Well, Bless Their Hearts: Now can we move on?

Next week, the 19th annual gathering of New Urbanism cultists takes place in Madison, Wisconsin. I’m one of them, and I’m sorry not to be making the Congress this year. This has the feel of one of those turning-point moments.

First, the good part. A lot more folks have bought into the New Urbanist perspective for building and enriching community through thoughtful design. Federal and state policy-makers, even the slow-to-change Department of Transportation types, now talk about integrating land use and transportation. And requests for proposals from regional planning agencies routinely reference principles embodied in the Charter for the New Urbanism, even if the authors of those RFPs are clueless as to where they got the ideas. So there’s reason to celebrate.

Still, as the evidence mounts that we’ve got piles of work to do, we’re too easily distracted by food fights that sap energy and waste time.

It’s a by-product of so much success, I suppose, that, as a country, we can waste so much time arguing over whether or not human activity has an effect on climate, over whether or not God means for us to base our health and prosperity on an unlimited supply of cheap oil, over whether or not the President of the United States is a Kenyan. Only people with the means to keep buying their way out of the consequences of bad decisions can afford the luxury of serial stupidity.

As I’ve argued, it’s a good time to be rich.

We can ridicule the current national infantilism. But the truth is, New Urbanists have their own tantrums, if on a significantly less damaging scale. Take, for instance, the determination to yank irrelevant academic arguments into the broader arena of planning policy. Maybe because there are so many New Urbanist architects who’ve lost the love of their old professors by designing for people instead of other architects, there’s a yearning for respect from schools of design. Ain’t gonna happen.

Like many of the bubble-dwellers in the current national debate, the academics imagine themselves as standard-bearers of a Lost Cause. Ayn Rand’s most famous character, architect Howard Roark, would be at home with either contingent. So why are some of the most gifted thinkers in New Urbanism wasting time debating people no one has ever heard of about issues no one cares about?

Step right up, folks, for the most distracting show on earth!

For over a year now, Andrés Duany, co-founder of New Urbanism and one of the movement’s big thinkers, has been bored with merely leading talented pros in reimagining American communities. So he’s picked a fight with academic proponents of Landscape Urbanism, who are advancing a view of design that privileges landscape and landscape architects over other organizing principles of community – and particularly urban – design.

Thanks to the generosity of the Lincoln Land Institute of Land Policy, the Nieman Foundation for Journalism at Harvard and Harvard’s Graduate School of Design, I got to hang around with journalists, authors and others at a Forum on Land and the Built Environment in April. So I asked Jerold Kayden of Harvard’s Graduate School of Design — which is imagined by New Urbanists as coven headquarters for the practice of anti-New Urbanist dark arts — why Landscape Urbanism bugs Andrés so much.

“Maybe,” said Kayden, “because (it’s feared that) the adjective ‘landscape’ will replace the adjective ‘new’ in New Urbanism.”

Really? Is that it?

Martin Pedersen, executive editor of Metropolis magazine, was at Harvard for the Forum, as well. Pedersen is clever enough to host these occasional flare-ups of New Urbanist pique that give modernist architects and others more attention than they’d otherwise earn. Here’s a snippet from a video interview with Pedersen about Landscape Urbaism, Andrés and the inevitable march towards the accommodation of once-competing ideas.

It’s sort of what New Urbanism does, as Duany himself reminds everyone: There can be no good idea that lasts for long outside of New Urbanism, because New Urbanism will steal it and massage it into the movement’s evolving package of potential solutions for bad ideas.

In the final plenary at the Congress on June 4, Duany and Harvard’s Charles Waldheim will square off on Landscape Urbanism. Maybe this will satisfy the food fight fans, and we can move on to the work that attracts most people to New Urbanism.

Or maybe not.

–Ben Brown

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