Sunday, April 03, 2005
Placemaking: Continuing the New England Tradition
When those of us on the conference committee started organizing this conference in late January I remember thinking that our passion for educating New England about the new urbanism might be clouding our judgement on how quickly we could actually pull off a successful conference. Afterall, none of us had any real conference planning experience, and most conferences are planned over the course of a year, not two months. Regardless, serving on the planning committee once again proved the wise and often repeated words of my dad to be true, "You get out, what you put in." Well, we put in a whole hell of a lot, and the results on Friday spoke for themself. If you were not there, I have provided a review of the sessions that I was able to attend.
Members Meeting (CNU NE members)
The first meeting of the members went well. Quorom was made, and our first official board of directors were voted into office. In my opinion this was the most important part of the meeting because with at least one representative from each New England state, our chapter has grown from a disproportionately Boston-based organization, into an organization that truly represents the region. This bodes well for both the chapter, and the villages, towns, and cities of New England.
On a personal note, I was very proud to sign my name to the official chapter charter as a founding member. Though this investment will never pay itself out in direct financial gain, it certainly helps plant a seed that will grow into planning, building, and re-building places of lasting value in New England. To me, that is worth all the money in the world.
Keynote Address (John Norquist)
When planning a conference it is always a good idea to get a well known person to deliver the keynote address. However, it is equally, if not more important to have that well-known figure be someone who truly understands the topic at hand. We were lucky enough to have John Norquist, President of CNU, who is both well known in new urbanist circles, and clearly someone who understands what the movement is about. Though Mr. Norquist looked half asleep when he started his presentation, he effectively caffeinated the crowd by mixing humor with a compelling powerpoint slide show that displayed the importance of placemaking. My favorite portion of the address was when Norquist compared post-World War II Berlin and post-World War II Detroit. By comparing post-war Berlin to the Berlin of today, and the condition of Detroit in 1945 to present day Detroit, one would instantly surmise that Detroit was the city that was destroyed by war, not Berlin. The message resonated loudly, and set the stage for the rest of the day.
The Urban to Rural Transect and Form-Based Coding (Catherine Johnson, Ann Daigle)
The urban to rural transect, which is adaptated from the natural transect of topography found in the natural environment and applied to the built environment, codes the type of development that should occur within one of six different transect zones. I often think that for a newcomer the transect is the most esoteric of new urbanist principles, and therefore waspleased that we devoted a session to it on Friday. Both presenters did a great job of illuminating the relationship between transect zones and code.
Catherine Johnson related her experience as an architect in Connecticut to the importance of coding. As an experienced code writer, she emphasized the use of language within the actual formation of design codes. For example, using "build to" lines as opposed to "set back" lines help create good urbanism. She also emphasized the important difference between "codes" (something that is upheld by the law) and "design guidelines" (something that is merely a suggestion and hold no weight).
Ann Daigle picked up where Catherine left off by explaining her experience as a code writer on the national level. By applying the transect to communities throughout the United States Ann mentioned that her passion is planning for development that will be the "historic preservation" of the future. With a half century of building meaningless places behind us, this is a nice thought indeed.
Integrating Charrettes into the Public Process (Paul Ostergaard, Margaret Marshall)
Everyone knows that for various reasons many great plans never come to fruition. Thus in my opinion one of the most exciting things about new urbanism is the use of the charrette. A charrette is an inclusive community planning process that builds consensus around a plan in a short amount of time. This method of planning ensures that every interested party is heard and the plan is a reflection of the community's aspirations, not just those of a municipal planning office.
Paul Ostergaard, of Urban Design Associates, took the audience through the process that UDA has developed for their charrettes. Mr. Ostergaard emphasized that the entire purpose of the charrette is building consensus, or as he referred to it "building the bandwagon." To do so, UDA first utilizes a prepatory process that includes research and preliminary meetings with all interested parties. This method lays the groundwork for the entire process, which takes between 3-6 months - lightspeed by most municipal planning standards. Paul advised that charrettes should always include a mechanism that produces at least 4 loops of community feedback and that charrettes should always keep a local planner on staff. Mr.Ostergaard also advised that because the charrette is an intense experience, that those leading the process should always "dine well, and lodge well," to help rejuvenate themselves for the activities of the following day.
Though Margaret Marshall's firm, Dover, Kohl, and Associates, have a different approach to charrettes, she echoed many of UDA's principles throughout her presentation. Most importantly, she mentioned that as long as consensus is built, there is no right or wrong method for an effective charrette. However, Margaret emphasized that a community must be ready for the charrette process. She advised that if the town or neighborhood is not open to creating a shared vision, then a charrette of any variety will be ineffective. While answering questions from the crowd Margaret mentioned that getting the local media on your side early is extremely important. She also advised that when community members show up at meetings to share their hopes, ideas, and grievances, a charrette leader should always hold the microphone!
Let's face it, food at conferences is normally one small step above hitting up the local high school cafeteria. However, lunch at the Park Plaza hotel was actually pretty good! Attendees sat at tables of 8-10 people, and seemingly enjoyed good conversation alongside their three course meal. In order to spur interaction, we had participants write topics for discussion on cardstock throughout the morning. We then placed them at random tables so that attendees could find a topic of their choice to discuss or not discuss at their leisure. My favorite topic was "Cranky Old New Urbanists," which was created by Bill Dennis. I stayed away from that table.
New England Urbanism ( Russell Preston, Robert Orr)
This was my favorite session of the day. Russ Preston, of Cornish and Associates, began the session by explaining what it was like for him to grow up in the miasma of suburban Florida and then recently move New England. He said that exploring New England's coherent village, town, and urban centers "was liked being dropped into the middle of Europe." His presentation was a mixture of rhetorical questions and answers regarding "what makes the New England urban form so unique in America." He emphasized that though sprawling patterns of development have taken over the New England tradition of placemaking, our historic patterns are rich, and should inspire the creation of new places that operate like those of old, which everyone loves so much. As a life long New Englander, I enjoyed Russ's perspective as an outsider looking in.
Robert Orr's presentation of New England urbanism was extremely thorough and intellectually engaging. Though Orr spoke from a much more academic and historical standpoint, it jived nicely with the questions of design and intention that Russ posed. Orr skillfuly explained that the history of the urban form in New England had much more to do with the local patterns of settlement than anything else, as location, culture, and historical precedents all accounted for the way New England began to develop. Unfortunately, I cannot offer a much more detailed description of the speech, as I was too caught up in Orr's presentation to take notes.
Afterwards someone suggested that Mr. Orr expand his presentation into a book. I imagine that such a transformation would be easy for Orr. Such a book might also illuminate the paradoxical tragedy of building great American places in the 1700's, but with ample knowledge and technology, building cartoon nowhere's today. Three cheers for people like Robert Orr who have kept this tradition alive, and to Russ Preston for keeping hope alive for the future of built environment in New England.
Critical Case Studies of New England TND Plans (Bill Dennis)
As a long time new urbanist, Bill has been involved in some of the most significant NU projects in the United States and abroad. However, as he put its, "it was time to start living in the kind places that I was designing." Fortunately for us, that means he is back in New England. As new urbanism and traditional neighborhood development starts to take hold in New England, the timing could not be better.
Bill, who combines sardonic wit with a wealth of experience, and an incisive critical eye, made attending this session a real joy. Though the stated goal of the session was to rake all of the current NU/TND projects in New England over the coals, it was mainly a participatory critique of the Weymouth Naval AirBase Redevelopment plan (Weymouth, Rockland, Abbington, MA), with only a little bit of ad-hoc criticism of South Village (Burlington, VT) and Madison Landing (Madison, CT). Several of the members of the audience spoke out against the current plans, and offered suggestions for improvements, which would enhance the current plans and enable them to become real places over time, not just knock- off NU developments.
This session was particularly entertaining because several of the developers, designers, and consultants who worked, or are currently working on these developments were in the audience! Having no fear of criticizing or being criticized, is another great aspect of new urbanism, as it provides a level of instant peer review that is unmatched in any other planning realm.
After the conference, roughly 1/3 of conference participants attended a networking reception/party at the offices of Goody Clancy. I enjoyed several conversations, free Harpoon Beer, and the sounds of a jazz trio from the Berklee College of Music. Special thanks to Goody Clancy and Associates for hosting this wonderful event, and to everyone else on the conference planning committee who helped make this first event a success. Cheers!