Shelley Poticha at CNU's Climate Summit

Why climate change is now front and center

The most critical opportunity for urbanists is to step up to the magnitude of the climate challenge.

25 years ago, many of us we were in this same room, having already spent four years talking and planning for the first congress. We assembled a coalition of interested but uncertain allies and curious onlookers, all drawn to the potential opportunity to confront and combat suburban sprawl. At that time, sprawl was the uncontested dominant model for building America and was rapidly becoming the world pattern of development.

We had different motives for the fight, some were principally drawn to confront the dominance of the automobile for environmental reasons of pollution and land consumption. Others found the suburbs culturally sterile, or were nostalgic for the convenience of mixed-use main streets and the character of pre-war neighborhoods. Others understood the costs of stretching municipal services further and further out. We came together not around the cause, but around the solution, a return to the mixed use walkable urbanism of pre-war communities.

Whenever I teach about CNU and the New Urbanism movement, it is not the principles or the tools I emphasize, not the Charter, Canons, transects or codes. Rather what I find most impressive and important is how we set out to change the public conversation and expectations. We figured out how to make significant cultural and system change.

The project was to stop sprawl — a national and global system deeply ingrained in our culture, governing structures, institutions and commercial enterprises. It was a huge task and we haven’t stopped it but we have fundamentally changed the public conversation, understanding and expectations.

Those expectations were the primary barrier when we began the project. “Everybody loves their suburbs, no one will give up their big back yards and their big cars. Americans love to drive – they don’t want to stop, don’t want to live in close-knit urban communities. You will never be able to sell this idea…”

But we did. We did it by offering a compelling alternative vision in words, arguments and above all in images that everyone could understand. We did it through hard work, building a few real projects but at first it was mostly through endless talks, volunteer appearances, slide shows in many different forums. We did it by talking and listening, advocating and adapting the message.

And once we had that compelling vision, we could figure out what stood in the way of realizing it – and work to bring in new allies who could undo those roadblocks – how to finance, to code and to engineer our better alternative.

But in the beginning our conversation were as fractious as any we have now. What I remember most about the first congress was the exciting and energetic shouting match about whether we should focus on building better suburbs or redeveloping the failing inner cities. The answer of course, born out by the work that followed, was both. But it was a preview of the concern for left out communities, for what was soon called environmental justice, and now climate justice. That everyone deserves better places with better connectivity and less car dependence.

When I hear the new generation correctly exhorting us to include at the table a more diverse and inclusive stakeholder base, I remember that 25 years ago we were inventing the inclusive stakeholder process. Using design as a medium to bring together different points of view, making sure everyone literally had a seat at the table where we would draw their ideas into images of a better future place.

Our agenda was always environmentally grounded and about sustainability. We knew that better walkability meant fewer VMT, denser neighborhoods meant less land consumption, and a range of housing could mean more affordability and less segregated communities.

But 25 years ago, Climate Change was not yet the main agenda. The environmental movement was focused on pollution and land conservation. We could see that better places could address both but the anti-development tinge of much of the environmental movement meant we were not always well aligned. As Shelley Poticha stated so well in her presentation, the environmental movement has been realigning, recognizing that they need to be about better places for people to live as well as protecting polar bears. And we have been adapting too. Our expanding focus on infill and small scale development through Lean Urbanism is about reviving existing cities and towns, as was advocated in the first congress. And we have come to understand that our well-designed, dense, diverse, walkable transit based places are potentially the most comprehensively effective strategy for addressing climate change—as both mitigation and adaptation. More needs to be done to make that contribution clear. And to celebrate and amplify our contribution through collaboration with our allies across the now myriad movements addressing smart growth and sustainable development advocacy.

However, the most critical opportunity before us is to step up to the magnitude of the climate challenge. We identified sprawl as a threat to our communities and our future, but the ongoing and rapidly increasing threat of climate change is far greater and the urgency is inestimable. With the theory and tools of the movement, together with the skills, insights and commitment of our members, CNU can make an essential contribution. But we need to move into high gear and work even harder across more of the country and the globe. All of the presentations at our Climate Summit emphasized the urgency of drawing down our carbon emissions and preparing for the consequences of the changing climate. One way we can do this is to continue to build on our strengths as an organization— to do, as Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk said, what we do best— share best practices. That means bringing all our members up to speed on current state of best practices in designing for carbon drawdown, as well as rising water levels, increased heat and extreme weather events.

It also means confronting the enormous and unpleasant reality of needing to relocate and rebuild entire communities which will become threatened by destructive climate events and uninsurable. After Katrina, many CNU members worked on the gulf coast. At that time, communities were unwilling to consider major relocation ideas, preferring to rebuild in place. Ten years and many storms later, the conversation needs to move forward.

At the Climate summit ideas surfaced on how to stimulate relocation discussions, what tools will be needed for communities facing this potential, how insurance will play a role, what alternatives could be available and how this might effect national location trends. Few organizations have the capacity to address this aspect of CC. Our cross sector membership, public process methodologies and envisioning skills may prove to be well suited to the challenge should we decide to step up to it. This is another challenge of culture change, a chance to help people understand that alternatives to business as usual do exist and that pathways can be forged to draw us into a more positive future than the one we see before us now. This is culture change. This is what we do.

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