Capturing the memorable and historic at CNU XV

Each Congress for the New Urbanism is packed with much of the collective knowledge of an incredible group of people devoted to designing, building, and rebuilding better cities and towns. Many first-time attendees are overwhelmed to be exposed to so many valuable ideas in just a few days.
CNU board member Ellen Dunham-Jones, director of the architecture program at the Georgia Institute of Technology, told audience members at last month’s CNU XV in Philadelphia that she arrived at her first Congress full of “snobbish biases and feeling like an academic spy.” She soon let down her guard, however. “I learned that CNU’s agenda was not the production of cutesy projects, but the reformation of the regulations that reproduce sprawl. I was immediately attracted to the radicality of new urbanist reforms … I also realized that I learned more at that Congress than I’d learned at most of the academic conferences I’d attended … about development, planning, traffic engineering, public processes, etc. I didn’t learn about architecture per se, but I was seduced by the promise of how this information (not taught in schools) could empower architects to more effectively build all the creative and critical ideas fomenting in the schools.”
University of North Carolina master’s student Faith Cable tells a similar story. She was a senior at the University of Minnesota when she heard John Norquist, Andres Duany, and Jim Kunstler speak at an architecture conference. “They were talking about what I was trying to learn but school wasn’t teaching me. I thought it was great. I started the SNU chapter at the University of Minnesota and I came to the Congress that year and every year since. The more I come the more I learn.”

capturing the exchange
The rapid and often spontaneous exchange of ideas makes it difficult to identify the aspects of each Congress of most consequence and lasting value. Fortunately, CNU is doing more than ever to capture the full range of what happens at the Congress. A small corps of bloggers worked quickly to post observations, quotes, and photos from dozens of sessions at (visit More than 100 multimedia files — audio, video, and PowerPoint presentations — will soon follow. It’s how individuals and groups of members incorporate these materials and other lessons from the Congress in their work that will ultimately determine what is most significant about this year’s Congress.
The Congress confirmed that CNU and its members are at the center of much of the most innovative work happening in coding reform, transportation design, post-disaster renewal, and green development. On Saturday, CNU president John Norquist and board chair Hank Dittmar presented highlights of the past year’s achievements as well as a summary of a five-year strategic plan — approved just days earlier by the CNU board of directors — designed to keep CNU at the forefront of vital challenges. The plan emphasizes the link between urbanism and sustainability, the importance of better engaging New Urbanism at the regional scale, the removal of professional and regulatory barriers to good urbanism, promotion of the benefits of New Urbanism strategically, and support for member-based efforts.

Development patterns matter
On the eve of the Congress, The Philadelphia Inquirer published an opinion piece by Norquist that helped establish one of the gathering’s most important themes. “When it comes to energy consumption and carbon-dioxide emissions, development patterns matter,” wrote Norquist. “In the next 30 years, our country will build 70 million new dwellings somewhere. With urban life emerging as a market favorite, it’s looking more as if building a good portion of them in livable, walkable traditional neighborhoods is one of the most convenient — and effective — remedies for the inconvenient truth.” For the full text, visit
The closing plenary session featuring green architect Ed Mazria and Center for Neighborhood Technology founder Scott Bernstein produced something of a breakthrough for CNU. In introducing Mazria and Bernstein, CNU board member and leading green urbanist Doug Farr acknowledged that the most-talked-about greenhouse gas remedies under consideration have to do with swapping old technologies for new ones and with developing what he calls “fantasy fuels.” Said Farr, “The consistent media message, even from people who know better, is that it is our light bulbs and not our lifestyles that are the problem.”
“Why is this emerging message silent on the determinative power of land use and its relationship to carbon and climate change?” he asked. “What is the role of the CNU to ensure that urban form and the integration of transportation and land use is not passed over as both an essential message and an essential strategy in addressing this defining challenge of our time?”

Broadening of architecture 2030
CNU XV organizers had invited Mazria to Philadelphia to hear his views and engage him in a discussion about broadening the message of his high-profile Architecture 2030 Challenge, which aims to reduce building-related greenhouse gas emissions by 50 percent by 2030, to include greenhouse gas reductions derived from compact development and better land-use planning rather than just building design alone. In its meeting during Congress week, the CNU board voted to explore the creation of a similar 2030 Community Challenge.
In making a powerful presentation on the scope of the problem and the need for action, Mazria surprised the group by offering to work together now. “The 2030 Challenge was originally for buildings. We’re going to expand it here today,” he said. “The planning challenge is a suggestion. It needs to be fleshed out by the planning community... I’m sure, once we get your stuff, we’ll incude it. Maybe we’ll wind up calling it Architecture and Planning 2030.”
For news, links and multimedia files from the Congress, visit