on some of my concerns.  But as we all gear back up for fall, and as organizations that I admire like Strong Towns start to think about how they can make a more meaningful impact, I think it’s time to share these concerns.  And I’ve already taken planners and economic developers to task more than once in my life, so I might as well be an equal opportunity pisser-offer, no?


Here’s what I heard (or didn’t hear) that worried me.  To try to capture more clearly how things struck me at the time, I’m going to somewhat randomly insert direct quotes from my own notes that I took during the Congress.  Those are in italics.


1. We can solve urban problems through design. 

Yes, I know CNU traces its roots to architects.  Yes, I know architects design stuff.  Yes, I know CNU isn’t the only place where you can find architects who think the answer to all social ills is to design stuff.  And yes, I know that the Charter part of CNU says “We recognize that physical solutions by themselves will not solve social and economic problems.”


But if you only allow yourself to use a couple of the tools in the Great Improving Places Toolbox, then every problem looks like the hammer and screwdriver that happen to be the ones you picked up.


Which is fine if your goal is to Make Really Cool Stuff With a Hammer and A Screwdriver.


But if you’re serious about trying to address the complex issues that urban places face, you have to learn to use more of the tool box.  You have to learn how to use the hammer in combination with the needle nose pliers and the tin snips.


From where I sit, this looks like a big part of why CNU supporters and other New Urbanists so often get accused of being elitists – As an example, obsessing over things like bike lanes and overlooking the real life barriers that make bike travel options an arguably minor issue for a large proportion of people who live in a community.


To grossly mix metaphors, it’s a tone deafness brought on by a certain tunnel vision.


To be fair, urban planners are certainly capable of this, too, and I’ve chewed out economic developers for taking a ridiculously simplistic view of how a local economy works before, as well.


Tweet from someone: “go to the best Main Streets. Measure them and feel them. They were built before the automobile.
#NextUrbanism #CNU22”


BUT… “The best Main Streets” often don’t look much at all like they did before the automobile.  They’ve all been changed. 


The world does not work the way it did when they were built.  There were problems with urban places. There was a reason our grandparents’ generation left when they had the chance.  Have we fully understood and addressed those?  “Bad highways” over simplifies it.


What does an architect’s education include?  I don’t think architects and landscape architects (and a lot of physical planners, for that matter) are taught social/cultural history.  Or cultural geography – how places came to be the way they are and how they reflect the history of the people who shaped them.  If you don’t have that kind of long term view, it’s easy to glom on to simplistic assumptions about what people want, mostly based on people who look and sound like you, and try to take that to the bank. 



2. Hero worship.


This is probably as much a factor of the history of the architecture profession as anything else.  There’s a whole different level of gooing and gawing over some Grand Wizard Founder dude (mostly dudes) in the CNU world than in any other professional group I’ve ever encountered.  Yes, I know, I didn’t go to architecture school.


Apparently at the time, the whole thing reminded me of the Emperor’s New Clothes fable:


The Emperors’ clothes are perhaps not missing, but much more tattered than they and acolytes want to admit.  I have known too many designers whose spent years fixing the Grand Designer’s oversights and errors.


I know that the Founders did good stuff.  Like I said, I buy the principles of the Charter.

But hero worship is at odds with critical thinking.  It’s works against any efforts to seriously explore new ideas, to address the question of how to make a meaningful impact on how people live, especially if (as the Charter says) Design is not the Only Answer.  And it creates hubris and blocks collaboration (more on that in a minute).


Hunter S. Thompson said one time that he thought America was raising a “generation of dancers” – meaning, a generation of people who couldn’t think for themselves and could only follow a pattern of steps that someone else had laid out for them.  Which is a good way to look graceful, but useless for trying to change anything.


There is a growing group of (mostly younger) folks within CNU who are trying to expand the model, address the broader range of issues that block community success more successfully, doing exciting things around building a better understanding of the impact of places on economies and people’s real lives.  But at this moment, it seems like they are barely sticking their toes out of the outlines of the footsteps of the dance. Making a truly meaningful impact on the issues that this contingent says that they want to address requires the willingness to improvise on the dance.  But if you’ve convinced yourself that the dance leader is Fred Astaire, you will have a hard time growing the bravery to do that.


Some huge egos floating around here… Lots of quoting each other in familiar tone



3. Hubris. 

Yes, this kind of goes with the hero worship.  Or maybe it’s an outgrowth of the belief that Design Will Solve All.  Or it’s an architect thing.  Don’t know.  What I do know is that there seems to be a lack of ability to admit that you might be wrong.  You might, possibly, be way wrong.  You never really know.


To my ears, CNU has a tendency to a disturbingly close variation on the blind devotion to the Big Plan that led to the damages and excesses of urban renewal.  If you’re a whole lot younger than me, you might have only read about that as a glancing reference in some glossed over college textbook.  If you’re older than me, you may have seen those destructive impacts first hand.


What we sometimes forget, and what the allure of the Big Plan cakes over, is that the people who proposed Urban Renewal used the same grand language, the same sweeping gestures, the same gross oversimplification of cause and effect in real human places that paints much of the rhetoric of the New Urbanism today.  In the 1950s, we probably didn’t know that communities were so complicated, so perhaps our predecessors can be forgiven.  But we don’t have that excuse today.



“The next #CharterAward is seriously long on guts. Notre Dame architecture’s new plan of Chicago

Dear God…Looks like that “plan” takes out half the buildings in the Loop!!!  F’ in shit…..


They aren’t giving an award for a regional plan this year.  They don’t think any of the proposals were grand or visionary enough.  Really?  Really?? Have you ever _tried_ to make a plan for a region? It’s a lot more complicated than drawing a nice picture….



4. Us versus Them


Maybe this is the biggest problem, or the root of the rest.  I know CNU grew out of a sense of being the outcasts from “conventional” planning, that these were the revolutionaries, the radicals, the New.  But we all know how relevant an aging revolutionary is after a few decades.


A lot of people are working on the question of how to make cities better.  They come to the question from all sorts of perspectives – social, economic, cultural, technology, you name it.  They’re working on improving employment opportunities, increasing people’s connection to their neighbors, gathering and making sense of data that might help us better understand how cities actually do work…all things that either find a comfortable home in the Charter or closely resonate to something in it.

Except that CNU doesn’t seem to be working with any of them.


At the organizational, thought leader level, does CNU ever ask other people, other perspectives, to join them in defining what these terms mean in _their_ context?  Do they ever try to build bridges between their interests and the other types of people and organizations working on these issues?  

Where is the interface with ICIC?  Brookings? Next City?  With organizations that are trying to address problems of urban disinvestment?


If you care so damn much about urban places, why aren’t you taking to them?


That us v. them mentality has the ancient benefit of building a “tribe” where believers can feel safe, but we all know that this means closing off outside ideas as well.


Why did I just apologize for being a mom and living in a suburb?  Am I implicitly supporting a groupthink?


“Surface parking lot villain??”



I have spent most of my career and most of my written words over the past few years arguing for fundamental changes in how we make decisions that affect the future of communities.  I fight regularly for better information and decision-making methods, more meaningful and broader engagement of the whole range of people who can help find solutions (including plain old residents), and ways to build the connections and resilience of a community by growing a robust and relevant local economy.  I find bits of all of these in the Charter, and in the good work of many people who proudly claim a CNU affiliation.

But there’s a whole lot of work to be done, and sometimes in life our own history and assumptions get in the way of what we deeply want to achieve.  So here’s my challenge to CNU members:

  • Create space for critical re-evaluation.  Improvise on the dance.  Decide for yourselves what’s important and what’s getting in the way.  Don’t accept something just because a Big Name told you so.  That’s how we got the last few sets of Big Mistakes.


  • Build relationships with others who are working to make communities better.  Not just design and design-near types. But people who can’t draw a stick figure and are focused on issues like finding jobs for people.  I don’t know what exactly will happen, but I’ll bet you it will make your work, and your community, better.


  • Admit what you don’t know.  Actively seek new ideas.  Bring the folks who are exploring small scale, experimental approaches, like Tactical Urbanism, out of the fringes.  Use those as not just Cool Things that We Can Actually Do On Budgets That Don’t Look Like They Did in 2006, but use them as ways to test and learn.  That will require admitting that sometimes an idea that looked great on paper didn’t quite work out in real life.  Because, you know, human communities are messy and we’re still trying to figure out how they work.


In a sense, what CNU is facing is all part of the big sea change that all of the community professions and interest groups are going through.  Economic developers are asking themselves why big business recruitment hasn’t worked, historic preservation people are trying to figure out where they fit in a world where hundreds of thousands of old buildings stand vacant, community development people are trying to find ways to help communities do something other than affordable housing, philanthropies are trying to figure out how to make a real difference on the very tough problems that simply giving money to haven’t solved.

We’re in a time of enormous change and upheaval, and upheavals don’t favor the insular, the self-important or the simplistic.

So come on along with the rest of us.  We promise we’ll find plenty of common ground.  The Charter shows us that.  We just all need to live up to it.

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