On the Park Bench: Seeing the world through a New Urbanist lens
Four months ago, as coronavirus took hold of cities around the world, urbanists grappled with questions about the connection between population density and viral transmission. They debated how cities could best respond, and how the virus could shape the future of our built environment. Streets were retrofitted to fit more bicycles, or even closed to cars to expand seating for restaurants. Public spaces were opened up to allow for outdoor shopping. And some parks sprouted new social distancing circles to prevent overcrowding. CNU saw an opportunity to bring allies, members, and new voices together to confront what the COVID-19 pandemic meant for our work and to discuss the role our movement might have in cities surviving and recovering from the ongoing pandemic. We launched On the Park Bench: A Public Square Conversation mid-March and held weekly conversations with local government leaders, activists, researchers, students, and planners—touching topics from virtual public engagement, homelessness, real estate development, and the declining ownership society. While many of these conversations are ongoing in this unprecedented landscape, we—as a movement and an organization—have a bit more clarity than we did back in March.
For example, we now know that density in and of itself isn’t making the virus worse, but lack of affordable housing, environmental racism, and economic disparity does. While we applaud cities for adopting pandemic-driven changes to make cities more walkable, bikeable, and open—and recognize that these are changes that urbanists have been promoting for years–we have also seen how they disproportionately benefit white and wealthy people.
The past few months have reminded us of the negative impacts that improper or careless planning can have. Urban practitioners must be intentional in their work to make sure that diversity and equity is at the forefront of their processes and understand the impact of their decisions on all communities, or they run the risk of alienating and potentially hurting entire groups of residents. In the wake of this pandemic, designing places that are safe for everyone means first confronting and responding to the racial and economic inequities that make this virus more harmful to low-income and nonwhite people.
Adapting to the new normal
To me, March feels at once like yesterday and 10 years ago. It was a time that felt so new and alien as everyone—and every industry—simultaneously carved out their new normal. At CNU, we became a fully remote staff. We took our annual Congress online for the first time ever. We finally learned how to use Slack. Throughout the past few months, we’ve quickly had to learn skills to adapt, grow, and face the challenges of an unprecedented future. And moving forward, as we think about the role of CNU in facing not just a pandemic, but any larger societal shift, we promise to continue to adapt.
In recent months, there has been an incredible and long overdue reckoning. People and organizations are finally confronting structural racism. At CNU, we recognize that we have a lot of work to do and over the next few months we’ll be outlining exactly what steps we plan to take.
One thing that we’ll be doing now is continuing to use On the Park Bench as a way for our members and allies to come together for honest, transparent, and introspective conversations about the New Urbanist movement’s role in the world.
Here are a few specific changes that we are introducing:
- Host webinars on new days: In response to listener feedback, we will offer webinars at a variety of days and times, to make it easier for those not in the Eastern time zone to join.
- Embrace additional formats: We will diversify our session format, adding interviews and presentations to our typical panel format.
- Elevate new voices: We will continue to highlight New Urbanist thinkers, as well as bring in voices from outside the NU movement to expand our thinking beyond what’s familiar.
- Look inward: We’ll continue to reassess and adapt based on feedback from all of you, as well as internal checks to make sure we’re on the right path. Please share your feedback here.
Join us next Tuesday, August 4th at noon ET for the first webinar since our summer hiatus. A panel of New Urbanist engineers, including Norm Marshall (Smart Mobility Inc.), Norman Garrick (Civil Engineer, UConn), Gary Toth (Project for Public Spaces), and Lucy Gibson (Toole Design), will share their perspective on building walkable places, as well as their experience working with DOTs to unravel some of the more enigmatic practices. Register here.