The Revolution Will Not be Organized (But the food and drink will be pretty good)

It’s officially over.

The flush era for planners and designers, when utopian villages and new towns could grow from dreams and piles of private sector cash? Long gone. Now comes the revolution.

What the revolt will look like is under debate. And not surprisingly, the most intense discussions are joined by those who have always been arguing about one thing or another, even as they designed and built places that, at least in part, defined neighborhood and community character during the flush times.

Dhiru Thadani, making copies of his book even more valuable. A feat no one thought possible.

Over the weekend of January 28-29, the New Urbanist debate team reconvened on holy ground, Seaside, Florida, where the annual Seaside Prize for distinguished contributions to design and community building was awarded to Dhiru Thadani. Dhiru’s worthiness as the Prize recipient was about the only thing not up for discussion.

“The 20th century ended in 2010," said Andres.

Andres Duany refined his theory of an “impoverished America,” where the lessons of the mid-19th century — “when the wealthiest country in the world was built entirely on brains” — will be more important than the experiences of more recent times.

Okay, maybe “impoverished” is not exactly the right word, said Andres. “We’re not poor, just no longer hideously wealthy.” But one thing for sure, he said: “The 20th century ended in 2010.”

Stefanos Polyzoides, left, pictured with Hank Dittmar of the Prince's Foundation for the Built Environment.

Stefanos Polyzoides, one of the few pioneering New Urbanists who can out-passion Andres, attacked the “pseudo-science or idiotic science” and costs of LEED sustainability certification. Better, said Stef, for the Congress for the New Urbanism to assign itself the job of creating a “description of core sustainability approaches” in 20 pages and give it away for free.

What’s more, said Stef, himself a beloved member of the old guard of New Urbanism, it’s time for the old guard to step aside. He proposed that for the 20th anniversary of the Congress for the New Urbanism no one over 50 years of age be allowed to participate in the annual event. Andres then upped the ante by suggesting that the age limit be lowered to 40.

That was pretty much the drift of the discussion through two invigorating forums over two days. Part Ivy League honors class and part New England town meeting. In between and after, as usual, everybody moved somewhere to eat spectacular food and drink good wine. (Will the revolution be catered?)

The ritual debate was leavened by the presence of Shelley Poticha, a former CNU executive director and now head of HUD’s Office of Sustainable Housing and Communities.


There are indeed tough times ahead, Shelley told the forum audience. But it’s also good to remember that the work New Urbanists have done to advance the cause of compact, walkable, mixed-use communities has paid dividends. Core principles of the New Urbanist effort now permeate the highest policy-making offices in Washington. And even if they don’t call themselves New Urbanists and even if they don’t yet know a transect zone from no parking zone, “there are people absolutely everywhere,” said Shelley, who’ve become advocates of repairing and rebuilding communities according to those principles.

“They may not yet have the skills,” said Shelley, “but they understand. . . They are already there, and they are open” to approaches tested and refined by Smart Growth/New Urbanist advocates. The challenge will be to “start where people are at” and not necessarily where New Urbanists insist they be. Which is a revolutionary concept if ever there was one.

It’s a good time, said Shelley, “to use our skills in strategic ways” to keep the conversation going and to facilitate the transformation of communities. To that end, what do you think? How do we move, as Shelley asks, “from this desire — this vision — to actual change on the ground?”

–Ben Brown


  1. Its all well and good for new urbanist principles to permeate the executive branch of a liberal Democratic administration.

    But the power of the purse is with Congress. And so for new urbanists to have any effect on federal public policy, new urbanists have to do what the highway lobby has done- permeate the legislative branch in general, and both parties in particular. (Needless to say, I have no magic bullet solution regarding how to do that).

  2. I guess I vote for nobody over 50… I want to go on the Cruise Ship to Cuba!

  3. You’re right, Michael . . The future of all efforts to scale-up community revitalization is tied to the willingness of Congress to back innovation with funding. And while we’re likely to be in for a couple of years of irrelevant, time-wasting desk-pounding from the polar factions of no-compromise zealotry, the real pain at the local and regional levels — as opposed to the theoretical pain of Constitutional revisionism — will supply the necessary, if imperfect, reality check. The combination of cynicism and optimism I subscribe to posits an eventual return to what works (and what makes idealistic revolutionaries nervous): Political compromise and other pacts with the devils of expediency.

  4. Great report, Ben, thank you. I’m assuming the proposed Congress can be *attended* by those over 40 but that all the presentations and forums would be delivered by those 40 and under. Otherwise how do we old farts learn from them?

  5. Ann Daigle says

    Thanks for the video, Ben, and for articulating Shelley’s message. I believe more than ever that change happens at the level of the neighborhood and the community – the lowest level of governance subsidiarity – and through paying attention to (as Andrés emphasized) “What works best in the long run.” This means solutions will necessarily be relevant to individual grass roots efforts. However, the most salient point taken from these sessions was that we need a balance of 1. Commitment to basic top down livability principles (i.e., no compromise on walkability, economic and social diversity, enhancing local identity) and 2. Bottom up local activism that guides and implements change. Sign me up for the rEvolution!

  6. The weekend was a real family reunion and we’re all grateful that some things never change — like Andres’ pronouncements and Stef’s challenges. I’m anxious to see the follow-up from Mike and Jennifer on these forums. Thanks for the food and party planning goes to a group led by Diane Dorney. She is doing a great job as our leader of the Seaside Institute. As a board member of the Institute, I think I can say that this type of Seaside Prize weekend helped set the bar for years to come. Maybe because Dhiru was the Prize recipient, the party was sure to be a good one. Congratulations Dhiru.

  7. Steph can attack LEED all he wants–no one listens to CNU anymore and USGBC has raised the bar for sustainability. As for the old guard retiring: yes, it’s time to integrate the true believers with landscape urbanists and other important design trends.


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