Updating the Charter Book: Same mission, broader scope

Emily Talen, Better! Cities & Towns

Note: May 5th is the 16th anniversary of the signing of the Charter of the New Urbanism.

Victor Dover called a few months ago to ask if I wanted to be the editor for a revised edition of the Charter Book.  I think I was asked not because I am a Charter expert, but because I am well versed in the book publishing process. Since I’m first and foremost an academic and therefore highly attuned to the publishing game, Victor might have also assumed I have the stomach for it. As everyone knows, an edited volume such as this is the ultimate herding cats experience.

Fortunately, this is a book with a strong, clear purpose. Contributors seem motivated and focused. In fact, I think it’s quite extraordinary that the contributors to the original book – some 30 authors – have agreed to revise their original texts. 

Peter Katz recently recounted the story of CNU and its Charter – how the list of 27 principles evolved out of the Awahnee Principles and was ultimately ratified in 1996 at CNU IV in Charleston. But unlike the Charter principles, the Charter Book, published two years later in 1998 and called simply Charter of the New Urbanism, is a more fluid document, complete with personal appraisals, illustrations and commentaries. 

Despite the high value of this material, an update is long overdue. One reason is that  the book is no longer in print, which means a copy on Amazon costs about $200. A new book contract has now been signed (with McGraw-Hill), and the revised Charter Book will hit the shelves by Spring, 2013 – in plenty of time before CNU 2013 in Salt Lake City. (This year's CNU 20 will start Wednesday, May 9, in West Palm Beach, Florida).

But another, more important reason for a new edition is that the explanatory text of the original Charter Book needs updating. The revised book will add more commentaries, illustrations and viewpoints designed to include what the authors of the first version could not have foreseen. Consider all the terms and concepts that are nowhere to be found in the Charter Book:

• Climate change and global warming
• Location efficiency
• Pedestrian sheds
• Charrette (mentioned only once, and in passing)
• The Transect
• The SmartCode
• Form-based codes
• Retrofitting Sprawl
• Tactical Urbanism

When the Charter Book was written, there was no 9-11, no Hurricane Katrina, no global recession. The social media revolution hadn’t started: no facebook, no youtube, no twitter. There were no books about the “creative class”, or “cradle to cradle” or  “complete streets.” No one had calculated a walkscore or a location efficient mortgage. No one had engaged with the likes of Joel Kotkin and Wendell Cox. Jane Jacobs was alive and well.

It speaks well of the Charter Principles, despite all of these profound changes in the world, that it is still a highly relevant set of ideals. I am not surprised by this. The principles have a timeless quality to them. I appreciate Peter Katz’s version of CNU’s origins, but the Charter’s timelessness is based on some fundamentals about the requirements of the human habitat that extend much further back than the 1980s – these are urban principles that haven’t changed fundamentally since the 19th century, when visionaries were compelled to respond to the incivilities of the industrial age. Thus there are connections to Haussman’s Paris, Howard’s Garden Cities, the regionalism of the RPAA, the Chicago Plan, the Manhattan grid, and the organized complexity of Jane Jacobs. Consolidating the best of these ideas under one umbrella is the Charter’s unique contribution. The goal of the accompanying book is to weave this story together in the best way possible.

But – despite the enduring nature of these principles – the project is not all said and done. Someone once said that the US Constitution was not, as might be supposed, an unalterable statement that would make democracy run smoothly. It was instead an invitation to debate. I see the Charter this way, too – as a living, breathing document capable of absorbing new realities and responding to change. Updating the commentary that flows around the fundamentals is one way to ensure that the Charter itself remains alive and resilient.

The main challenge for the Charter of the New Urbanism, Second Edition, will be to incorporate new ideas, reflecting the complexity and depth of new urbanist thinking, without giving off mixed messages. How can the book present the creative tensions and healthy debates revolving around the bedrock principles of the Charter without getting too far off topic, and without watering down the message?

The reason the Charter is standing the test of time is that people are still engaged and still willing to debate the principles – not in terms of whether things like pedestrian access and social diversity are worthy goals, but in terms of how such principles can best be implemented.

Emily Talen is a professor in urban planning at Arizona State University.

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