The twentieth Congress for the New Urbanism in West Palm Beach last week was a great opportunity for reflection on where we've been, where we are, and where we're going. Here's my take on the dawning points and tipping points of the things we do. As for high points, none of them are yet on the horizon, as there is so much left to do.
Dawning Points of Design
The first two dawning points of design were Christopher Alexander's epiphanies that led to A Pattern Language, Léon Krier's drawings that transformed him into a preeminent polemicist. I've always had the impression that Alexander's transformational years centered on the early 1970s, but his reclusiveness has left some of these things more mysterious unless you're willing to join his inner circle. Krier, who has been equally important but more engaging, has repeatedly told the stories of 1976. The third dawning point was Krier's lecture in Miami near the end of the decade that transformed Andrés Duany from just another young starchitect to being, with Lizz Plater-Zyberk, the first two New Urbanist practitioners, although the story he tells always includes the other founders of the Congress. This in spite of the fact that the founding of the Congress occurred more than a decade later. That's classic Duany: always pulling others into the story. DPZ's greatest legacy, in my opinion, won't be their own work, but will instead be how they aided the careers of countless others, including me.
Dawning Point of Development
This clearly was the day when Robert Davis set up what today we might call a food cart on the barren sandy shoulder of County Road 30A in 1980 and began selling his dream of a new Città Ideale to any hungry person who happened along that desolate stretch of two-lane asphalt. Clearly, the dream worked, as anyone can attest who knows 30A today.
Dawning Point of Implementation
Robert's food cart paid off, and soon, Seaside's Rosewalk was under construction.
Dawning Points of Teaching
Three dawning points of teaching happened within a few years of each other: Prince Charles founded the Prince of Wales' Institute of Architecture in 1986. It was renamed the Prince's Foundation for the Built Environment in 2001 and the Prince's Foundation for Building Community earlier this year. Lizz Plater-Zyberk joined the faculty of the University of Miami School of Architecture in 1979 and founded the Suburb & Town Design program in 1988, and ascended to the office of Dean in 1995. Thomas Gordon Smith, meanwhile, was brought to Notre Dame to head the School of Architecture in 1989.
Dawning Point of Organization
The Local Government Commission invited Peter Calthorpe, Michael Corbett, Andrés Duany, Elizabeth Moule, Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk, Stefanos Polyzoides, and Daniel Solomon to develop a set of community-building principles (known as the Ahwahnee Principles, for Yosemite's Ahwahnee Hotel) in 1991. Calthorpe, Duany, Moule, Plater-Zyberk, Polyzoides, and Solomon, founded the Congress for the New Urbanism two years later.
Tipping Point of Teaching
The Prince's Foundation, Miami, and Notre Dame are naturals for a lot of reasons, many of them obvious. But had they carved their own tiny niche in architectural education, forever to be the only three inhabitants? Not at all. Phil Bess began a decade-long tenure at Andrews University, previously unknown to most New Urbanists, in 1994. I'm sure there were others that played important roles, but Bess was the face of Andrews' transformation for many of us. Today, under the leadership of a faculty composed of people such as Andrew von Maur, Andrews arguably teaches a New Urbanist curriculum as strong as any. But Andrews isn't alone; now, there are dozens of educational institutions around the world which teach New Urbanism to varying degrees.
Tipping Point of Organization
Allied organizations such as the Seaside Institute, the Institute of Classical Architecture & Art, the Council for European Urbanism, and many others sprang up and flourished through the years. So much so that the Prince of Wales found it necessary a decade ago to found INTBAU, the International Network for Traditional Building, Architecture, and Urbanism in an effort to link them all together.
Tipping Point of Development
This occurred when Greg Whittaker of Whittaker Homes called Demetri Baches of DPZ in the fall of 2002 and explained how he wanted DPZ to design the New Town at St. Charles "because a New Urbanist place will be more profitable." Demetri waited for the other shoe to drop. Something like "… and I've been a true believer in what you're doing for year." But there was no other shoe. Whittaker Homes had been the biggest homebuilder in the state of Missouri for years, and they were seeking out a first-tier New Urbanist simply because of the value they could deliver.
Dawning Point of Confirmation
Between the Subprime Meltdown in July 2007 and the Major Meltdown in October 2008, most conventional developments were shut down while the New Urbanist development in those same markets were still selling. The conventional developers took notice during those divergent 18 months. The developers that survive today's conditions are far more likely to build New Urbanism in the future than they ever would have been pre-Meltdown.
Tipping Point of Implementation
This has not happened yet. The implementation of place-making, as we all know, has ground nearly to a halt post-Meltdown. But paradoxically, this may hasten the point where New Urbanist places are the normal way to build because this could never have happened so long as the machine of sprawl was humming along smoothly, making millions for many.
Dawning Point of Preservation
Saturday morning, January 31, 2009, Lizz Plater-Zyberk took the podium at the Seaside Prize symposium honoring Jim Kunstler with words that will forever be seared into my mind. She spoke of the practitioners of the 1920s - our heroes - and how they were so battered by the Great Depression that they never worked again. George Merrick, the developer of Coral Gables, for example, became the Miami postmaster after his business collapsed, only to die two years later. For decades afterwards, the wisdom of those heroes was lost, recovered only with great effort by the New Urbanists after the world had built some of the most soulless and dreadful places in the history of humanity. The same thing could happen to us as befell our heroes, Lizz said. But it doesn't have to happen to us. She set out a stirring agenda of writing, teaching, and chronicling that will hopefully ensure survival of the wisdom we have collected, even long after we are gone.
Tipping Point of Preservation
The great heroes of the 1910s and 1920s never had their NextGen. But we do. When Howard Blackson opened proceedings at the Project Lodge in Madison the evening of June 1, 2011 with the words "welcome to the insurrection," NextGen served notice that whether the New Urbanist establishment approved or not, they were prepared to carry on in ways the older ones might not have imagined. Things like Tactical Urbanism, the Next Urbanism, the Sprawl Retrofit initiative and the Incremental Sprawl Repair initiative, the Light Imprint initiative, the Katrina Cottages initiative, Project:SmartDwelling, and yes, the Original Green initiative promise new ways of thinking about how we build and inhabit our world. Equipped with tools like the Sky Method and bolstered by nimble upstart organizations like the Sky Institute and the Guild Foundation, I think we have hope. Matter of fact, I know we have hope.
Thanks for the shout out for Incremental Sprawl Repair.
Plenty of grueling unglamorous work to do.
Great history. These steps Are changing the landscape.
Informative for a "green" mom and a new urbanist fan. Thank you, Steve. Enjoyed reading this and learning. I hear I just missed you in Charleston. Love the picture of you with the prince.
thanks for spreading the word Steve...
Well said, Steve! What's missing is the rule-changing. What started in 1981 with a 1-page code for Seaside has turned into a global movement that is restructuring North American zoning toward character driven form-based codes and away from single-use auto culture.