Reflections on Seattle & CNU Conference

The recently held 25th annual Congress for the New Urbanism in Seattle was pitched by CNU as a celebration of the last quarter-century of New Urbanist accomplishments and pivotal moments. In addition, the congress was to look forward to the future of building sustainable, equitable, livable places.

This Seattle congress was number eight for me in my time as member of CNU, dating back to the meeting in Providence in 2006. While I certainly missed the formative years of CNU in which the likes of Andres Duany and Peter Calthorpe revolutionized city planning in the late 20th century, I’ve been around long enough to recognize the impact of the organization’s accomplishments and understand its opportunity for continued bearing on the future of cities.

In Seattle, the 21st century American city was on full display in a city bursting with new dense housing in many locations, numerous urban retail districts attracting shoppers and experience seekers, transit expanding into key nodes, and a constant look to the past in saving buildings that provide a sense of place and preservation of the historic urban fabric.

The content of the congress reflected the shifts that have occurred in the practices of CNU members and followers. Whereas in 2006 in Providence much talk was of the new urbanism providing a better model for building new denser walkable nodes often in greenfield locations, the tides of change mean that now CNU members are focused more on creating healthy urban places that attract people to live, work, and recreate in locations that were left behind when suburban sprawl stole their momentum.

Today, more than ever, the new urbanism looks to the past for lessons about creating loveable places that last and combines those lessons with forward-looking notions on what will allow our cities to thrive for generations to come.

Often the new urban solutions for creating places that people love are messy. In Seattle presenters and attendees spent hours hashing out ideas to ensure equity in planning, place making, city building and rebuilding. We heard passionate pleas for inclusion of all voices in public participation processes, housing affordable to all incomes, and redevelopment plans that respect the past and the current while still looking to the future. Usually these types of things are hard, but that is the reason for the CNU – to create a platform for city builders to step a bit outside the mainstream when thinking about the built environment and not back down from obstacles in the way of creating the blessed community – to steal Dr. King’s phrase.

And now the focus shines back on Georgia. CNU 26 will happen in May in the southern urban jewel of Savannah. It will be CNU #9 for me. See you there.

Geoff Koski