Denver Congress: the green urban recovery begins

Coming to Denver, June 10-13, the 17th Congress for the New Urbanism gathers the resourcefulness and ingenuity of the New Urbanism under one roof.

With the US and world economies facing challenges that would have been unimaginable a year or two ago, CNU and its 3,400 members are answering the call. The previous successes — reinventing public housing, tackling outdated zoning codes and anti-urban thoroughfare standards, and helping communities recover from hurricanes Katrina and Rita — have been preparation. Denver is where an even larger challenge awaits.  

As stimulus dollars take effect, the outlines of the recovery begin to emerge. After decades of providing guidance to investors to unlock the value of New Urbanism, market analysts Todd Zimmerman and Laurie Volk say a significant reurbanization of America was underway when the bubble popped and will resume as the economy bounces back. The shift is driven by changing tastes and the convergence of empty-nest baby boomers and childless twentysomethings — both drawn to neighborhoods in a variety of urban settings along the Transect where much of what they need is just a short walk away.

Joining Volk in a major plenary titled “New Urbanism and the Continuing Great Demographic Shift” will be James Howard Kunstler, whose predictions for a peak oil-related reorganization of the American and world scenes are demanding attention. As the era of sprawl expansion recedes, Kunstler sees a return to three “Rs”: “retrofitting, retooling and re-rooting.”

Briefings and interactive discussions on the first two days of the Congress will help to demystify complicated federal stimulus guidelines and explore ways for new urbanists to “follow the money.” CNU board chair Ray Gindroz and vice chair Victor Dover will anchor plenary sessions, laying out the connection between the needs of members, communities, and nations and the powerful solutions CNU is committed to delivering. CNU CEO John Norquist will guide several sessions on how CNU’s efforts to influence federal transportation, housing, and energy policies are working to make the landscape for practicing urbanism more welcoming.

There are whole tracks of sessions on topics such as suburban retrofits and green recovery through which new urbanists will help rewrite expectations for development in this country, teaching everyone from elected officials and developers to everyday residents to expect more — more convenience, more energy savings, more return on investment — from their communities.

Urbanism for a Green Recovery
The sessions in the green recovery track show a movement advancing innovative solutions on the cutting-edge. Offering valuable insights for leveraging urbanism’s sustainability advantages across a range of related marketable benefits, these sessions include:

•       “Homes for the New Era” — dwellings that deliver more character, efficiency, and value per square inch. Learn about renewed forms of housing and their timely applications in a session featuring leading designers Andrés Duany, Steve Mouzon, and Marianne Cusato, and moderator Tim Halbur.

•    In “Selling the Green Urban Advantage," top-notch marketing consultants Robin Rather of Collective Strength and Carol Coletta of CEOs for Cities show how to frame the debate and highlight tangible economic and fiscal benefits in convincing metropolitan-level leaders that walkable urbanism is in their best interests.

•    Dan Parolek and Joseph DiStefano, co-chairs of CNU’s low-carbon high-performance urbanism initiative, will show how proposed new tools build on advances in new urbanist planning and coding, the Transect, and carbon performance modeling to help implementers meet carbon goals and achieve a range of economic and quality of life benefits.

•    In response to new state laws, Californians are wrestling with how urbanism's climate advantages get factored into transportation plans, general plans, and project approvals. Since California’s initiatives will spread state by state, you'll want to attend “The Low Carbon Frontier” and hear veteran innovators Peter Calthorpe and Judy Corbett report from the cutting edge.

•    Common systems for measuring the carbon impact of development and transportation have roots in a variety of disciplines, such as air quality and traffic modeling. They need continued work to make them more responsive to variations in urban form, urban context, regional location, and transportation patterns, with much of the leadership coming from CNU members and allies such as DiStefano, Peter Haas, and John Thomas. Catch them in the “Measuring and Modeling your Carbon” session.

Recycling Sprawl
The sprawling “American suburb as we know it is dying” observed Time magazine this spring before declaring “recycling suburbia” as one of “ten ideas changing the world.” CNU 17 has the two scholars who have done the most influential recent work in this trend: City College of New York architecture professor June Williamson and Ellen Dunham-Jones, a CNU board member and director of the architecture program at Georgia Tech, and coauthors of the book Retrofitting Suburbia. Dunham-Jones and Williamson will offer in-depth lessons on how to transform suburbia in their New Urbanism 202 class on Thursday, June 11.

With an amusement park already turned into a mixed-use new urbanist neighborhood, a major airport and its runways in the process of becoming multiple neighborhoods, and 7 out of 13 regional malls undergoing transformation, Denver is leading the country in suburban retrofits. Dunham-Jones and Williamson describe Denver’s landscape as “an astonishing transformation.”
CNU 17 offers immersive learning opportunities in three major retrofits in metropolitan Denver:

•    Belmar, a 106-acre mixed-use urban project replacing the Villa Italia mall in Lakewood, Colorado, an inner ring suburb.

•    Highlands Garden Village, a former amusement park site, now a mixed-use retail, office, and cohousing neighborhood.

•    Stapleton, the former Denver airport that is now a thriving community featuring housing, offices, retail, and open space.

Participants will engage with residents, learn from developers, and use interactive tools to compare notes on how the places measure up to CNU charter principles in unique half-day Experience tours. A session led by Lee Sobel of the Environmental Protection Agency and urbanist Stuart Sirota will further explore the challenges of knitting together pedestrian-scale retail offerings in retrofit environments, including Belmar and Stapleton.

In additional retrofit sessions, Greg Tung and Jeffrey Tumlin will show refined approaches to street typologies that transform a suburban arterial into the spine of a mixed-use town center. Athena Medalist Sinclair Black, John Ellis of WRT Solomon, Dunham-Jones and Ryan Kennedy will offer strategies for higher density, highly livable retrofits. They draw lessons from Rockville Town Center, National Harbor, and the mixed-use buildings along 2nd Street in downtown Austin.

Coding for Community
Since the vision of the Charter of the New Urbanism can hardly be achieved without the framework provided by supportive urban codes, CNU members have made codes an area of expertise. Sessions at the Congress include:

•    Form-based codes going beyond alternative overlays and becoming major factors in large applications. Richard Bernhardt will review the Transect-based character manual covering metropolitan Nashville; Geoffrey Ferrell will present a pre-approved toolkit for regulating mixed-use development in Prince George’s County, Maryland; and Bill Spikowski will present a flexible rezoning process for mixed-use infill projects in suburban Sarasota County, Florida. Denver planning manager and CNU 17 local host co-chair Peter Park will lead a session on creating a city-wide form-based code for Denver. Park will also lead Mayor Connie Moran of Ocean Springs, Mississippi, Denver City Council President Jeanne Robb, and DPZ town planning director Marina Khoury on navigating the politics of form-based code adoption.

•    Implementation-minded urbanists Scott Polikov and Kevin Klinkenberg will assess built urbanism in different Transect zones resulting from earlier coding efforts, with an eye toward revising the next generation of codes. Urban designer Laura Hall will lead a session exploring customizations of the SmartCode.  Joining her will be planners Khoury and Kevin Colin.

•    An in-depth New Urbanism 202 session led by Parolek, co-author of Form-Based Codes, will take participants through a comprehensive tutorial on codes with Bry Sarte of Sherwood Design Engineers, Leslie Oberholtzer of Farr Associates, and John Hitchcock of the Tahoe Regional Planning Agency.  Parolek will also join Mary Madden, Park, and Sam Poole in a session covering the 2009 winners of the Driehaus Form-Based Code Awards.

•    Sandy Sorlien of the Center for Transect Studies will lead a session called “The Sustainable, Affordable, Visitable, Edible Transect,” focusing on new modules for the SmartCode (and other development codes) that help the codes adapt quickly to changing economic, regulatory, and environmental conditions.

In addition to these highlights, the Congress has sessions devoted to transportation networks and reform, development and implementation, international urbanism, and myths and lessons of New Urbanism. Registration is your ticket to get a head start on recovery and play a role in the reurbanization of America. Register now by visiting www.cnu17.org/registration.