Postcards from the New World

The 20th Congress for the New Urbanism yields a mixed vision for Florida's future

The Tri-Rail station in Ft. Lauderdale needs bathrooms. I discovered this while rushing to catch a train to the convention center in West Palm Beach. Unfortunately, the Tri-Rail doesn't want to turn into a haven for drug and assault crimes, not that my bladder would care if I had to step over a junkie to pee. So I miss my train to the CNU20's orientation breakfast, give up my perfect parking spot in the station's woefully inadequate parking lot, wind up shoehorned back onto I-95 where traffic prevents me from getting off for two exits to finally find a gas station that only lets me use the bathroom with purchase.

You see this? This sort of unfunny modern-life anecdote is the exact reason we need the Congress for the New Urbanism, an annual gathering of city planners, transportation specialists and architects sharing ideas and methods for creating new sustainable environments. They focus on building walkable neighborhoods, eliminating sprawl, making towns more fiscally sound, reducing environmental degradation and finding lasting solutions to the nightmarish complexity of our current development patterns. These solutions can range from supporting things like, say, high-speed rail to slapping up new neighborhoods, like Orlando’s Baldwin Park.

If these two examples have left you skeptical or of two minds, welcome to the proverbial herd of cats that is the Congress. This year – the CNU’s 20th meeting, held in mid-May and titled "The New World" – the organization chose West Palm Beach as its stomping grounds, a destination that over the next few days will prove a paradoxical reminder of the CNU's mission. On the one hand, West Palm boasts some impressive examples of new urban principles. Clematis Street is a single walkable stretch of bars and restaurants that also includes the library and some parks. More recent is the addition of City Place, a mixed-use square of shops, restaurants and apartments with lighted fountains and community activities. It’s like a more involved version of the SoDo complex on South Orange Avenue in downtown Orlando.
On the other hand, West Palm Beach, has many of the degraded corridors, full of half-occupied strip malls and closed gas stations and car lots that make it practically a sister city with Orlando. Many of its streets, like the eight-lane Okeechobee Boulevard (a dead ringer for parts of Kirkman Drive or Colonial Boulevard), which separates City Place from the Convention Center, take a lengthy two-step process to cross. In this sense, West Palm represents both where the new urbanists want us to go and the major challenges we still face.

One can trace the origins of the Congress to a variety of movements and projects. Certainly, one of the most influential moments was the founding of Seaside, Fla. in 1979. Developer Robert Davis teamed up with outspoken Florida architect Andres Duany and his wife, Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk, of Miami-based DPZ & Company to turn 80 acres of Panhandle beachfront into a compact and functioning resort town. Seaside, which is planned on the traditional European model of a town center, gained its widest audience as Jim Carey's surreal home in The Truman Show

DPZ & Co. are also the creators of the SmartCode, a unified land-ordinance template to help cities make more efficient zoning laws.

Throughout the '80s, small pockets of resistance to the ideas of sprawl popped up within the planning community. One of the articles that encouraged smarter development was 1988's "A Good Place to Live" in the Atlantic Monthly by Philip Langdon. Langdon, a journalist by trade who now edits the planning magazine Better Cities & Towns, had some expectations in coming to South Florida for this year’s conference. "I was interested in finding out what they've done in Palm Beach to take a place that was ... either lifeless or dangerous 20 years ago, depending on where you were, and turning it into a place that really does have a lot of buildings and activity," he says.

Whether they've achieved these goals is up for debate, but Langdon sees progress in projects like City Place, a mixed-use square of shops, restaurants and apartments. "I think City Place feels a bit more like a development made by one set of business interests," he says, "but it's still pretty good. They have a lot of housing, and some of it is affordable housing. And it's interesting to find out about Clematis Street and how that has turned around."

But a good number of the people who’ve come here have loftier goals than to just take it all in. "I'm here to change the world," says Norman Garrick, associate professor of transportation engineering at the University of Connecticut and director of UConn's Center for Smart Transportation. Looking at the transportation situation in Florida, Garrick has a quick assessment. "It's horrible,” he says. “It's not the worst in the country, but it's pretty bad, especially from a safety point of view."

As Florida leads the country in pedestrian fatalities – with Orlando sitting at number one most dangerous metro area – according to Transportation for America campaign, a coalition of organizations that works to improve the transportation systems that keep our cities humming, it would be hard to argue with him. "The statistics show what's going on in Florida, but walking around you can experience it," he says.

Garrick does offer a way to start turning this situation around.  "The first remedy is to understand that the most important use of the road is not just cars. You also have to accommodate people who live in a community who are on foot. And those people need more protection than people in cars. So to have a system that is optimized for cars doesn't make any sense."

If CNU can have superstars, one of them is surely James Howard Kunstler. Kunstler decries the suburban experiment in books such as 'The Geography of Nowhere' and 2005's 'The Long Emergency', which lays out the apocalyptic consequences of Peak Oil (the point which marks the beginning of decline in world oil production). At this year’s CNU, Kunstler says he always felt modern sprawl was uncomfortable, so he set out to "inflict" upon the world what he felt was inflicted upon him.

In his doomer blog, The Clusterfuck Nation, the writer commonly predicts the end of our current version of a techno-dependent civilization. And he saves some of his harshest visions for Central Florida. I once sent him an article about Orlando and asked what he thought. "Orlando doesn't know this, but they’re fucked," he replied. His outlook hasn't improved much five years later.

"It's appropriate to point out," he says, "that the fiasco of suburban sprawl is fatal for Florida ... The Florida version is as bad as it could get." "Orlando shot its wad, organizing itself for a certain kind of tourism that is now being left behind in history,” he says. “As far as Disney World is concerned, it's a tourism of artificial places. It's not surprising that Americans feel no authenticity in their lives, so they might as well vacation in the most artificial place of all." These days, though, as gas prices and jet fuel reach astronomical levels, the family vacation budget is one of the first things that gets slashed, dooming tourism-dependent economies to constant struggle.

But not everybody has quite this dire an outlook for the City Beautiful. "The CNU has already helped Orlando tremendously," says Eliza Harris, a senior associate at Orlando architectural firm Canin Associates. "We've got some great new urbanist developers, particularly Craig Ustler, who has contributed enormously to downtown and is continuing with the Creative Village. Having more practitioners trained in new urbanism who were able to attend this conference can only help the improvement of (Orlando) happen faster."
This year, Harris was elected to the board of the CNU, the first time the Congress has ever held open elections for empty seats. "I've already claimed CNU 30 as the Orlando conference," she says. "That's a ways off. Maybe 25."

"One of the most exciting things I'm involved in right now is the Sprawl Retrofit Initiative," she says. Retrofitting basically involves greening areas that already exist by creating pedestrian-friendly infill. "Certainly, Orlando has a large amount of suburban areas that could benefit from infill that makes it possible for people to walk to their destination. We're already getting some of that with projects like SoDo."

The first Congress came together in 1993 with 100 like-minded professionals. Since then, membership has grown, with the annual conference attracting more than 1,000 people. Membership offers continuing education and resources for connecting projects and people.
This has led many members to start to ask what's next. "CNU has plateaued recently," observes Karja Hansen, a director's fellow and former employee of DPZ & Co. "It's reached the audience it's going to reach ... It's amazing that it's gotten so big, but lost some of what originally made it attractive."

Hansen is one of the members of NextGen, a group within CNU focused on the next generation of planners and organizers. Originally they came together to address the concerns of young members, though now it's less about age than about action. "NextGen is a mindset," she says. "We're the front porch of the CNU."

NextGen has a whole day of its own programming where they invite virtually anybody to get up and give a five-minute presentation on things that can be done to get projects moving. They also have innovated a number of changes within the CNU itself. They came up with stratified membership levels and planted the idea for the elected board positions. "A lot of what we did was provide a potential scapegoat," says Hansen, who calls herself a "passionate principal poliphili." If their ideas didn't work out, the CNU wouldn't have to bicker about whose fault it was.

One of the additions she is most happy with was the creation of Project Lodge, an off-site space they had at the Madison, Wisconsin, convention last year. There, they had things like Pecha Kucha night, in which presenters are given 20 slides and 20 seconds. "We pushed ... to open it up," she says.

And she's already seen the effects at this year's gathering. "The dance party was awesome," she says. "You can stick your face into any conversation."

Harris, who is also involved in NextGen, would like to see some of its ideas spread to Orlando, like tactical urbanism, where participants transform areas through planned sudden action, like guerrilla gardening in parks, or Orlando's long running Critical Mass bike ride. Harris sees a place like the Milk District as the perfect target. "The Milk District is very exciting, people there have a lot of energy, but the road, Robinson, as its configured, is a bit of a challenge,” she says. “Is there something we can do to improve the frontage there, make the sidewalk more hospitable, make the road a little less fast and intimidating?"

In a morning panel at the CNU conference, Hansen summed up not only her feelings, but the hopes of most attendees. "When you get right down to it, CNU isn't about fixing our buildings or making our roads more pleasant for non-motorists or lessening the ecological impact, and so forth - CNU is the brain trust concerned with saving civilization, which we are all actively taking part in the destruction of."

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