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Highlights from CNU XIV, Providence, RI


Greetings to my new urbanist and developer friends who were unable to attend CNU XIV. I have done my best to summarize a few highlights and useful tips gathered at this year’s Congress, held June 1-5 in Providence, Rhode Island. Of course, it is impossible to capture the full breadth of learning and inspiration that occurs at this premier gathering of urban visionaries.

My teachers for the week included:

· Jed Selby , 27-year old wunderkind developer of riverfront South Main in Buena Vista, Colorado. Jed & sister Katie are developing the first kayaking-focused TND.

· Christopher Alexander , famed (and long-winded) architect-author of “A Pattern Language” and other expensive volumes.

· Leon Krier , visionary French architect and urbanist

· The Honorable John Prescott, Deputy Prime Minister of Great Britain

· Andres Duany , Duany Plater-Zyberk & Co.

· Lee Sobel , US Environmental Protection Agency

· Doug Storrs , developer of Mashpee Commons

· Yaromir Steiner , developer of CocoWalk, Easton Town Center, and more

· Marilyn Taylor , Skidmore Owings & Merrill, Chairman of Urban Land Institute

· Marianne Cusato , designer of the now-famous “Katrina Cottage” for homeless residents of the Gulf Coast (Marianne also designs “society homes” for New York’s wealthiest).

· The developers & architects of Stapleton, CO; Celebration, FL; and Poundbury, UK

· And many others!

With this year’s focus on developers and implementation, I heard many stories of how good design of buildings and neighborhoods result in exceptional profit. More than a few panelists and speakers from the development and construction communities emphasized that they are New Urbanists first because it pays, and second because it’s a philosophy with which they can identify.

At the same time, this year’s Congress focused more than ever on affordable housing. CNU members recognize that the great success of NU communities only garners us more criticism for failing to serve the underprivileged. The greatest growth in homelessness is among WORKING FAMILIES. “Worker housing” is a phrase which is increasingly used in discussing ways that workers at low-paying jobs can live in close proximity to their jobs. We need affordability other than what Todd Zimmerman calls “drive ‘til you qualify.”

With CNU’s landmark response to the hurricane ravaged coast, we have begun to change the nature of the the housing discussion in the United States. There is no reason that small, affordable homes cannot also be well designed. This is proved by the incredible desire across multiple markets for the “Katrina Cottage.” The wealthy are seeking to recreate this affordable-housing design for their mountain vacation cottages; the middle class are building them as alley rental apartments to generate additional income in West Coast neighborhoods, and the poorest of the poor will begin receiving these well-designed cottages from FEMA. CNU XIV celebrated the return of dignity to affordable housing.

Marilyn Taylor, Chairman of the Urban Land Institute and a partner in the famed architecture firm Skidmore Owings and Merrill, shared statistics that will define our world in the next 20 years. In 2007, for the first time in history, more than one-half of the world’s population will live in cities. By 2030, the United States population will increase by 90 million people. Density is no longer an option. Good design must supercede the bad impression that the word makes on most Americans. Why do eight million people CHOOSE to live in Manhattan, asks Marilyn?

Speaking of density: Hong Kong has 74,000 people per square mile. New York City has a meager 26,000 people / mi square.

Finally, I’ll close with a new spin on New Urbanism from Andres Duany. What New Urbanists do is simply “assemble and connect what would be built anyway.” We assemble the parts into a whole which

  • Increases walkability
  • Increases compactness
  • Increases diversity

CNU is composed of diverse practitioners who are not afraid to look at the big picture, and embrace the full complexity of city-building. We refuse to oversimplify, and we welcome anyone to our ranks who is willing to engage in this level of discourse. (Amen, Rev. Duany.)

Please make sure to see other postings on specific topics extracted from the Congress. I’d also be happy to share more specifics on any of the sessions I attended.

Also, CNU Next Gen member Mike Lydon has written a good summary here: http://www.planetizen.com/node/20049

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