A Congress You Can Appreciate - CNU19

Wisconsin Capitol Building at NightI spent much of last week in Madison, Wisconsin at the 19th annual Congress for the New Urbanism, CNU19.  It was an incredible experience with 1,143 people convening in picturesque Madison to discuss and debate how well designed neighborhoods can have a meaningful impact on the lives of those who live in them and those in their surrounding areas.  CNU, as the organization is referred to, is the nations leading organization advocating for walkable, neighborhood based development as an alternative to the separated, sprawling subdivisions, office parks and shopping centers that make up much of today's suburban landscape.  I'm obviously a member.

This year's theme was Growing Local.  Madison could not have been a more appropriate setting with a rich history of farming and a good number of local family owned farms which is not the norm in the midwest.  They also have the nation's largest producer only farmer's market.  Fried cheese samples at the farmers' marketIt was HUGE!  This time of year, there were lots of flowers and LOTS of Cheese.  You an see some samples of fried cheese here.


There were well over 100 sessions, tours and discussions that attendees could participate in over the course of the four days.  Tracks included:


  • Implementing the New Urbanism: Design and Economics
  • Agriculture and Urbanism
  • Sustainability: Water and Energy
  • International
  • Architecture and Placemaking
  • Bikeability and Transportation


I tended to focus on the Bikeability and Transportation as well as the Architecture and Placemaking tracks although all of them were very interesting with a myriad of knowledgeable speakers.  Here's a recap of my journey for you (and me lest I forget):

Wednesday, June 1

Bike the Transect Tour - We ventured out on rented Trek 7200 bikes for a ride out of Madison through Verona and out to Paoli for brunch at the Creamery.  Our return trip took us through Fitchburg and the University of Wisconsin Arboretum.  There were about 20 of us including guides and 19 of us made it the entire ~35 miles back.  An elderly gentleman had to drop out at our brunch stop.  The landscape went from Urban Center to General Urban through Suburban and into Rural.  It was amazing watching it unfold.  The more amazing part was that a good portion of our trip was made on dedicated bike paths.  They even had their own road signs.  Our brunch in Paoli at the Creamery was insanely good.  This tour started the conference right.

New Urbanism 202 - The Smart Growth Manual - I was a little late to this session because the bike tour was a little long and a shower was necessary.  Unfortunately, I missed most of Andres Duany's part of the session (don't worry, his speech on Saturday more than made up for my lost time with the grand poobah).  Mike Lydon and Jeff Speck took about 2 hours and 15 min to go through the Smart Growth Manual and touch on some of the finer points that the book doesn't hit.  If you are a nerd like me or just someone who wants to know about how to develop our places in a more effective manner, check out the book.  It's a quick read and is a very good resource.

Opening Plenary with William Cronan - This lecture was absolutely incredible.  Cronan is a professor at the University of Wisconsin, an author (Nature's Metropolis: Chicago and the Great West) as well as an excellent speaker.  He delivered a lecture titled "What time is this place?' that was thought provoking and educational.  He looked at aerial imagery of Madison from the late 40's through present day and discussed how different transportation systems impacted the pattern of development.   He went from horse and buggy to the electric street car and finally to the automobile.  The pictures examined the transect from the state capitol west out to agricultural land.  He went west on Regent St to Speedway Rd to Mineral Point Rd out past the W Beltline Hwy. I can't give it justice in just a blurb so I'm going to stop trying.

Thursday, June 2

Open Source Plenary - This was an interesting addition to the Congress.  Essentially, it was a crowd sourcing event where audience members could propose topics.  Those topics were put on a board and assigned a breakout location.  Anyone who was interested in discussing that topic could go to the designated location and work with that group.  I chose Chuck Mahron's topic of Complete Streets and New Urbanism.  Chuck works with an organization called Strong Towns in Minnesota that works with small town governments to ensure they are aware of the financial implications of their development decisions.  I regularly read his blog and was glad I got a chance to meet him in person.  The group was about 15 strong for this session and we had a good discussion of the impacts of road design on safety as well as what makes sense in certain areas.  One of Chuck's main points is that there is a difference between a road and a street and that municipalities need to understand that.  To generalize, a road is meant to get you from one city/town to another city/town and a street is meant to get you from place to place within a city/town.  This was a good session even though I was the note taker.

The City of Continuity: New Urbanism and Historic Preservation - My interest in this session has to do with the fact that I live in Roswell.  We have a great history of historic preservation here and I was curious to learn more about the relationship between new urbanism and historic preservation.  If you are knowledgeable about the new urbanism, then you probably know that a common critique is that new urbanist communities tend to be nostalgic and have traditional architecture.  The real reason for this tends to lie in the fact that it is what the buyers want time and time again.  But, there are rifts between historic preservationists and new urbanists that I wasn't aware of.  It was interesting to see the dialogue.  There were speakers from New Orleans, the University of Notre Dame and South Florida.

Charter Awards Lunch - CNU has been giving out awards for excellence in the design and implementation of projects annually for the past 11 years.  This year's awards were separated into academic and professional.  As it turns out the most impressive of them all was a plan for Skaneateles, NY that was done by the Notre Dame Graduate Urban Design Studio.  Skaneatles PlanThe jury said that this was the best presented of all the projects academic or professional.  The other one that I enjoyed was the final plan for the Seaside Town Square and Beachfront.  It boldly proposes a 75 foot tower where the much loved post office sits currently.  Seaside Town Square PlanI'll love to see that someday.

The New Urbanism and the Bicycle: A Dialogue - I attended this session to learn a little more about implementing good bicycle facilities since I'm participating in the public input process for the Roswell Historic Gateway project.  There were major differences in opinion on the need for separate bike lanes, painted bike lanes and overwhelming signage.  I tended to agree with the side of less signage but I think it's all about context.  In situations where speed limits are 25mph or lower, lanes probably aren't necessary.  The Q&A in this session was great.

Public Space Design in Europe, the Middle East, China and South America - This one started off a little slow with looks at public spaces in the middle east and asia.  A very interesting tidbit about China though.  Chinese regulations demand that every room in the house have at least two hours of sunlight on the winter solstice.  This creates an interesting design dilemma as all buildings must face the same way and high rises cannot be too close to each other.  The next presenter showed some AMAZING projects that have been completed in Europe.  i was shocked and jealous of some of the things going on in Europe.  Of course, I'm not jealous of their fiscal issues.

Salons - There were a number of salons on Thursday night.  I chose the Federal Sustainable Communities Initiative salon.  It was run by former CNU Executive Director, Shelly Poticha. She is currently the Director for Sustainable Housing and Communities at HUD.  She worked closely with the HUD EPA DOT partnership in reviewing grant applications for the most recent round of funding.  There were many people representing organizations that received grants.  To me, the most memorable was Jerry Tinianow with the Mid-Ohio Regional Planning Commission who discussed the initiative to revitalize a blighted area, Weinland Park, by incorporating urban agriculture.  Here's a great presentation on the initiative.  I wish them luck.  

Friday, June 3

Friday Morning Plenary - Harvard economist and author of bestseller Triumph of the City Ed Glaeser talked for about 45 minutes and then took questions.  He was a furious talker comparable to the MicroMachines man from teh 80's commercials.  His talk was relavent .  I asked him after the lecture what he thought about crime and density.  He wrote a paper in the late 90's on the topic and he feels there is a weak correlation but was uncertain whether it still existed and whether the research was robust enough to prove.  He did say that interestingly people who live in high rises in high density areas are statistically more likely to be victims of crime than those who live in shorter buildings in high density areas.

Stefanos Polyzoides, one of the CNU founders, followed Prof. Glaeser and did a great job examining how the New Urbanists need to take a page out of the Landscape Urbanists' playbook and focus much more on design for a region or climate rather than just building things that people will like.  He focused on ten principles for designing proper buildings in a hot dry climate and a hot damp climate.  The lessons were memorable but were directed at the architect segment of the audience.   

Preparing Communities for an Aging Society: Discussion with Henry Cisneros -   Mr. Cisneros is a strong advocate for creating places where elderly can live without assistance until much later in life.  There will be a major need for this in the coming years as the baby boomers begin to enter their golden years.  This year is when the first boomers begin to hit 65.  I thought the part of the discussion that focused on old folks who absolutely refuse to leave their homes was sad.  I recall when my grandmother hit an age when she couldn't care for herself anymore and we had to move her out of her condo.  She was as feisty as they come but it was necessary.  What are we going to do when we have millions of elderly refusing to leave their big houses with big yards?  It was an interesting and important discussion.

Transportation Initiative Meeting - The transportation initiative meeting had good attendance.  The Project for Transportation Reform was the topic.  It opened with Carl Wren of the Austin Fire department talking about successes and challenges in working with emergency response units throughout the country to advance the Networks and Emergency Response Initiative.  It is apparent that many municipalities across the country are seeing the benefits of a networked street grid when it comes to efficient and timely emergency response.  After Chris finished the group discussed transportation initiatives and many of the points came back to safe bicycling.  I brought up the challenge of placemaking when our streets are littered with unnecessary road signs.

Sprawl Retrofit at the Micro Scale: Repairing All Dimensions - This one was interesting.  We first took a look at the a project that focused on repairing missing teeth throughout Long Island.  The project identified thousands of acres of parking lots in town centers that could be redeveloped creating a more inviting environment in those town centers.  Other speakers talked about the challenge of repairing sprawling environments with small scale solutions.  The sheer size of our suburban landscape makes the addition of a small park or some benches almost irrelevant.  

Sprawl Retrofit Action: From Design to Reality; Seeping vs. Sweeping

CNU Atlanta Meetup @ Brocach Irish Pub - This was a good event following a long day of Cities, Elderly and Sprawl Retrofit.  The Atlanta CNU chapter was well represented in Madison and we also had local entrepreneur Farmer D in the house.  The food was good but the conversation was better.  Lots of good ideas came up and hopefully we can take some of them home with us.

Saturday, June 4

Bike to the University of Wisconsin - I took a ride over to the University of Wisconsin with fellow new urbanist from Orlando, Todd Bonnett.  Todd wanted to try out his free B Cycle bike sharing card.  It turned out to be a pretty sweet system.  Easy to use, easy to ride and very convenient.

Madison B Cycle DockThe university was pretty nice and it was a quick ride up State Street.  I was impressed even more with the bike paths.  One of the more ironic things that I saw along the way as we rode on a bike path that was a converted railroad was an old train sitting next to the old train station that has been converted into a bike shop.  Train Station to Bike Store in Madison

Dane County Farmers' Market - What can I say about this other than wow.  Here's a link.

Saturday Morning Plenary - The last morning plenary of the Congress did not disappoint.  We heard a motivational story of success from Will Allen of Growing Power.  Will runs a non-profit urban agriculture organization in Milwaukee.  They teach inner city youth the virtues of growing food.  They work with fish, bees and livestock in an urban environment.  Here's a quick blurb from Johanna Bye on the CNU blog:

Since it’s founding, Growing Power has maintained close ties with the working-class neighborhood it calls home. Through outreach and education programs, the farm introduces agriculture and business skills to youth from low-income backgrounds. One such program is the Milwaukee Youth Corps (also operating in Chicago), which invites kids and teens from the inner city to work on the farm and learn all aspects of the trade, from growing produce to eating healthy, being more active, marketing, and learning entrepreneurial and leadership skills.

Will Allen is a big man but his heart and story are even bigger.  This was truly worth hearing.

Congressman Earl Blumenauer (D-Oregon) followed Mr. Allen and did a great job positioning the issues of the day and framing the challenges that we face as a society with energy, finances, and climate change.  The great thing is that new urbanism and smart growth can help with all three.  

Typology of Transit-Oriented Development - This was a comparison of older transportation locations versus newer transportation locations in two metro areas.  It was interesting to see how certain types of implementation and densities can impact driving habits, CO2 emissions.  The most interesting part of the entire presentation was around the actual data.

Academic Paper Session 2: Investigations on Transportation Networks - If you think widening roads is an effective way to increase the level of service at a given intersection, think again.  The absolute silver bullet in increasing level of service is increasing the network.  Widening roads decreases pedestrian safety and does very little to actually improve level of service.  Several other academic papers with interesting research were presented but I'll spare you.

New Mobility Meets New Urbanism

Final Plenary - This was the hyped event of the week.  Ever since Andres Duany fired a direct shot at the Landscape Urbanism establishment in his Point of View piece in Metropolis Magazine, New Urbanists have been waiting for a response from the Harvard Graduate School of Design.  This was that response.  The original format was expected to be a debate between Duany and GSD head Charles Waldheim.  It then turned into a Q&A.  Finally it turned into a lecture by Prof. Waldheim followed by a short Q&A from Duany.  But, in typical Duany fashion, he surprised us all.

Prof. Waldheim presented a well laid out overview of Landscape Urbanism over the course of 50 minutes.  The biggest success of the movement has been the High Line in New York.  They haven't really built any neighborhoods or cities or anything.  However, they do enjoy influence over many of the premier architecture schools in the nations.  So, the New Urbanists view the movement as a threat especially since the movement is based on an idea rather than practical and empirical observation over time.  

Following Prof. Waldheim's lecture, Duany came out and issued a challenge to the crowd.  It was to essentially learn what can be learned from the LU's and incorporate the good into the practice of building better New Urbanist communities.  It was amazing how he almost completely dismissed the most powerful man in academic architecture and took a message directly to his following.  I was impressed.  If you want to see the entire Closing Plenary, you can view it here.

Closing Party - The closing party was held on top of the Monona Terrace Conference Center.  It was a beautiful setting for the end of the Congress.  I met and talked to some more people before finally calling it a night and ending my conference. 

If you'd like to inquire on any of the sessions, I'd be more than happy to discuss.

Next year's congress will be in West Palm Beach.  I'm planning on going.  If you're interested in joining the cause, let me know or go to www.cnu.org.  


images: CNU, Opticos Design