New Urbanists from all over the land – and as far away as Australia – converged in Philadelphia this past weekend to sort out their gains and losses for the year against the background of a nation punch drunk on "liquidity" and free-floating dread. The city of Philadelphia looked perkier than anyone could remember – at least the square mile emanating in a quadrant roughly southeast from William Penn's statue atop city hall to the burnished alleys of 18th century Society Hill. At lunch hour Rittenhouse Square was full of young cubicle critters seeking air and light, and six hours later the bars were doing a brisk business in twelve-dollar martinis.
The Congress for the New Urbanism (CNU) was formed in 1993 by a cadre of revolutionary architects who had decided that enough was enough with a nation bent on committing suicide by strip mall. From the start, their mission was bold, coherent, and heroic: to present a clear alternative to the mindless devouring juggernaut of suburbia.
Also from the start, they were accused of being "elitists," "un-American," "enemies-of-art-and-free-expression," "snooty enablers of white yuppie separatists," "footlings of the Neo-cons," and "sentimental saps" – all for suggesting that perhaps human beings might benefit from living in places worth caring about.
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The New Urbanists became known mostly for the real estate ventures that were produced in their name – first the iconic "new town" Seaside, Florida, and then scores of other projects based on what they called the Traditional Neighborhood Development (TND). Some of these projects were badly compromised by the zoning boards who ruled on their details. Some were wannabes and co-opted rip-offs. Some, like Vincent Graham's I'On project in Mt. Pleasant, South Carolina, achieved high levels of artistry despite the obstacles thrown up by the mental defectives who opposed them..
The New Urbanists were equally active in the existing cities, leading in the adaptive re-use of industrial ruins, brownfields, and whole districts that had been written off as hopeless beyond the pale. Figures like Mark Nikita and Dorian Moore, who worked in the rough context of downtown Detroit, and Ray Gindroz of Pittsburgh who pioneered the conversion of reviled and decrepit public housing all over the country into places where a human spirit might rediscover itself.
The greatest achievement of the New Urbanists in these years was not the long list of TNDs or the urban interventions that saved whole districts, but in the retrieval of knowledge and principle that had been thrown away by a hapless and craven officialdom of planning – abetted by the mandarin ideologues who ruled the university architecture schools, and who were dedicated above all to defending the antisocial prerogatives of their jive-narcissism. Despite all that, the New Urbanists worked doggedly to reconstruct a body of culture (i.e. urban design). They processed it in a series of brilliantly clear manuals like the Transect and the Smart Code, and gave everyone from the carpenters to the bankers a lexicon for understanding the difference between plain crap and stuff with a plausible future.
The New Urbanists came on the scene just as the final exuberant phase of the cheap oil fiesta was getting underway – meaning the climactic phase of American suburban expansion. They positioned themselves as a minority opposition to the "conventional" developers who utterly dominated the landscape. The things that were built under the New Urbanist name represented probably less than two percent of everything built since 1990. The work they did occurred as a valiant swimming against the tide – or, more specifically, against a huge blast of reeking, toxic entropy.
The final blowout of cheap oil is now ending, and the suburban juggernaut is entering its death throes. It wasn't slain by the New Urbanists, but they will be the last ones standing – just as the little warm-blooded mammals were the last creatures standing when the dinosaurs expired in the warm Cretaceous mud. The focus of their work will certainly have to change. There will be no more suburban subdivisions (or the accessories and furnishings of them – the strip malls, Big Box pods, and fried-food out-parcels), and the TND will emerge not as a counterpoint to all that crap, but as the template for a redefined type of village or town scaled to the new realities of available energy.
We will be inhabiting the terrain differently from now on. Whatever intact farmland remains will have to be reserved for feeding ourselves, and the "countryside" that has been regarded as having only scenic or recreational value for so many decades, will have to be both productive and carefully tended by human hands. Our big cities will certainly shrink, contract, and the fortunate ones will redevelop and re-densify at their old cores and around their waterfronts. The part of Philadelphia that we were in last weekend may be about as big as a sustainable city can get – minus the skyscrapers, which, alas, will be obsolete.
The demographic shift to come will be a shocking reversal of what has been going on since the start of the industrial revolution. The small towns and small cities of America – the places that have moldered in desolation and squalor for decades – will be coming back to life, surrounded by an agricultural landscape shaped by human attention.
What we'll need in this process will be the most valuable things that the New Urbanists recovered along the way: the knowledge required to create a human dwelling place with a future. That was really the extent of their ambitions all along. But it was too straightforward for a twisted culture to understand. In a few years, even the mental defectives and the professional jive-narcissists will understand where we've been and where we are going.
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