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Tag Archives: CNU21

CNU 21: The Mormon Influence.

10 Jun

Unfortunately I was not able to attend the national CNU conference this year in Salt Lake City, but I followed the media coming from it closely. Of course the conference appeared to provide interesting material as always with conference tracks based on livability, transportation and infrastructure, sustainability, and finance. Nature and Urbanism (the title of the opening plenary), as well as, agrarian urbanism were important topics. The CNU National Conference is designed for the host city to imprint upon its structure, and therefore the Mormon influence was a recurring theme throughout the week.

Nature, livability, and agriculture are all exemplified in Salt Lake City’s urban form, layout, and structure – certainly in the intent of the original design. An example of Zionic design based on biblical principles, the planning of Joseph Smith is not what the founder of the Mormon Church is best known for. But when examining the perfectly squared blocks (the largest in the country at 660′ x 660′ and 10 acres each) formed by streets (160′ right-of-way) oriented neatly along the north-south and east-west axis, it is obvious that this city was planned carefully and meaningfully. To learn more about the blocks original design, check out this great post on Salt Lake City Digs.

salt lake city original form

The urban form of Salt Lake City used for it’s original intention of self-sustaining agriculture. (Courtesy: Andres Duany via Salt Lake City Tribune.)

“The Plat of Zion” was intended as a template for all Mormon towns. In fact, the Mormons established 534 towns in 50 years, something that no other group has done. The large blocks accommodated garden plots large enough to grow crops. Water supply was carried along the roads, approximately where the modern day curb and gutter reside. The roads separating the blocks were designed to be very wide so that a “wagon team” could turn around easily. Within the right-of-way was open space to serve the block’s uses, with a wagon path only where necessary. Salt Lake City was modeled on a utopian, agricultural society of self-sustainability.

The city hasn’t exemplified its original intentions well under the pressure of urban expansion based around the automobile. As a contemporary city not dependent on sustaining itself any longer, Salt Lake City’s form, originally sized for farms and wagons, is now an inefficient use of land with vast roads inhospitable to pedestrians. But not all hope is lost, as stated by Andres Duany and Steve Mouzon, both heavy hitters in the New Urbanism movement.

Salt Lake City blocks

A few examples of the inefficient land use of Salt Lake City’s blocks. (Courtesy: The Great American Grid.)

Andres Duany, one of the father’s of the new urbanism movement, actually applauds the Mormon Grid for it’s support of Agrarian Urbanism. This is a movement embraced by many, including Mouzon, who wrote The Original Green. Both led a CNU 21 Session called Agrarian Urbanism and the Mormon Block. Duany described Agrarian Urbanism as “a concept that involves food not as a means of making a living, but as a basis for making a life and structuring the places in which we live. The shift in focus from “agricultural urbanism” or “urban agriculture” to the more encompassing term of “agrarian” refers to a planning initiative promoting a type of sustainable community that intensifies agricultural activity whilst promoting the associated economic, environmental and social benefits.” With a need to shift cities to be more self-sustaining and provide local and healthy subsidence for people of all socio-economic classes, the Mormon Block can accommodate small farms and community gardens better than another other block network in the country.

Unintentionally, the Mormon’s created a city around one of the most important principles of urban design: adaptability. The Mormon Block can be divided into smaller blocks to promote walkability, it can accommodate an entire university or business complex, or it can structure buildings around important public and civic spaces. Adaptability in urban form is a quality that is often overlooked. When I immersed myself in the urban design profession in America, I was surprised that larger blocks weren’t praised for the ability to change over time depending on new uses. Instead, small blocks were championed for creating tight, connected cities and an walkable form. Portland is often mentioned for it’s “perfectly-sized” 200 x 200 block. In actuality, while that size might work for some uses like residential, for others is is suffocating and can prohibit development and adequate pedestrian facilities. For instance, in my current city of Tampa, it’s downtown blocks are so small (approximately 235′ x 240′) that it is a constant challenge to provide an adequate building footprint for modern construction and maintain appropriate pedestrian facilities that encourage an active public realm. So in fact, blocks that should be very walkable, often aren’t because space for people can be sacrificed for development.

portland blocks tampa blocks

Portland city blocks (200′ x x 200′) and Tampa city blocks (235′ x 245′) – both are unadaptable.

So, Salt Lake City is blessed with the Mormon Block and its ability to constantly adapt, now and in the future. However, with this ability comes great responsibility – the challenge lies in adapting the sometimes inhospitable urban form that exists now, into a livable form based on social, economic, and environmental sustainability. If the city returns part of the 160′ right-of-way back to the uses of the block as originally intended, requires high-quality development based on urban design principles, and continues to grow around public transportation, Salt Lake City will grow into the “Zion” that Joseph Smith envisioned.

What lies ahead in the future? Along with CNU 21, The Great American Grid hosted a design competition to redesign a Mormon Block. Urban designers from all over the nation, including myself transformed the 10 acre site into a block that exemplifies the principles of New Urbanism. See the results of the competition here.

Erin Chantry’s design for the Mormon Block. The concept is to show how the block can accommodate the four most popular housing types, while being organized around walkable roads and communal green space that can serve as a community garden and a part of a greater multimodal network.

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CNU20: Final Reflections.

19 May

It’s been one week since I started out on my first CNU journey, and overall it was a wonderful one. I am still wallowing through all my reflections on my week in West Palm Beach and have been able to express many of them through posts I’ve written. I have believed in the movement and adhered to the CNU Charter in my own way since I wrote my MA dissertation on “New Urbanism in Suburban America: Strategies for the Implementation of LEED-ND” a few years ago. I’ve long considered myself a New Urbanist, but this was my first interaction with the organization. Here are a few final reflections on my experience:

Perhaps one of the most impressive things about my time at CNU20 were the people I met at the heart of the movement – not necessarily what they said, or how they said it, but their surrounding energy. I was most impressed with Ellen Dunham-Jones: I already knew her ideas, they are great, but that’s not what impressed me this week. What impressed me was her keen sense of natural leadership. She is kind, articulate, impassioned, and respectful with an air of carefree positivity. I immediately felt like she was the type of person who would be my mentor, as I am sure she is to many at Georgia Tech. I almost applied there after attending Georgia Tech Architecture Career Discover Camp the summer of 1999, but didn’t. This week, spending time with Ellen, made me seriously regret it.

Similarly, Victor Dover welcomed us with such a kindness, that even though he was speaking to a room of hundreds, I immediately felt important to the New Urbanism movement. I can only assume he was a commanding leader of the Board after all, the acceptance of diversity and warmth that he embodies is at the heart of good leadership. I am looking forward to getting to know him better as I become more involved in CNU.

Another thing that struck me about the CNU was the diversity that it carries in its mission. It was Solomon’s calm, yet striking comments and Duany’s passionate rebuttal that immediately made me realize that while this is a professional organization, it is very much steeped in academic debate. There is no doubt that I love to learn for learning’s sake, so this culture immediately felt like a forum in which to develop my career. I was so impressed with the tracks offered, and felt torn in many directions. I could easily see myself in The Incremental, Entrepreneurial City, Architecture and Placemaking, and Sustainability and Livability, but it was the Mobility and the Walkability track where I spend most of my time because of the commitment I have made in my career to integrate land use with transportation planning.

I really enjoyed the mobility track, especially because of Rick Hall, Eric Dumbaugh, and Peter Norton. Peter presented an extremely interesting and enlightening historical background of our “car loving” behavior, Rick spoke about the importance of working with Functional Classification to create complete streets, and Eric Dumbaugh addressed bike safety among a host of other topics. Each presented with an equal amount of conviction and entertainment. All three were extremely knowledgeable and passionate about what they do, and I have to say it was contagious. My experience confirmed for me that integrating land use and transportation is the most effective way to bring change to the large amount of the population whose lives are reined by the automobile. I am certainly where the action is: while the CNU needs members concentrating on all initiatives, transportation is the underlying foundation that will determine the success of economic development, placemaking, sustainability, and livability of a place.

There is no doubt that the magical matchmaking I felt with CNU, hit a stumbling block with Leon Krier’s plenary session. I will not elaborate here, but you can read my past post on the topic. And while it is challenging to identify myself with people like him, and those that champion him, we become better people, writers, designers, and professionals by being around others that test us and our beliefs. It will undoubtedly lead to passionate debate, exasperation, and sometimes even despair, but then we come out on the other side of it more clearly understanding our principles and how we apply them to our work better. New Urbanism makes room for me, and it makes room for him.

Going forward as a more active member of CNU, it will be my mission to help make the Congress the most relevant and applicable to real world scenarios. As important as I think it is to debate for our personal development, it is the work on the ground that is most influential in seeing change in our built environment. While theologians like Solomon certainly contribute to the success of the organization, people like Rick Hall and Andres Duany have made me realize the importance of speaking the language of those that mold the development of our cities. Whether its code, functional classification, or design guide standards, they are the vehicles in which New Urbanists will make change. While there has been a shift in the demands of the market and the expectations of local government organizations, if the design of the new Walgreen’s on the corner in my neighborhood is any indication, I still think we screw up our built environment more than we improve it. Until that scale tips in the other direction, we cannot afford to wait for people to figure out what we’re preaching, we have to apply it to what they already know.

Thanks to everyone who made my CNU journey possible, enjoyable, challenging, and informative. I will see you next year.

This article can also be found at Tindale-Oliver & Associates.

Erin Chantry is an Urban Designer in the Urban Design and Community Planning Service Team with Tindale-Oliver & Associates. With a BA in Architecture, an MA in Urban Design, and an MSc in Urban Planning, Erin has served on a variety of projects for both public sector and private sector clients, with a primary focus on architecture, urban design, land use planning, design research, and sustainability. She has expert knowledge in New Urbanism, LEED for Neighborhood Development, and how sustainable city planning and urban design can be used as a catalyst for redevelopment.

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