Fat-tastic! Can Small Thinking Solve Our Super-Sized Problems?

According to a new report from the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development — more commonly known for crunching global budget and employment numbers  — the United States is on track to be 75% obese by 2020.

3 out of every 4. And if you check with researchers at Johns Hopkins University, they’ll tell you to expect 86% by 2030. Continue Reading

18th New Urbanist Congress: Best Ever?

What’s constitutes “best ever” depends on the takeaways, right? And when it comes to conferences, we could be talking takeaways that aren’t products of the event itself. Like maybe you got a job or connected with a soul mate. Let’s call that the upside of unintended consequences. Continue Reading

A Rapid Kick Off for CNU18 Atlanta — “Urban Labs” Point to May Conference

The 18th national conference of the Congress for the New Urbanism doesn’t officially start until May 19, 2010. But Atlanta, the host city, is getting a running start.

Conference organizers in Atlanta are working with Metro governments, non-profits, and the private sector to create lead-in events tied to all the big themes of the May gathering. The broadest of the themes, of course, is the “healthy communities” category, reflecting the association with the Atlanta-based Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. You can read about that in one of our previous posts.

There are also opportunities to integrate CNU responses on topics having to do with transportation and transit, sustainability, affordability, “aging in place,” and retrofitting suburban sprawl.

The first of the CNU18 lead-in events were held on January 14 and 15. Central Atlanta Progress, the leading convener of a broad cross section of advocates for downtown redevelopment, joined with CNU18 organizers to stage an information forum and a one-day urban lab in one of the downtown neighborhoods. The two events attracted an impressive array of local leaders and organizations – plus CNU president John Norquist, CNU co-founder Stefanos Polyzoides, and international designer/planner Dhiru Thadani.

Here’s a video overview.

Norquist provides a strong “why Atlanta” explanation here:

And Polyzoides offers his overview on Atlanta’s challenges and opportunities here:

Next up is another lead-in lab opportunity on March 1 and 2, when Sustainable Urbanism author Doug Farr appears as one of the main speakers at the annual Greenprints conference. The conference is sponsored by Southface, the Atlanta-based non-profit that trains builders, developers, and others in state-of-the-art green building practices.

– Ben Brown

Easy Rider: David Byrne Unfolds Bike, Reviews Cities of the World

Over the holiday I experienced a very 21st century weekend. Upon downloading my new Kindle App on my iPhone, I read David Byrne’s Bicycle Diaries, 2009 Viking Penguin. The $14.99 book caught my attention at the local bookstore and became my first Amazon Kindle App purchase for $9.99. I know, I know… but I promise to never buy eBooks that have exclusive Wal-Mart deals.

David Byrne, artist, musician and now author, is this year’s CNU 18-Atlanta Keynote speaker. His Talking Heads music taught me to dance in early 1980′s High School proms and one of my partners was in a punk rock band on the same New York City club circuit. While traveling through Texas recently, I re-watched Mr. Bryne’s 1986 movie, ‘True Stories,’ which I found to be an enjoyably restrained criticism of suburban sprawl. So, I was connecting with the author on many levels and eagerly swiped through the e-book on my iPhone.

Still talking: David Byrne

The hook is that Mr. Byrne sees our townscape as New Urbanist do while writing down his observations from the perspective of his well-travelled folding bicycle. While traveling the world to perform, Mr. Bryne brings his bicycle with him to refresh his senses and understand the places he is visiting. Through his years of bicycling around the world, coupled with his musician point-of-view, the book’s hook on me was his chapters on experiencing cities in an intelligent and artistic manner. He poignantly captures the landscapes of Manila, Berlin, Istanbul, Detroit and Baltimore in political, social and cultural ways. His account of finding the visionary urban planner Jan Gehl, great New York urban theorist Jane Jacobs, and Transportation Innovator Enrique Penalosa, seemed illuminating for Mr. Byrne, and I look forward to hearing his reaction to meeting our Congress this spring.

My personal reaction to the book was that Bicycle Diaries is a more artistic version of James Howard Kunstler’s more caustic City in Mind. After an easy-to-agree-with suburban sprawl critique introduction, I began to feel like a NASCAR spectator awaiting the carnage! Blow up Las Vegas; put Detroit out of its misery; and, yes, San Diegans are rude! The fun part was Mr. Byrne’s unexpectedly sharp critique of European and foreign cities both culturally and while biking. Except for Melbourne, of course. It seems Melbourne has become the new Barcelona – the greatest city in the world – probably because it is located in the far corner of world and most of us can only imagine how great it is.

The ending of the book sort of drifted off for me as I was less interested in Greenwich Village bicycle rack design as I had been about a city of hookers in the Philippines (an unfortunate personal bias). The revelation that resonates with me is because of David Byrne’s desire to simply get out of the car to see and experience the world he has become a well-respected transportation advocate in his hometown of New York.

– Howard Blackson

A Prescription for Healthy Places

The not-so-good news persists: The continuing economic woes, including long-term concerns about housing, infrastructure, and transportation policy. The complications (to put it mildly) of climate change. And the crisis in public health.

It’s no wonder the whole country feels a little under the weather.

Which is why we think it’s clever that famed designer/planner Dhiru Thadani came up with the cool graphic to the left to remind us that there is a prescription for what ails us. Or, at least, that there’s an approach to healthier living that should be included in national strategies for renewal.

The cure for what ails us?

Not coincidentally, that theme “Rx for Healthy Places,” provides the sub-title for CNU18, the annual gathering of the Congress for the New Urbanism, which will be held in Atlanta, May 19-22, 2010. The healthy places angle gets an extra shot of credibility because of the active participation in CNU18 of the Atlanta-based Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The public health connection to New Urbanist principles has always been implied. It’s important these days, especially during a heated debate over the future of health care, to make it explicit. The most authoritative link-up between public health and land use planning is “Urban Sprawl and Public Health: Designing, Planning, and Building for Healthy Communities” by Howard Frumkin, director of CDC’s National Center for Environmental Health. Dr. Frumkin will be honorary chair of CNU18.

Adding to the work of CDC researchers and epidemiologists who study links between physical health and environmental factors is an increasing body of work on mental health and social conditions, especially with regard to social isolation. Remember “Bowling Alone,” Robert Putnam’s 2001 best seller about “social capital” and community? That book inspired a lot of discussion in New Urbanist circles. And research has continued to connect isolation and ill health. Here’s a recent L.A. Times column on the topic (thanks to Ann Daigle for the link).

And to read more about the book that inspired the column, “Loneliness: Human Nature and the Need for Social Connection” by John T. Cacioppo and William Patrick, go here.

We’ll be reporting more and more about what’s beginning to shape up as an historic gathering in Atlanta next May. So keep coming back.

– Ben Brown

Now What? CNU 17 Addresses the New Era Economy

The irony is unavoidable. Interest in Smart Growth and New Urbanist topics has never been higher. Check out this May 2 column in the Washington Post; or David Brooks’ opinion piece in the New York Times from May 4. Yet the economic downturn has sucked the energy out of innovative projects in both private and public sectors. Lots of will, less way. At least for the moment.

image002And this is the moment in which the 17th national gathering of the Congress for the New Urbanism takes place. CNU 17 begins June 10 in Denver. Early registration ends today.

Before the bottom dropped out of the economy, CNU attendees were expected to be talking a lot about greening the movement. Now, the hot topics will be about adapting to new realities.

While the downturn may seem like a reason to skip this year’s gathering, it may be the best reason for scraping together the resources to get to Denver. If ever there was a time to share great ideas, this is that time.

Already the energy is producing cool stuff, particularly the award-winning video that makes the convincing argument that cul de sacs spell the end of civilization as we know it. Here it is:

We’ll see you there. If you have time, check out the discussion I’m moderating at 4:00 p.m. on Saturday, June 13. It’s an invitation to  “Embrace the Convergence” between the goals of creating compact, walkable comunnities and strategies for addressing public health, environmental, and demographic challenges. On the panel: EPA’s Tim Torma, the CDC’s Dee Merriam, and former AARP staffer Michael O’Neal.

- Ben Brown