May the Charter be with you
May 4 is the anniversary of two important historical events, both taking place on the East Coast of the US, eighty years apart, that have helped shape modern planning and urbanism for the better around the world. Only the first occurrence is widely recognized. I may be the only person, actually, who woke up thinking of the second event.
As many urbanists (and fans of walkability) know, May 4 is the birthday of Jane Jacobs, the writer and activist who had such an impact on cities in 1961 with The Death and Life of Great American Cities, a true classic in urban literature. She was born in Scranton, Pennsylvania, in 1916. Her birthday is celebrated internationally through Jane’s Walk, annually tours through walkable neighborhoods, typically scheduled in the first weekend of May, that highlight her ideas relating to the built environment.
Jacobs challenged the dominant planning and design ideas of the day, launching an intellectual and popular movement against urban renewal. She had a huge impact in protecting and reviving the historic form of cities—although she had less to say about the suburbs and how cities were expanding outwards. Sprawl, and its slow undermining of cities, was just getting started.
Many critics of sprawl were influenced by Jacobs in the latter half of the 20th Century, among them new urbanists, who deplored the “disinvestment in central cities, and the spread of placeless sprawl … .” What made new urbanists different, and so influential in the last three decades, was their declaration of principles on urban design, planning, and development called The Charter of the New Urbanism.
The Charter is not just a critique, but a comprehensive and positive philosophical statement of city building on scales ranging from a single building to a metropolitan region. The Charter has held the New Urbanism movement together and won over converts for several decades now.
Few people remember that on May 4, 1996, in a historic hall in Charleston, South Carolina, some 266 attendees of the fourth annual Congress for the New Urbanism lined up to sign the Charter. I was among them.
At first, new urbanists were met with praise and support, but also hostility and opposition. Among the opponents were the most prestigious urban design and architecture schools. New urbanists also had to fight through indifference or antipathy of the development, planning, engineering, real estate financing, and architecture industries and professions.
In all of this time I have yet to hear a coherent critique of the Charter of the New Urbanism (I don't think I’ve read a criticism of any kind), not because it is innocuous or vague, rather it makes so much sense. That’s one reason why the New Urbanism has been able to persuade many opponents, even in the difficult halls of academia. That and the fact that Charter principles have proven effective time and time again (CNU’s annual Charter Awards highlight their effectiveness).
May 4 is, of course, best known as Star Wars Day (“May the fourth be with you”). Among planners and urbanists, it is recognized as Jane Jacobs’s Birthday. But we should also remember a spring day in Charleston—and value how the Charter has changed the dialog and thinking around the art and science of city building. To all urbanists, may the Charter be with you.