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Tag Archives: Peter Norton

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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Why Did We Stop Walking and How Do We Start Again?

13 May

As you may know, the CNU20 conference was organized around tracks which allowed you to focus on your particular interest and how it related to New Urbanism. I spent most of my time on the “Mobility and Walkable City” since that is where my concentration lies. There is no doubt that the best breakout session of this track was “Why Did We Stop Walking & How Do We Start Again? The Dawn of the Motor Age in the American City” presented by Eric Dumbaugh, Richard Hall, and Peter Norton.

I came into this session with a heightened awareness of this topic after concentrating on Tom Vanderbilt’s series, The Crisis in American Walking in Slate magazine last month. I wasn’t expecting to learn much more. I mean, what was there to learn? We started building our streets around the car because more people started driving, right? I couldn’t have been more wrong. As it turns out there was a blatant social, economic, and political shift that taught us to change the way we used our streets. This was not a natural change in priorities, but a direct result of media propaganda.

Now, we always hear that we can’t blame our problems on our past. Our choices are ours alone. If we choose to get into our automobile and drive to the grocery store instead of walk this afternoon, its our own responsibility. Yes, there is truth in that. But just as we might discover in a personal therapy session that there are reasons we make the choices we do in our every day lives, this session enlightened me into why Americans behave the way they do.

I encourage you all to read Fighting Traffic by Peter Norton to get all the gory details, but for me the brainwashing media campaign that two generations before me suffered, culminated in the TV show Merrily We Roll Along, narrated by Groucho Marx, as part of the weekly series DuPont Series of the Week, in 1961. While the campaign against the pedestrian started forty years prior, it was this show that coined the phrase “American’s love affair with the automobile.” In it, Groucho Marx narrated that we love our cars and would do anything for them. Essentially, we can’t help any destruction or negative impacts they leave in their wake because we love them too much. The analogy was made between cars and women, i.e. “we can’t live with them, we can’t live without them.” Man was the driver, the car was the woman. Americans were helplessly in love.

And what a surprise! Pierre DuPont had a controlling stock in GM (General Motors) from 1914 to 1957 (until he was forced to sell to keep from monopolizing the market as part of the Clayton Antitrust Act), was the GM board chairman for a significant amount of time, and was appointed president of GM in 1920. Americans didn’t decide they had a love affair with the automobile, the DuPont family and Groucho Marx did, and we have believed it ever since.

Of course the media campaign by the car industry started way before in the early 20s. Peter Norton showed us this picture that was taken in Detroit, “The Motor City” in 1917:

Woodward Avenue at Monroe Avenue, Detroit, 1917 (Source: Detroit News)

In one of the busiest intersections of this big city, all users are sharing the street. Pedestrians and streetcars navigate around each other carefully. This was normal and nothing was thought of it. The street belonged to people and it was completely safe to let your children play in the street. Shift to 1923 when the number of automobile fatalities increased to 15,500 from 5oo in 1907, most of them children 4-8 years old. People were in an uproar at cars, drivers, and the automobile industry. Sensing a threat to their growing business, the industry went into a high gear (no pun intended) “educational,” or I might say, brainwashing, media campaign. “Jaywalking,” which wasn’t even a word in the American dictionary, was invented and then associated with a ridicule of anyone who did. Clowns were hired to dress up like buffoons, or “jaywalkers,” and then ridiculed in public on the streets. The auto industry realized the power of social norms, and used them. In Cincinnati, when the local government tried to cap car speed off at 25 mph on any streets. This was the media response:

Advertisement by Citizen’s Committee, 1923. (Source: Cincinnati Post)

The ordinance failed.

I think it’s important to mention here that while Americans did need convincing to give their streets up to the automobile, they were simultaneously driving more themselves. As the car became more financially accessible and the streetcar was put out of business (by the automobile), it was perhaps easier to understand the messages that the industry was feeding them. After all, the growing number of drivers didn’t want to be blamed for the death of children. It was much easier to blame their parents for letting them play in the street. It is true that the car was empowering and expressive: it could take you wherever you wanted to go, when you wanted to go, and however you wanted to go. Pierre DuPont and Groucho Marx might have had an audience waiting on them, but there is no doubt that without the media campaign they might have not gone so willingly or blindly into the destruction that the automobile caused.

We all know the destruction that the automobile has caused in our relationships with community and the environment, but the media shift to loving the automobile is still very much alive today. I wrote about the Raquel Nelson case last month (read it here). In case you are not familiar, this woman was charged for the death of her own son when he was struck by a drunk driver crossing a busy arterial in Marietta, Georgia. This was not the first time this has happened. Peter Norton made the case that streets now belong to the car, and anyone that gets in the way of the car is at fault. His point was made clear when he presented data collected by transportation departments in monitoring safety. The data list the reasons for pedestrian deaths in a manner that inherently blames the pedestrian, ie: “death due to disability.” As if this person could control the fact that they were disabled. While many people think that this is absurd, the shift back to streets belonging to people has simply not happened. The AASHTO guide clearly equates higher car speed with safety. Higher speed = street design for the automobile = life threatening conditions for anyone else trying to use the street.

The shift from blaming the driver to blaming the pedestrian: Baltimore’s memorial to child accident victims during its 1922 dedication by the mayor (Source: National Safety News) and the media coverage of Raquel Nelson in 2012 (Source: Huffington Post)

Holy cow, knowing this made me so sad. It would be one thing if the destruction we had caused to our built environment was a natural progression of ignorant behavior, but it was due in large part from the manipulations of the corporate media. Heartbreaking. It makes me feel helpless, because it shows how easily our human nature is swayed. GM held our hands into what could be argued as one of the most destructive relationships of the 20th century: man and car. Who knows what long-term destruction will be caused by the manipulation of the media today.

But then Eric Dumbaugh made a very opportunistic thought: this media campaign worked once, it can work again. We were so easily influenced to believe that the death of our children was worth our “love affair” with the car. This is evidence that convincing people of anything is possible. Of course behind the media campaign of the first half of the 20th century was a multi-million dollar industry. Just like the tobacco industry that followed in its footsteps, its influence was motivated by profit, not the betterment of mankind. So this is our challenge: who will take the lead this extremely expensive media campaign when the government is has just pumped $27 billion dollars into GM?

Eric Dumbaugh also made the point that we need to know our past to understand our future. All built environment professionals need to read Fighting Traffic to fully understand how to move forward in reclaiming our streets. Thanks to Peter Norton for his extremely enlightening research into why we are the way we are today. So much has been explained, the enlightening result will help move forward to building streets where our children can play again.

This post 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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