A New Urbanist Version of Change.gov

RGindroz's picture

In calling for members to use CNU.org to share crisis strategies and enhance our national agenda, Board Chair Ray Gindroz also advances a major idea for “Rebuild America Bonds”

Dear Fellow CNU Members:

I cannot recall a year in which there were more crises: first, our increasing awareness of the long-term effects of climate change; then, the fuel shortages and spike in oil costs that made Jim Kunstler look like a moderate and seemed to lead us in the same direction as the climate change crisis; then the collapse of the credit market, the onset of a "recession" or "depression," and the drop of oil prices which makes it more difficult to stay focused on energy conservation. And in the midst of all this, there’s been a re-emergence of terrorist activity around the world.

Then there was the election. How inspiring it has been to see the revival of our democracy in a new way! And to have a leader with a calm, steady hand carefully moving forward by engaging many diverse points of view to find the best course. The problems are no less great, but there is now hope.

Of course, the development industry is still in deep crisis. Many of our members are suffering the loss of projects, cutting costs to stay in business, and possibly even closing their doors.

In an e-mail to the Board, I asked for ideas on how the CNU should respond to the crisis. In that message, I pointed out that the urbanists of the early 20th Century, whose work we hold as exemplars, were doing very well up to 1929. And then their projects stalled and their ideas gradually faded away to be replaced by the futurist visions of the Modern movement. It has long been my fear that we would suffer the same fate.

I would like to propose that we set up a means of collecting suggestions from the membership on how to avoid that for our movement. One way is the CNU organization itself, which our predecessors did not have. CNU asks that the online member blog where I’m posting this message—the CNU Salons—be used to collect these ideas. Contact CNU at membership@cnu.org or 312-551-7300 for help logging in. After that, just click “comment” or “start a new conversation” to submit ideas.

From my point of view, there are two signs of hope for New Urbanism:

  1. The International Market (at least for the time being)
  2. Public sector work, especially when the new administration's programs take effect

Many of the New Urban firms that are doing well are those that are in one or both of these areas already, because the U.S. development market has been nearly frozen solid with the credit crunch.

1. International Market

New Urbanists are all over the map: India, Dubai, Djibouti, Yemen, Algeria, Moscow, Scotland, England, Canada, Australia. Hank Dittmar is leading the charge in Britain with the Prince's Foundation, which is expanding the range of new urbanist principles and concepts. Peter Calthorpe's work in the Middle East is making great innovations in urbanism and sustainability. Andres Duany and Lizz Plater-Zyberk are doing remarkable work in England, including an approach to relating development to agriculture. Dhiru Thadani is working intensely in India and other countries. Dover Kohl is in the middle east and Russia. Urban Design Associates is doing master plans and pattern books in Scotland, Russia, India, and the Middle East. And there are many more.

Although it is clear that the rest of the world is having the same problems that we have here, there are ideas to be shared and lessons to be learned from these experiences.

Here is one example: In Britain, the Royal Bank of Scotland held a competition for innovative developers. The prize is 10 million pounds of interest-free financing anytime in the next three years. One of the winners is a homebuilder and developer in Aberdeen, Scotland. They won the RBS regional prize for transforming their business model from automobile-oriented suburban to walkable urban development. The bottom-line, takeaway message may be that "New Urbanism is a key way to deliver long-term value and break through the short-term credit barrier."

Is there any way this model could be used in the U.S.?

Certainly an exchange of ideas with professionals working in different countries may yield a host of new ideas. At the last CNU Board meeting, we agreed to add an international component to the Denver Congress, which will also include the Oslo-Denver Initiative. An international program like this will enable those of us who have this work to request that these clients serve as Congress sponsors and send their staff to the Congress. All Congress attendees should benefit from an expanded networking pool.

2. Public Sector Work and the Impact of the New Administration

One of the most refreshing ideas coming from the new administration is their use of the internet to solicit ideas. Go to http://www.change.gov to type in your suggestion.

Again, how should the CNU best respond to and serve the new administration? Clearly, the cumulative effect of the various crises listed at the beginning of this e-mail calls for Rebuilding America in a new way. The need for new and revised infrastructure (all forms of rail and other transit, pedestrian-friendly interconnected networks within urbanized areas, facilities for short term rental vehicles of all types, etc.) suggests a version of the New Deal public works efforts.

How can we most effectively assist in the creation of policies that build sustainable, compact, mixed-use, mixed-income neighborhoods and cities? Clearly, the principles and models of New Urbanism continue to provide means of achieving the goals. What is the best way to make the connection between ideas, policy, and implementation?

Perhaps we could have our own version of change.gov so we can promote and exchange of ideas within CNU and help organize the ideas and views of our members. This posting kicks off the use of the member-driven Salons portion of CNU.org to promote an exchange of ideas on these topics. Share your ideas by commenting or starting a new posting on a related idea. Having the postings online in this forum (as opposed to buried in list-servs) will give the ideas visibility and allow CNU to group them and link to them in a future web package. Again, if you need any help with the log-in procedure, call CNU at 312-551-7300 or e-mail membership@cnu.org. The staff promises prompt assistance.

On my own account, I sent one idea called “Rebuilding America Bonds” into the Obama website and have attached a copy of it to this post. It suggests that Rebuilding America according to new urbanist principles can help resolve the fuel crisis, respond to issues of climate change, and address longer term social issues. There are two parts: A public investment program in infrastructure and a means of guiding and influencing development patterns. And I wondered if the former could be funded by bonds, in which all of America INVESTS, rather than through tax revenues. Attached is a copy of it. What do you think? Is it something CNU would like to propose?

I look forward to your ideas and proposals.


Raymond L. Gindroz, FAIA
Urban Design Associates
31st Floor, Gulf Tower
707 Grant Street
Pittsburgh, PA 15219

tel 412 263-5200
fax 412 263-5202




response to Ray's letter

Dear Ray,

This is great. I like your Bonds idea and am pondering what to post to the Obama site myself. I have a draft I'll post here shortly. Because our issues are multi-disciplinary, and there's no topic called Development Patterns or Community-Building, I'll have to post to "Other." I think the Bonds idea is very strong because it fits right into the force that elected Obama in the first place, i.e., the power of each of us to make a difference with our little $50 contributions and weekends knocking on doors.

But nobody is responding here in the Salons to your letter, unless I'm on the wrong page here. (Possible.) You posted on December 18 and there are no comments?

The CNU staff isn't going to be happy but I have to say (and am not alone in thinking) that this website is too difficult to navigate. So we retreat to the much easier world of the listservs. Look how easy www.change.org is to navigate. We need that kind of interface.

And ironically the Salons suffer from the same mistake that the Obama Administration seems to be making - not recognizing our problems as "one interrelated community-building challenge." When the Salons are divided into topics, the New Urbanism falls apart.

More shortly...


New Economics

The new context that New Urbanism is currently evolving in is an economic condition so unique, indefinable and unpredictable that I think we should be reaching out to economists like Princeton’s Krugman, Yale’s Schiller, and, if we are getting into bonds, Bill Gross. Otherwise, right now, we have our heads up a certain orifice, groping in the dark for a light switch.
The interdisciplinary nature of evolutionary New Urbanism requires the input of the discipline of economics.
I also think that anthropologists are needed right now, since “community building” is really a form of tribalism, an important and primal organizing principle that was “in play” as the foundation of socio-economic progress, security and some predictability ( “predictability” being a form of psychological and physical security) since mankind became settled, until post WWII.
In a nutshell, a formula for building form based residential communities that are economically sound to build in this economy ( like the simple but elegant narrow three story row homes that supported families of seven or eight for generations in places like Philadelphia and Baltimore) coupled with the argument ( with examples ) of why it is important for friends and family to live within a distance ( preferably walking distance ) that allows for daily interaction. For instance, that one hour between returning from work and dinner, or a walk after dinner, that keeps friends and family “in tune” and checking on one another.
People who care about us as individuals, and can help us, or we them, absolutely need to know things before it is too late. Living in close proximity to familial, personal and professional networks keeps these connections fresh and up-to-date. (I think that the “one hour” between work and dinner kept enough Uncles on my derrière’ to keep me out of serious trouble in Camden, NJ.)
In our physically disconnected post-WWII build out it is impractical to really know or be involved with those you love and care about, and hope, love and care about you.
The possibility of easy interaction on a daily basis is the key to healthy family and social life, as well as job networking. Having a strong network is essential to surviving hard times. “High Density” equates to “Closeness” in the warmest and best sense of the word. In life, wouldn’t we rather be “close” to one another?
Much of the emotional distance in life can be resolved by physical closeness.
( What is more satisfying? Intimacy over the phone or a physical embrace?)
The current economic crisis and need for networking and support is a New Urbanist argumentative opportunity for the economical “high density build out” and the “closeness” of a intimate, caring network supported in a practical way by physical layout, enhanced by mass transit.
These days, if you don’t have friends and family close, and easily at hand, you don’t have much.

What did the Board say?

Ray wrote:

"In an e-mail to the Board, I asked for ideas on how the CNU should respond to the crisis."

What did they say? We don't hear from most Board members on listservs. How about if the Board posts their ideas here first, so we don't duplicate efforts?



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