The Charter, exactly 25 years later
Tuesday, May 4, unremarked by anyone in any media as far as I know, a significant anniversary for urbanism passed. Exactly 25 years before, on a sunny, warm, spring day in 1996 in Charleston, South Carolina, the Charter of the New Urbanism was signed.
I was in the hall when participants of CNU IV lined up, including then-HUD-secretary Henry Cisneros, to sign the Charter, written by the founders of CNU. I remember being nervous as I signed the board—there was nothing to anchor my hand, and the occasion was important. My signature is hardly legible and I'm not exactly John Hancock.
Nevertheless, I am proud that I signed it along with about 265 other people. Twenty-five years later, the Charter still inspires awe with its timelessness and profundity. It is poetic in its form. First, there is a preamble that lays out the new Congress for the New Urbanism’s position on urban disinvestment and suburban sprawl in paragraphs that begin “we stand,” “we advocate,” “we recognize,” “we represent,” and “we dedicate.” These statements cover a position, a voice, an awareness, an identity, and a commitment to creating a better world.
The preamble is followed by three sections of principles, each addressing one of three urban scales: “The Region: Metropolis, City, and Town,” “The Neighborhood, the District, and the Corridor,” and “The Block, the Street, and the Building.” Those sections, in turn, each have nine principles, for a total of 27. The Charter’s scales and principles follow a mathematical symmetry. Three times three is nine, times three is 27.
Is that symmetry by chance? Certainly not. Obsessive? Perhaps. Does it serve a purpose? Definitely. The Charter is about the right length. Any shorter, and some important concepts would be missing. Longer and it would lack punch. By making each of the three scales the same length, the founders were saying that the building is just as important as the neighborhood and the region, no more and no less, and vice-versa. The Charter is wisdom on the built environment, compressed. Forcing a statement of principles and beliefs into a specific form is how that wisdom is compressed. Shakespeare would not be Shakespeare without iambic pentameter.
Deciding the most important passage from the Charter is impossible. They all could be important, depending on the issue at hand. But we can all have our favorite parts. From the regional scale, I like “Farmland and nature are as important to the metropolis as the garden is to the house,” part of principle 3. That makes a key point about fractals of nature in daily living.
From the neighborhood scale, I like “Schools should be sized and located to enable children to walk or bicycle to them,” a part of principle 16, which is so simple and true, and both “size” and “location” are called out as equally important. I also like “The economic health and harmonious evolution of neighborhoods, districts, and corridors can be improved through graphic urban design codes that serve as predictable guides for change (principle 17).” That was written when only a handful new urban codes had been adopted, but the last quarter century has proven the benefits of better regulations in “harmonious evolution” and “predictable guides for change.”
There’s so much to like in The Block, the Street, and the Building, but the section’s first principle (19) gets to the heart of the matter: “A primary task of all urban architecture and landscape design is the physical definition of streets and public spaces as places of shared use.”
As CNU notes on its website: “Since its ratification in 1996, The Charter for the New Urbanism has had enormous influence on the planning, design, and development of towns and cities worldwide, and has been translated into 12 languages.”
The Charter has had a big influence, because the New Urbanism has had an enormous influence, and the Charter is the foundation of this movement. It lays out the principles. Exactly a quarter century after it was signed, CNU announced the hiring of a new executive director, Rick Cole. He will bring new ideas and fresh leadership to CNU, as Lynn Richards did when she took charge seven years ago—and John Norquist, Shelley Poticha, and Peter Katz did before that. The people can change, but the principles carry on. That’s why May 4, 1996, is worth remembering if you are an urbanist.
The Charter of the New Urbanism
The Congress for the New Urbanism views disinvestment in central cities, the spread of placeless sprawl, increasing separation by race and income, environmental deterioration, loss of agricultural lands and wilderness, and the erosion of society’s built heritage as one interrelated community-building challenge.
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.
We advocate the restructuring of public policy and development practices to support the following principles: neighborhoods should be diverse in use and population; communities should be designed for the pedestrian and transit as well as the car; cities and towns should be shaped by physically defined and universally accessible public spaces and community institutions; urban places should be framed by architecture and landscape design that celebrate local history, climate, ecology, and building practice.
We recognize that physical solutions by themselves will not solve social and economic problems, but neither can economic vitality, community stability, and environmental health be sustained without a coherent and supportive physical framework.
We represent a broad-based citizenry, composed of public and private sector leaders, community activists, and multidisciplinary professionals. We are committed to reestablishing the relationship between the art of building and the making of community, through citizen-based participatory planning and design.
We dedicate ourselves to reclaiming our homes, blocks, streets, parks, neighborhoods, districts, towns, cities, regions, and environment.
We assert the following principles to guide public policy, development practice, urban planning, and design:
The Region: Metropolis, City, and Town
- Metropolitan regions are finite places with geographic boundaries derived from topography, watersheds, coastlines, farmlands, regional parks, and river basins. The metropolis is made of multiple centers that are cities, towns, and villages, each with its own identifiable center and edges.
- The metropolitan region is a fundamental economic unit of the contemporary world. Governmental cooperation, public policy, physical planning, and economic strategies must reflect this new reality.
- The metropolis has a necessary and fragile relationship to its agrarian hinterland and natural landscapes. The relationship is environmental, economic, and cultural. Farmland and nature are as important to the metropolis as the garden is to the house.
- Development patterns should not blur or eradicate the edges of the metropolis. Infill development within existing urban areas conserves environmental resources, economic investment, and social fabric, while reclaiming marginal and abandoned areas. Metropolitan regions should develop strategies to encourage such infill development over peripheral expansion.
- Where appropriate, new development contiguous to urban boundaries should be organized as neighborhoods and districts, and be integrated with the existing urban pattern. Noncontiguous development should be organized as towns and villages with their own urban edges, and planned for a jobs/housing balance, not as bedroom suburbs.
- The development and redevelopment of towns and cities should respect historical patterns, precedents, and boundaries.
- Cities and towns should bring into proximity a broad spectrum of public and private uses to support a regional economy that benefits people of all incomes. Affordable housing should be distributed throughout the region to match job opportunities and to avoid concentrations of poverty.
- The physical organization of the region should be supported by a framework of transportation alternatives. Transit, pedestrian, and bicycle systems should maximize access and mobility throughout the region while reducing dependence upon the automobile.
- Revenues and resources can be shared more cooperatively among the municipalities and centers within regions to avoid destructive competition for tax base and to promote rational coordination of transportation, recreation, public services, housing, and community institutions.
The Neighborhood, The District, and The Corridor
- The neighborhood, the district, and the corridor are the essential elements of development and redevelopment in the metropolis. They form identifiable areas that encourage citizens to take responsibility for their maintenance and evolution.
- Neighborhoods should be compact, pedestrian friendly, and mixed-use. Districts generally emphasize a special single use, and should follow the principles of neighborhood design when possible. Corridors are regional connectors of neighborhoods and districts; they range from boulevards and rail lines to rivers and parkways.
- Many activities of daily living should occur within walking distance, allowing independence to those who do not drive, especially the elderly and the young. Interconnected networks of streets should be designed to encourage walking, reduce the number and length of automobile trips, and conserve energy.
- Within neighborhoods, a broad range of housing types and price levels can bring people of diverse ages, races, and incomes into daily interaction, strengthening the personal and civic bonds essential to an authentic community.
- Transit corridors, when properly planned and coordinated, can help organize metropolitan structure and revitalize urban centers. In contrast, highway corridors should not displace investment from existing centers.
- Appropriate building densities and land uses should be within walking distance of transit stops, permitting public transit to become a viable alternative to the automobile.
- Concentrations of civic, institutional, and commercial activity should be embedded in neighborhoods and districts, not isolated in remote, single-use complexes. Schools should be sized and located to enable children to walk or bicycle to them.
- The economic health and harmonious evolution of neighborhoods, districts, and corridors can be improved through graphic urban design codes that serve as predictable guides for change.
- A range of parks, from tot-lots and village greens to ballfields and community gardens, should be distributed within neighborhoods. Conservation areas and open lands should be used to define and connect different neighborhoods and districts.
The Block, The Street, and The Building
- A primary task of all urban architecture and landscape design is the physical definition of streets and public spaces as places of shared use.
- Individual architectural projects should be seamlessly linked to their surroundings. This issue transcends style.
- The revitalization of urban places depends on safety and security. The design of streets and buildings should reinforce safe environments, but not at the expense of accessibility and openness.
- In the contemporary metropolis, development must adequately accommodate automobiles. It should do so in ways that respect the pedestrian and the form of public space.
- Streets and squares should be safe, comfortable, and interesting to the pedestrian. Properly configured, they encourage walking and enable neighbors to know each other and protect their communities.
- Architecture and landscape design should grow from local climate, topography, history, and building practice.
- Civic buildings and public gathering places require important sites to reinforce community identity and the culture of democracy. They deserve distinctive form, because their role is different from that of other buildings and places that constitute the fabric of the city.
- All buildings should provide their inhabitants with a clear sense of location, weather and time. Natural methods of heating and cooling can be more resource-efficient than mechanical systems.
- Preservation and renewal of historic buildings, districts, and landscapes affirm the continuity and evolution of urban society.