Americans are used to thinking big, especially when it comes to what we build. The idea that we should think small is a difficult one to accept, especially for those used to working on a grand scale. It by by focusing on the fine-grained changes, however, that we can not only adapt to new economic realities but unleash a million sympathetic hands to make positive changes across the entire country.
I was really fortunate to have the opportunity to spend the weekend in Montgomery, Alabama, at the New Urbanism Council, a gathering of like-minded individuals all (theoretically) looking to take a self-critical look inward for the betterment of the New Urbanism cause. Having come to the New Urbanist party later than most of those in the room, I may not be in the best position to put current practice into any type of historical context. As the relative newbie, however, I may be seeing things with a fresh set of eyes.
Those eyes reaffirm something I mentioned in my CNU coverage this year and last; namely that the changing economy is forcing some difficult transitions, not only in the types of projects but in the way those gathered are able to practice their profession. And the fault line of disagreement on what we should all be doing next very much comes back to where one stands on the major question of the day:
Are we going through a cyclical event that will have a recovery or does this economic tumult we experience mark a transition to a new and different -- and far more austere -- state of being?
This is not a question unique to the New Urbanists. People of all professions are asking this same thing. In fact, two weeks ago when I spoke at the Minnesota Chapter of the American Planning Association I could not help but sense the underlying tension around this very issue. Everyone wants things to be okay, to go back to the days when, in retrospect, it was all so easy. It has given me this sad vision of the zoner (my word for the modern day planner) standing at the glass window, peering outside in the hopes that someone will show up with a permit application.
The fire hose analogy was used a number of times this weekend by those holding to the cyclical event mindset to describe what is going on. "Before we were drinking out of a fire hose...." "When the fire hose is turned back on...." "When this garden hose turns back into a fire hose...." These are some of the most brilliant, thoughtful and introspective people I have met, but none of that makes them immune to wishful thinking.
I'm clearly in the transition camp. Looking back whatever distance one cares to, it is clear that we have lived through an accelerating anomaly, a unique experience made possible by a set of transient conditions. That acceleration -- in a mathematical sense, an exponential growth pattern -- came to feel like a normal state of being for many of us. The year 1985 was crazy great, until we got to 1990, which was even better. Then came 1995 -- wow -- and then 2000 topped that. Then when it didn't seem like things could grow any faster or get any crazier, we hit 2005. The idea of going back to 1985, which was great at the time, is now really scary. The idea of going back to the development approach of 1895 is terrifying.
In recent years, complete idiots became respected developers overnight and were making millions doing, mindless assembly line development. It was not hard for some of the brightest among us to be caught up in this. Lots of money was thrown our way to do brilliant, master-planned communities. Even more money was given to fools to do lesser work.
That's not where the future lies. And it is not where New Urbanism is at its best. The New Urbanist approach is the only one I have found that is able to get granular, to work on the micro-scale. It is the only operating system that is truly fractal, where the city can be built starting with the building and the street, assembling into blocks, growing into neighborhoods and then connecting into an ecosystem of a city.
New Urbanism is the only approach I am aware of that lends itself to the tactical. While I was at the Council in Montgomery, my NextGen soul mates were in New York at the Tactical Urbanism Salon. They were demonstrating the power of a DoTank, which is like a think tank except, instead of wasting time talking about what should be done, they get out and do it. Every city -- every neighborhood -- needs a DoTank.
New Urbanism is the only approach that empowers the swarm. Something's not working on your block? Fix it. Need to make change in your neighborhood? Do it. The fractal nature of it means that we don't need to wait for the government or for some well-funded developer to come in and transform everything. The New Urbanist city fits together like Darwin's coral reef; it grows and evolves and builds on the work of others, always filling in the gaps with something that works.
This was the approach we used when we were a much poorer country. It is an approach that allowed us to build some of the most beautiful places the United States has ever seen, places we destroyed with the heavy-handed approach we've used in the auto era. And it was a financially-resilient system, a sharp contrast to the too-big-to-fail, Ponzi scheme mess we've gotten ourselves into at every level today.
My favorite quote from the weekend came from my fellow NextGen'r Eliza Harris (Twitter) who, in a quick response, said,
"It used to be build it and they will come. Now it is occupy it and it will be rebuilt."
We have a lot to rebuild. If we embrace the financial implications of this transition, it will no doubt be scary, but we can put ourselves in position -- nationwide with a loose coalition of doers -- to start repairing the individual lots, buildings, streets and blocks that will ultimately form the neighborhoods that will make this country truly strong.
That is the vision of the Strong Towns movement. It is a concept that is bigger than one grand development, as important and amazing as that place may be and as instrumental in getting us to this point of understanding as those projects have been. The Strong Towns vision -- as well as the Tactical Urbanism vision and other similar approaches -- includes every space that someone cares about and wants to make better.
Occupy it and it will be rebuilt. Not by one brilliant planner but by a million different hands. Let's do it.
Charles Marohn is a Professional Engineer licensed in the State of Minnesota and a member of the American Institute of Certified Planners. He is president of Strong Towns, a non-partisan, non-profit organization that advocates for changes in development patterns and a complete understanding of the full costs of methods of growth. Strong Towns is seeking tax-deductable, $25 donations from 100 readers to create a video version of its Curbside Chat presentation.
For more in-depth coverage on this topic:
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• See the July-August 2011 issue of New Urban News. Downtown makeover, agrarian urbanism, bike sharing, bike-ped issues, TIGER III livability grants, unlocking remnant land value, selling the neighborhood, Landscape Urbanism vs. New Urbanism, new urban resort, granny flats, The Great Reset.
• See the June 2011 issue of New Urban News. Mid-rise living, elevated walkways, Jane Jacobs and observational urbanism, Affordable transit-oriented development, the coming housing calamity, rental and TOD to dominate market, New Town in bankruptcy, regional approach for high-speed rail, the civic costs of sprawl, redevelopment of mall
• See the April-May 2011 issue of New Urban News. Transit-oriented development, “Cycle tracks,” gentrification versus revitalization, HUD grants, economic silver linings, light rail development, pocket neighborhoods, Close-in Maryland housing less expensive, transit outperforms green buildings, Charter Awards, shift to smaller stores