Why I Attend the Congress | Jason King of Dover, Kohl & Partners

It's no secret that the annual Congress for the New Urbanism is the leading venue for New Urbanist education, collaboration and networking. Every year, the top minds and practitioners from around the globe travel to the CNU event to engage with the ideas that give shape and meaning to the communities we inhabit. By congregating a diverse collection of thought-leaders, planners, architects, academics, government officials, students, and citizen-activists, CNU creates a community for the design of ideas, and readies them for application.

Why I Attend the Congress is a series dedicated to sharing the first-hand experience and insight gained from attending the yearly event.

The following contribution comes direct from Jason King, of Dover, Kohl & Partners. In an earlier post, Victor Dover and King offered a compelling case for why the Congress for the New Urbanism stands out from the pack of other urban-minded conferences. Here, King offers a vivid illustration of the practical and personal effects that attending the Congress can inspire.

I worked as a municipal planner in the Florida Keys and I remember a pre-application conference with a local developer in which he was proposing two new multi-story mixed-use commercial/residential buildings in the Keys aesthetic with an aluminum V-crimp roof and pastel colors, all in accordance with the design guidelines our department recently created. Everyone attending the meeting was excited about the project, including myself.

However, seeing an actual project in plan under the guidelines made me notice a few things. The buildings were located in the middle of a parking lot behind a barrier of parking with far more spaces than necessary. The plan also showed a 15’ buffer of trees and plantings on the front and side lot lines. All of these elements were also in accordance with our design guidelines. The buildings would be difficult to access by pedestrians from the neighborhoods just east of the buildings and would be concealed by plantings. I talked with the meeting attendees about the historic buildings in nearby Tavernier and farther down US 1 in Key West, and about their relationship to the street: zero-lot lines, awnings, arcades and galleries providing shade to the sidewalk, storefronts providing visual interest to the pedestrian, parking at the interior of the lot or on the street.

“That’s how it used to be done, sure, but that’s impossible now” was effectively the response from both the developer and the planners at the table. From the developer came a litany of costs that would be created by a change in format. He made a number of points, as strained as they are difficult to remember now, about how the urban format would neither work for cars, nor pedestrians. From the planners came a list of legal concerns caused by having encroachments over the sidewalks and the assertion that, that if the buffer ordinance was any indicator, it was the will of the County Commission that new buildings be henceforth hidden. There are likely to be a number of reasons why those buildings constructed at Mile Marker 92 in Tavernier are now abandoned and for sale, but the site plan didn’t help.

If there is any advice on how to plan urban buildings in suburban areas at the American Institute of Certified Planners Conference, it is a session you could easily miss. I had. At my first Congress for the New Urbanism (CNU) conference I found that this topic was in one way or another discussed in many sessions, most involving not just urban buildings, but a variety of development conditions along the transect. The Congress was also held strategically in Orlando, where tours of relatively new buildings in the urban format could be seen and experienced at Baldwin Park, Celebration, and Winter Springs Town Center. I realized that the increment of the individual building on its lot was the increment that most of my work in the Keys concerned – and that the CNU best understands that increment.

However, after several years as a planner working closely with the CNU, the point of attending a Congress for me isn’t as much about getting answers to any one single issue anymore, as it is about hearing ideas that are farther ahead of the curve than those offered at other conferences. And the CNU advises on every scale. I am as likely to be introduced to the best practices in regional planning as with individual buildings. While working in the Keys, the design guidelines that we developed in-house represented the summation of our understanding and the best of our collective ability at that time. And yet, by the standards set by CNU, our cutting-edge approaches were, I came to realize, still very much dated. In this way, the CNU leads.

- Jason King.






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