Photo: Wikimedia Commons
The New Urbanists held their big annual meet-up for four days last week and I stomped a big carbon footprint flying down to West Palm Beach for the doings. I don’t know who exactly picked West Palm, but it was at once peculiar, disheartening, instructive, and exhausting.The Congress for the New Urbanism has been throwing this yearly fandango since its founding in 1993 as a fire-eating reform movement dedicated to transforming the horrifying and toxic human habitat of America. Hopes were lofty in the early days that the U.S. public would recognise the self-evident benefits of ditching suburban sprawl for walkable towns, but it didn’t quite work out that way.
The last frantic phase of sprawl-building commenced exactly the same time, jacked on easy lending steroids, and upping the stakes of the battle. That story ended in the baleful collapse of the housing bubble and the sad particulars need not be rehearsed here.
During the boom of the 90s and aughties, about 99.5 per cent of the new real estate development was done by the conventional schlock sprawl-builders and the New Urbanists did much of the remaining .5 — which was enough to get their point across. Some of their projects (e.g. Seaside, Fla.) are now iconic examples of excellence in urban design artistry. Many others were botched by compromises made in the planning board battles, and another bunch were either half-assed from the get-go or plain fakes. These traditional neighbourhood developments were almost always built on greenfield sites, provoking controversy that could not be briskly dismissed.
At the same time, quite a bit of New Urbanist work was done in re-making existing town centres and in retrofits of sclerotic older suburban parcels, and their influence was later seen in the many big city streetscape redesigns from Times Square to Santa Monica. Their laborious work in reforming the intricate idiocies of zoning law made possible better development outcomes in towns all over the land which adopted so-called Smart Codes.
The housing bubble bust massacred the New Urbanists. Many of the firms had tied their fortunes to the production house builders and the commercial real estate developers doing large projects, often hundreds of acres, and when the market imploded around 2007 their work dried up. Now there is very little new real estate development of any kind going on around the country. Many talents languish while the nation broods over the fate of its obsolete suburban dream and fails to recognise that we have to make drastically new arrangements for inhabiting the landscape.
But the mood at the 2012 CNU was still buoyant, considering. For all their vocational anguish, the New Urbanists are still about the only intellectual cohort in the USA with a coherent vision of what has gone wrong in our society — our ruinous investments in futureless infrastructure — and what can be done about it — the reconstruction of traditional human habitat as the armature for enduring economies. Compared with the brainless religious zealotry and sexual hysteria of the right wing and the ruinous social services pandering of the left, the New Urbanists look like the only organised group of adults in the nation who have not completely lost their minds. So it was a pleasure to spend four days among them. They are a valiant band of cultural warriors.
Events are now in the driver’s seat. The long battle against the continuation of suburban sprawl is over, despite the happy-talk noises made by what’s left of the real estate industry. Half a decade of absolutely flat oil production — propaganda to the contrary — guarantees that the suburban project is finished. We’re done building things that way (even if we don’t quite realise it yet) so the New Urbanists have won the argument by default.
Quite a few non-New Urbanist “pundits” such as Ed Glaeser, the asinine Joel Kotkin, and dashing Richard Florida predict that the action has shifted to the big cities, and that may appear to be the case for this deceptive moment. But the mega-cities are in for a tsunami of troubles all their own in the form of vanishing wealth, fiscal disorder, sclerotic infrastructure failures, service interruptions, and ethnic turf battles as the effects of the epochal economic contraction bite deeper and harder.
The inescapable downscaling of America means that we are heading toward a new disposition of things on the landscape in just the way the New Urbanists have prescribed: a declension of ecologies ranging from dense, walkable human-dominated urban habitats in the form of traditional towns and cities through a range of rural conditions running from farmland to wilderness necessary to support the health of the planet.
Time and nature will help take care of the accumulated suburban dreck on the ground. Humans are very skillful sorters of things and the disassembly of salvaged materials will be a big industry in a world taking a “time out” from industrial progress. The timeless principles that the New Urbanists revived will be the common sense of whatever we build in the future, even when the planning board battles of recent years are long forgotten. We will almost certainly return to social conditions in which nobody will dare put up a building devoid of conscious artistry. There’s a lot to like in this quadrant of the long emergency.
The 20th reunion of old CNU friends was a little disenchanted by the conference site. West Palm Beach contains one of their showpiece projects, the nightlife and shopping district called City Place that was created out of a bombed out neighbourhood. Casual observers crack on City Place as an “urban mall,” but it’s really just Rosemary Street rebuilt of new traditionally-scaled buildings with shops and bistros programmed in. A lot of it is generic chain business. Another sad element is the cartoonish, low quality finish of the buildings — sprayed on stucco and ornaments with no conviction.
Both of these failures of quality represent the fast buck mentality of the big commercial developers and the larger vulgar so-called consumer culture they served. But City Place does include some pretty well composed public space in the form of a central plaza and a palm court running off it, and it was full of people enjoying themselves in the cafes those nights, and the ensemble managed to incorporate a very nice Beaux Arts church-turned-theatre (the Harriet Himmel) in the Spanish neo-classical manner.
The trouble was when you strayed a block off Rosemary Street the fabric of the city fell apart. Some of it was just vacant land. Further east between Olive Street and the intercostal waterway stood a swath of oversized giant condo towers that represented the worst of the lamented housing bubble. Many were “see-through” buildings of empty, unsold units. The streets along these behemoths were as dead as any neighbourhood on a Zombie planet, and traversing them to get anywhere was hugely depressing.
The convention centre, where the CNU meeting actually took place, stood off in its own twilight zone of separation, cut off from the beginning of City Place by the ghastly 10-lane Okeechobee Boulevard. The five-block walk (of very large super-blocks) to and fro from my hotel was like unto reenacting the Bataan Death March under that brutal Floridian sun.
Things are changing fast now though. The New Urbanists still standing are the strongest and most nimble. They are also the ones most deeply engaged in the trenches of architectural education, and they are as certain to win the ideology battles still raging in that realm as they won the battle over suburban sprawl. Most of all, though, I’m glad to be home in my quiet backwater of this poor floundering nation.
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