The New, New Urbanism.

27 Jan

Lean. Guerilla. Incremental. Vernacular. Tactical.

These are all words Andrés Duany used to describe the “new New Urbanism” at the CNU-FL Statewide meeting this past week at the University of Miami. The room fell silent as people waited with bated  breath to see what Duany—a founder, and arguably the most influential member of the Congress for the New Urbanism—would say this time. After all, it’s usually inspiring and challenging when he takes the podium and, as a man of opinionated flamboyance, it is, at the very least, entertaining and humorous.

And what came next left me surprised and speechless, and with a greater love for New Urbanism: Andrés Duany fell on his sword. He acknowledged that five years ago, he had it made. People came to him and he always had the answers. He never acted in doubt, and he was confident that the answers lay in the principles that he, in part, had developed—namely, the SmartCode and Urban/Rural Transect, upon which New Urbanism had become structured in its 30-year history. With the shift in the economy, he took a year for study and reflection to determine the future of planning and New Urbanism.

Duany identified two conditions that should dramatically shift the practice of all planners and urban designers: pervasive impoverishment and the psychological shifts of impending climate change.

Duany learned that, on the other side of the economic downturn, or at least a good way through it, the future of New Urbanism was in the ability for the organization and its professionals to be adaptable, incremental, and minimal. In other words, he said, “An urbanist does the least necessary and lets everyone else naturally do the rest.” The result of the recession is what he calls “national impoverishment” and what many others call the “new normal.” People have less money, and that will not change, and even if it were to change, people will remain in a mental state of frugality. Therefore, if we are going to plan, we need to listen when people say “We don’t have any money” and figure out a way to make a difference for much less.

Climate change has become a hot political topic, and most people who believe real science (if they do the math) will see that big events, including disasters, are inevitable. One member of the audience commented that America’s only hope is that the “Chinese choke themselves before we flood.” The meat behind that statement is that climate change is an international issue, and if even one country could have the cultural and technological shift to mitigate against resulting natural disasters, there would be 10 other countries that could not. Duany’s point was that one day soon, the majority of the people in our country will realize that climate change is impending, we won’t be able to mitigate our way out of it before the tipping point, and disasters will occur. The reaction will be to shift into survival mode. He described it as a “circling of the wagons” mentality. The most valuable trait in the planning profession will become adaption—we must start practicing it now to be relevant in the near future.

These two factors—impoverishment and climate change—which Duany believes should shape the future of planning and urban design—specifically, new urbanism—can be addressed with tactical urbanism. Tactical urbanism is an urban design movement in which small and short-term actions lead to long-term change. This has been practiced all over the country by new urbanists (and many other urban designers and planners), most notably Mike Lydon, who wrote a two-volume guide on its implementation. Returning parking spots to parks, painting road intersections, and plastering the city with bumper stickers are all examples of how urban designers are taking back their city for the people.

Examples of tactical urbanism across the country where people are taking back their public space.

Examples of tactical urbanism across the country where people are taking back their public space.

An example that Duany gave to show how small, incremental changes can transform a whole neighborhood is the Wynwood Arts District in Miami. The well-known developer, Tony Goldman, transformed an industrial area devoid of any activity or culture into a thriving neighborhood. With little investment, he painted the interiors of all the buildings white, asked talented graffiti artists to paint the outside, and filled the spaces between with a fine aggregate asphalt. He filled them with lighted chain-link fences and tractor tires as furniture. The industrial buildings become a perfect place for budding artists to exhibit their work. The result was that, over time, the real estate market followed, and it became one of the hottest places in town; adjacent development proved it. The neighborhood’s ability to redevelop through adaption with small incremental change is an example of how our industry must shift to address the changing priorities of the future planning profession.

Wynwood Miami

Wynwood, Miami (Image:

Let me be clear that Andrés Duany’s ideas are not revolutionary in and of themselves. Whether it’s tactical urbanism or pop-up urbanism, movements have been around for years that examine the exact same concepts. They haven’t always benefited from the recent notoriety and fame, however, but they’ve been around, which makes Duany look like he’s showing up a bit late to the party. Many critics of Duany might immediately comment on the fact that it is very convenient for the New Urbanist to change his tune after he’s gained his fortune, fame, and elite professional status. Fair point. However, from the inside, as someone who has a fair and balanced judgment of the CNU organization (after all, Duany is just one man,) the most exciting thing about his revelation and wishes for the future of New Urbanism is that they make the movement more relevant and applicable while, in turn, refuting its major criticisms.

Personally, Duany’s comments made me more secure in my identification as a new urbanist. Truthfully, in the past, the criticisms of the movement that have irked me the most were based on what he created and defended. I’ve written about the criticisms of New Urbanism, but they are well known: over-priced products, green field developments, a traditional architecture rut, and a lack of understanding of the reality of retail. However, I was always able to rationalize or accept them for the greater good of the organization. CNU is made up of many great minds. It just happens that Duany and DPZ’s genius in Seaside and everything that came from it has always been the front man. If you read the CNU Charter—the very heart of the organization—it proclaims nothing but the benefits of traditional urbanism. And it is one of the few organizations that does that, and perhaps is the only one that does it with such conviction. Based on the facts, there has never been a discernible difference between new urbanism  and good urbanism. However, by Duany proclaiming that his “heavy, armored brigade” idea of urbanism (i.e., the rules, guides, and strict formulas) has become irrelevant, he has immediately made New Urbanism more relevant to my beliefs as an urbanist.

One might ask the question, Does this make CNU and New Urbanism as a whole irrelevant? My answer would be, absolutely not!  First and foremost, the “heavy, armored brigade” did have its place within the movement, and that approach accomplished a lot by putting sustainable development on the map in a time when every developer was paving over the American countryside. Second, on many occasions, these rules are necessary and very beneficial. Proclaiming the benefits of traditional principles such as connectivity, legibility, and walkability will never become irrelevant. Third, it is from the CNU organization that a lot of these new ideas that Duany proclaims came to fruition. Lydon is currently one of the go-to experts of tactical urbanism, and the Next Gen CNU group is leading the way in how we design our cities today. People need to realize that New Urbanism has grown much larger than Andrés Duany, Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk, Ellen Dunham-Jones, Peter Calthorpe, Leon Krier, and James Howard Kunstler (to name a few of the greats) … it’s about us now.

So, as Duany said, we now need to arm ourselves with our bumper stickers, t-shirts, picket signs, and burning bras and ensure that we continue to become relevant and adaptable to our changing profession and culture shift. And, finally, maybe some of the critics will be silenced ….

Erin’s Google+

21 Responses to “The New, New Urbanism.”

  1. Bruce Donnelly January 28, 2013 at 6:12 PM #

    “An urbanist does the least necessary and lets everyone else naturally do the rest.” (Andres Duany)

    In other words an urbanist does catalysis.

    I think sometimes there is a need for big artillery, as there was even before the turn of the 20th century. We need to do both. We don’t need just “big.” We don’t need just “incremental.” We need big networks of incrementation layered so that each is a platform for the next. (e.g. “government as a platform,” as Tim O’Reilly says.)

  2. Steve Mouzon January 28, 2013 at 6:24 PM #

    Thanks for this post… wish I could have been there! The one thing I don’t understand is where you said that Andrés “fell on his sword,” which usually means giving up on everything. But then nothing else in the rest of the post supported that… or at least not in a way that’s obvious to me. Please elaborate.

    • Erin Chantry January 28, 2013 at 8:32 PM #

      Hi Steve! Thanks so much for reading and commenting. I use the term loosely of course, but what I am referring to is Duany proclaiming that his work to this point and world view (especially the one he defended at the national conference this past year) has become irrelevant and will remain irrelevant in the future. His very much flippant attitude towards what he has accomplished surprised me, but made me really respect him. I don’t necessarily agree with him (I often stand by the “straighjacket” as Daniel Solomon calls it, that Duany created.) I am, however, very impressed by his ability to step back and critically observe what New Urbanism is and what it should be moving forward. The talk was videotaped, so hopefully it will be made available. Hopefully this will clear it up, but please let me know if you have any additional questions.

      • Steve Mouzon January 28, 2013 at 10:41 PM #

        Got it… thanks, Erin! One thing about Andrés… he’s never been one to rest on his laurels, so this is nothing new. Which is good… we should all be more that way.

      • Eliza Harris (@myurbangen) January 30, 2013 at 11:31 AM #

        I was there and I believe this was a reiteration of something he’s discussed before at more length.

        He discusses the idea that he had achieved “mastery” over his craft under the old economy but that the new economy has forced him to rethink some of his assumptions (as it has forced all of us to) and even revisit older projects done before the development heyday with less capital (including Seaside). I wouldn’t go so far as to say “all previous work is irrelevant”. It’s also the birthplace of his new found focus on historical precedents formed in leaner times such as the 1870s including incremental urbanism and horizontal mixed use blocks.

        I wouldn’t expect this to be a refutation of what he said at last year’s Congress given that he’s been talking on this theme for about two years.

      • Erin Chantry January 30, 2013 at 10:22 PM #

        Thanks Eliza! You know Andres better than I do, but I do have to say the message I heard this past week was much different than the one I heard in West Palm…I might have heard wrong, but what I heard him say (with great conviction) is that the way we’ve been doing things isn’t relevant moving forward…hence the shift…

  3. sirkulat January 29, 2013 at 1:12 AM #

    Perhaps Peter Calthorpe and William Fulton’s Regionalism is the next step for New Urbanism. To wit, if New Urbanism is the mixed-use philosophy for planning singular district economies, regionalism is the planning philosophy for tying together many districts within a metropolitan region. Rather than master plan a few large districts typically in central cities that may meet a perceived market demand, entire metropolitan regions contain many more small cities, townships and commercial districts needing more small-scale infill development projects to complement the glaring lack of mixed-uses that produces an intractable amount of cross-county commuting.

    • sirkulat January 30, 2013 at 3:33 PM #

      Erin, I began my above post with “Perhaps” to be polite. I am certain Regional planning has long been New Urbanism’s next step. After 20 years as a light rail designer/advocate in Portland Oregon’s planning process, I can see admirable growth and development patterns blossoming outside city center to our still woefully car-centric suburbs, confident they will welcome Portland’s acclaimed mixed-use example to guide development on the smaller scale that Andres Duany prescribes.

      For the near future, Portland is facing a boom of central city development that I can welcome as well because Portland has remained a (compact) small city with much the same infill development potential applicable to all metropolitan areas.

      However, we must still place transportation planning ahead of New Urbanist development. We drive too much, too far, for too many purposes, likewise fly, truck and ship manufactured goods too much too far. Transport only seems like a lesser problem from the view behind a streaking windshield.

      It can be said there are 5 scales of economy, small to large: local, regional, state, national and global. A bell curve depicts “regional” economies at the top of the curve as most efficient. A backyard local economy is too small to serve a large population and the further we travel and transport goods to construct state, national and global economies, the more waste incurs. Think about it. Thanks.

  4. Andrew Howard January 29, 2013 at 7:59 AM #

    Kudos to Duany and CNU for the shift. Maybe the next seaside will be a better block. Tactical urbanism and better block are a topic at the Congress this year for the first time….

  5. Urban Eyes January 29, 2013 at 10:52 AM #

    Interesting post. I want to believe.

    But I am looking around at Wynwood, I am curious: isn’t this more of the “high tides will lift all boats” mentality that keeps us stuck in a spiral of gentrification?

    This link is from 2008, and I will be happy to see updated information about how the residents of Wynwood really are being included in its transformation. Till then, I loke the words but would like us to walk the walk.

    This phrase in particular rings all too true, including in terms of work that I myself have participated in. It needs to stop: “The town hall came not a moment too late. Wynwood is being promoted world wide as a deserted wasteland and thus ripe to incubate a world-class arts scene. This image of wasteland revitalized as arts haven is being promoted globally and is often used as justification for gentrification in cities throughout the US.”

  6. Sandy Sorlien January 29, 2013 at 2:07 PM #

    I didn’t attend the talk, but corresponded with Duany about your blog post, Erin. Wasn’t he only talking about trying out some code-free zones, which he has suggested before? He doesn’t want to throw out the SmartCode and Transect; in fact, the open source SmartCode is one of his most brilliant tactical efforts, enabling cities that can’t afford big charrette teams to customize the template on their own – cheap. It’s actually perfect for these times.

    I have mixed feelings about code-free zones and discarding rules. While bureaucracy is certainly ridiculous and even criminal, it’s mainly the poor who would live in unsafe conditions if buildings are uninspected. And if we do back away from “rules”, discarding the Transect model seems like a seriously thrown wet baby. The Transect represents choice, not coercion. It reassures people who despise the idea of Greenwich Village that they would not have to live there. Their fears may be legitimate if we keep pushing Manhattan as our model, even if only for its parklets.

    • Erin Chantry January 29, 2013 at 3:11 PM #

      Hi Sandy, thanks so much for posting. I didn’t get the impression that Duany wanted to throw anything out per se. He stated that the transect definitely exists. He showed a picture of Portland to illustrate that it’s existence is inarguable. And I agree. However, he did communicate that it, along with code, it will become less relevant as a planning tool over time and that we can be most effective through incremental planning. I was surprised that he spoke of those strict paradimes that he’s developped so flippantly. Of course we work in a highly opinionated profession, but I hope that since DPZ posted the article on their website that they found valuable arguments in the piece.

      • Sandy Sorlien January 30, 2013 at 12:17 PM #

        Hi Erin, not sure why these frameworks keep getting called “strict”. They’re a lot less strict than the rules they’re replacing. As a practitioner I know how very supple they are. For example, one of the actions we advocate in Transect-Planning Land is throw out your parking minimums. Within the last hour there was a post from a SmartCode Facebook page that Buffalo is doing exactly that with their new code. The preview for that code is very clear, check it out here

        Click to access A_Preview_of_Buffalo%27s_New_Zoning.pdf

        It would be nice to throw out use tables too, but that ain’t happening anytime soon. At least Buffalo and many other cities are reducing their use tables significantly by using the one from the model SmartCode as their basis, as they did.

        Simplify, yes, absolutely – but Charles Siegel is right. Existing towns and cities still need codes.

    • Alex B. January 30, 2013 at 10:44 AM #

      Sandy – it seems you are equating the role of a building code with that of a zoning code.

      I do not see anyone proposing a building-code-free area, merely one free of the height, bulk, and use restrictions of a zoning code. (Unless I’ve missed something).

      It’s true, the building code can be just another mechanism to put the worst elements of bad zoning into play (see Houston’s parking and setback requirements despite its lack of use zoning), but I think it’s a huge stretch to talk about deregulation of key elements leading to unsafe buildings.

      • Sandy Sorlien January 31, 2013 at 9:59 AM #

        Hi Alex, thanks for the chance to clarify. I brought up building codes because when Andres Duany first wrote and spoke about code-free zones (at least, the first time I heard it), it was after Katrina in New Orleans, 2006. Issues of building safety were being conflated with zoning because of the FEMA requirements to raise buildings (raise, not raze, though that certainly happened too). When we worked on SmartCodes for MS and Louisiana, the Building Configuration tables showed raised houses and hardened or flow-through first floors on mixed-use buildings. The bureaucracy and expense were so onerous, particularly around insurance payments, that little could get done. That’s when Duany proposed an experimental code-free zone where all the rules were suspended. I believe it was published in the Times-Picayune.

        Normally, you’re right, most of those building safety issues are in the ICC codes, not zoning or urban design codes. I was referring to Duany’s earlier proposal and assumed he would support something similar now.

  7. Charles Siegel January 29, 2013 at 4:54 PM #

    If the form-based code is the “heavy, armored brigade” of rules, I don’t see why it has become less relevant.

    Yes, there will be less building of greenfield suburbs like Seaside or Kentlands if we continue to be impoverished.

    But form-based codes are also a useful substitute for conventional zoning in existing cities. For example, Cincinnati is just beginning to use a form-based code.

    However impoverished we are, cities still have to choose between conventional zoning and form-based codes, and the fact is that form-based codes work better.

  8. Nathaniel M Hood February 4, 2014 at 8:33 PM #

    Reblogged this on CNU NextGen and commented:
    From: At The Helm Of The Public Realm: An Urban Design Blog.


  1. At the Helm of the Public Realm: An Urban Design Blog | Design Center Pittsburgh - February 11, 2013

    […] At the CNU-FL conference last week, Andres Duany detailed his vision for the way in which urban planning will adapt to the realities of national impoverishment and climate change. Link to full story. […]

  2. At the Helm of the Public Realm: An Urban Design Blog | Design Center Pittsburgh - June 20, 2013

    […] At the CNU-FL conference last week, Andres Duany detailed his vision for the way in which urban planning will adapt to the realities of national impoverishment and climate change. Link to full story. […]

  3. Andres Duany’s Lean Urbanism. | At the Helm of the Public Realm: An Urban Design Blog - February 8, 2014

    […] week at the CNU Florida Summit in Sarasota, Andres Duany presented a follow-up to the “New, New Urbanism” that he first introduced at the statewide meeting last year. Previously, he has spoken about […]

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