CNU 20: A Gathering of Change-Makers

Image Courtesy of Tactical Urbanism

CNU 20, Congress for the New Urbanism’s 20th annual meeting and my fifth, inspired this urbanist and reignited my passion to improve our cities and small towns, and to remake suburbia!

For over 20 years now, thanks to perennial CNU leaders and new voices that have joined the movement, the work to achieve great urbanism is stronger than ever.  Here are my takeaways from CNU 20, an annual meeting of change-makers challenging us to think and to take action!

An Organization of Change-Makers

CNU is a group of motivated, bright, passionate people who never stop working to create better places and communities.  Simply attending CNU 20 meant being surrounded by change-makers: Transit Miami, Tactical Urbanism (see image above), CNU NextGen, students, professionals, writers, planners, oldies and newbies who are all making urbanism a priority in their work.  Twitter buzzes constantly with the work of these folks – it’s hard to keep up, but they are transforming communities all around us.

CNU as an organization does not shy away from pushing for big change, including taking the Feds on.  John Norquist, President of CNU, has two dreams, articulated in the CNU 20 Dreams video and throughout the conference; one, kill the functional classification system for roads within urban areas and replace it with transit-rich street grids instead of freeways (single use investments that just don’t make fiscal sense!), and two get rid of discrimination against mixed-use development by FHA, Fannie Mae, Freddie Mac, and HUD’s 221d4 and 220 programs.  Mr. Norquest believes that if we solve those two problems, there’ll be a lot more urbanism and I agree!  Learn more and take action:

CNU also does not shy away from controversial topics.  In the Small is Beautiful session, James Howard Kuntsler declared that globalization is not a permanent state for our economy.  Following Kuntsler, change-maker Kimber Lanning, of Local First Arizona directed us to understand the full picture of a local economy– that it is not just about small, cutesy boutique stores.  She reminded us that our communities used to consist of businesses that were privately funded, grew organically, were locally owned and often located in older buildings – buildings that could easily adapt (hey zoning and building code writers, pay attention!).  She described how ‘Mega retailers siphon wealth from the many into the pockets of the few’ and not just the primary products – ‘Starbucks has one accounting firm and one graphic design firm’.  Finally, she told us if Phoenix Arizona can move toward a local economy, we can.  Change-maker extraordinaire!

Gypsy Farm Bus

Denver Change-Makers (a very abbreviated list):

  • Katherine Cornwell and the Gypsy Farm Bus
  • Revision International
  • WalkDenver
  • Denver Bike Share
  • Ego Car Share
  • Transit Alliance
  • The endless list of local businesses
  • CU-Denver, current and former students in the MURP program
  • Denver’s city planners – including a team who won a $3 million grant creating a partnership among the City, LiveWell Westwood, Transit Alliance, Denver Health, Denver Housing Authority and many more to transform West Denver into a livable neighborhood.
  • Peter Park, former director of Denver’s Community Planning & Development department, a true urbanist and visionary leader (check out his thoughts on I-7o)

A Change Organization That Challenges Us To Think

One of my heroes, Daniel Solomon, gave a stirring presentation challenging LEED-ND and the Smart Code, and more broadly the system makers, the code writers (me).  Some of my favorite points:

  • We are missing people, culture in our obsession with systems and universal regulations
  • Idea mongers get in the way of perception
  • Bureaucratization of virtue
  • We’re codifying beliefs into hyper-regulation
  • The Athens Charter reflected none of Le Corbusier the artist, stylish, witty, complex human
  • The dead, reductive category of red (and all your systematic codes) reduces experience and impressions

Dan Solomon lives in a beautiful world and I want in.

Throughout the sessions I attended, many comments got me thinking, including these words:

James Howard Kuntsler – “We may not succeed in fixing our zoning and building codes, but we may one day succeed in ignoring them.”  After a sharp gasp, I started thinking about what this means in a new world that’s being created all around us everyday…more to come from me, a zoning wonk working from the inside.

Andres Duany – “Many are living for the accumulation of leisure rather than wealth.  We need leisure in order to develop culture” Hell yes!  He also demanded that we balance process with principle.  We cannot become obsessively process based (hello government, listen up).

Other notable ideas were…

Elizabeth Plater-Zyberkk (among many others) declared that community drives economic development and not the other way around.  Others commented that the real gift from Jane Jacobs, aside from sidewalks and eyes on the street, was the idea that communities, cities drive economic development.

Richard Florida, author of Rise of the Creative Class, declared that “our innate human creativity is what binds us together.”  I really liked that one.

Kimber Lanning, breaking from her local economics discussion, challenged the cutting of art programs and the test obsessed educational system – “Are we raising a generation that doesn’t understand the grey area?  That there isn’t always a right and wrong answer?

There is much more in the notes I scribbled in my journal, on my iPhone and on my laptop – CNU 20 was filled with thought-provoking and challenging ideas.

A Change Organization That Inspires Us To Take Action

Wrapping up CNU 20 with last minute conversations on balconies outside the conference center and waiting in the airport for my flight back to Denver…I felt the call to action.  So, here’s my top 10 list:

  1. Improve an RTD bus stop
  2. Improve the pedestrian crossing of an intersection
  3. Plant a tree lawn (thank you to Jenn for that one)
  4. Stop shopping online because I’m too lazy to visit a local store
  5. Shop at a farmers’ market for my vegetables this summer
  6. Actively participate in CNU Colorado and Denver New Rail-Volutionaries
  7. Continue supporting ego carshare with my monthly membership
  8. Get someone to participate at a public meeting who wouldn’t have otherwise.  No show = no voice.  City employees (such as me) can’t do it alone.
  9. Support local historic preservation – how should I begin?
  10. Use my voice
  11. Oh, and one more…Get CNU to change from Congress for the New Urbanism to Congress for the National Urbanism?

Thanks to new friends and old friends for inspiring me at CNU 20!

Michelle Pyle

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