Plan by DPZ CoDESIGN, with pedestrian sheds

Teaching with the 25 Great Ideas

As a new urbanist practicing planner who occasionally teaches undergraduate urban studies courses, I am looking forward to using CNU’s new book, 25 Great Ideas of New Urbanism, in my next course.

New Urbanism is a philosophy, a practice, and a reform movement. The scope of its project is vast: “We stand for the restoration of existing urban centers and towns within coherent metropolitan regions, the reconfiguration of sprawling suburbs into communities of real neighborhoods and diverse districts, the conservation of natural environments, and the preservation of our built legacy.” In trying to realize that goal, new urbanists are grappling with reforming multiple, hidden, systems touching on every aspect of the built environment and the processes of development, preservation, and regulation.

This comprehensive, multi-disciplinary scope is necessary to tackle the challenges, but it can be daunting for people first learning about these ideas. As Rob Steuteville writes in the introduction to the 25 Great Ideas, “New Urbanism is too big a subject to be swallowed whole. People don’t become captured by “The New Urbanism” all at once. They start down that path through one or more Great Ideas.” This book provides bite-sized, easily accessible entrees into specific, concrete ideas and practices that new urbanists have pioneered or refined.

Personally, I find the Charter of the New Urbanism deeply inspiring. I remember reading it for the first time, feeling caught up by the sweeping, call-to-arms language, and thinking, “yes, this is why I want to be a planner.” And as I learned more about urban design, I became even more impressed with the dense connections among elements of the Charter, they way different elements relate to and reinforce each other, and the elegant way the Charter resolves many arguments. But in teaching my Introduction to New Urbanism course over the past decade, I have found that most students don’t have the reaction I had. The language is too inaccessible; the arguments are too opaque.

The 25 Great Ideas of New Urbanism is almost the opposite of the Charter in language and approach. The “Great Ideas” are focused on implementation and practical impact, so they are much more concrete and accessible than the principled language of the Charter. The ideas are presented as a series of conversations between leading new urbanists, so the language is conversational and accessible, with none of the opaqueness of much academic writing or the dryness of most writing for professional planners. Rob has made the interviews even more accessible for students by adding endnotes that provide additional background, context, and up-to-date information for projects mentioned in the interviews.

People who teach about urbanism but who are not themselves expert new urbanists will appreciate the bonus material that follows each “Great Idea”: additional resources including books, articles, and videos; key points that distill the most important takeaways; and questions for discussion. I am especially looking forward to adding the video resources to my syllabus.

Although I have painted contrasting pictures between the Charter of the New Urbanism and the 25 Great Ideas of the New Urbanism, in many ways, I think they will work together as course materials. For many topics, the Great Ideas interview can provide an accessible introduction to the topic, and the related essay in the Charter of the New Urbanism book can add more nuanced understanding of the practicing professional’s approach and considerations. As I reviewed the Great Ideas in parallel with the Charter, I found that most of them have direct connections to specific elements in the Charter. However, one of the interesting things about the Great Ideas are the topics that appear only obliquely or not at all in the Charter. Charter elements refer to several topics only in a nascent way (the rural-urban transect, sustainable urbanism, doing the math for cities and towns, form-based codes, and light imprint for green infrastructure). And it’s hard to find any reference in the Charter that relates directly to tactical urbanism, lean urbanism, or the multi-disciplinary design charrette. Discussing these topics will help students understand how new urbanists developed this knowledge as they confronted barriers to good urbanism through project implementation.

I would love to hear how you use this resource in your teaching. I leave you with two possible assignments using the 25 Great Ideas of the New Urbanism.

25 Great Ideas and the Charter of the New Urbanism

Select one of the 25 Great Ideas. Read the Charter of the New Urbanism, and pull out excerpts from the Charter that relate to, support, or contradict the Great Idea. Write a 3-5-page essay explaining the relationship between the Charter and the Great Idea.

Exploring pedestrian sheds

  1. Read Great Idea #1, “Pedestrian shed and the 5-minute walk,” Charter book essay #11 by Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk, Charter book essay “The Neighborhood in New Urbanism” by Paul Murrain, and watch Jeff Speck’s video on the walkable city.
  2. Using a map for a place you know well, identify possible “neighborhood centers.” Mark the centers on the map and then draw quarter-mile (5-minute) and half-mile (10-minute) walk circles around the neighborhood centers.
  3. Write a 5-8-page essay reflecting on the structure you see from the combination of pedestrian sheds and transportation options. In what ways does the transportation infrastructure support or hinder the five-minute walk? What activities of daily living (places to work, shop, go to school, exercise, experience the outdoors, etc.) are available within the pedestrian sheds, and what activities are missing? How does the pattern of transportation infrastructure and available and missing activities affect different groups of people differently? Consider people of different ages, physical abilities, gender, race, and income.
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