Design Can’t Save Us, but We Can Save Through Design. A #CNU20 Reflection
It’s been roughly 48 hours since the last session at CNU 20 and I’ve been home about 24 of those hours with a sore throat and bruised heels from all the great debates, ideas, dances, food and fellowship that I encountered at the Congress.
There were so many diverse viewpoints this year that it has taken me to this point to be able to sit down and write the proper response to how I felt at the Congress. After reading several other recaps, especially this article from an independent news organization and being asked to discuss diversity again by those not in attendance, I am ready to talk about what CNU 20 means now and going forward.
First, we must remember this is not your average conference. Yes, it is programmed as such, but it evolved from an invitation-only gathering and discussion of friends and leaders who were concerned with how to fix something that is broken. I encourage anyone who comes to Congress, no matter if they are on the program or not, to engage and express your opinions. Yes there will be push back. No, you will not like what the other person has to say or how they say it sometimes. Yet, deep down inside, all these opinions are grounded in truth. To me, calling something a congress means it’s a place for discussion and debate.
Secondly, New Urbanism as a whole is very misunderstood. It is easy to think that the Charter only supports pastel colored faux downtowns with high rents and white people only. However, it is this first paragraph that really should be blasted out before any other conversation or design plan occurs or is drawn outside the safe space of the Congress:
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.
Please highlight the last five words and do not forget them when you are challenged by friends, see something stupid being produced or promoted as urbanism or placemaking or think that the movement has no room for you.
Third, I am especially proud of my NextGen colleagues. We are represented on the board. We are creating Strong Towns. We are coding for the people. We are rebuilding Soulsville. We are chairbombing and paintstriping our ways in to better blocks. We know it’s vital to include diversity and respect the character and the culture of the places we want to fix. We are reclaiming public space and the ability for many owners and renters to have a part in the urban fabric. We are telling people that it’s ok to love your city, even if it’s not all there yet. We love our spouses even when they don’t quite understand. And finally, we know that this list of activities is limitless. Also, we need to replace the Next with Now. Next year will be our 10th auxiliary Congress. Yet, I couldn’t help looking ahead to CNU 30 and seeing our names as the keynotes and plenaries, with our projects becoming the new standards. It’s really already at that point and it will just be set in stone by the time we make it to 30.
Last, I know I was somewhat of a quiet force this year at the Congress. Being such a firecracker last year and knowing how such behavior can ruin reputations in the outside world, I wanted to just lay low and be strategic. However, I think our Congress suffers if we lay low too much. We need the f-bombs along with our chair bombs. We are no longer here to just change neighborhoods, we are here to change the entire world. Noise needs to be made about oversized and overpriced new urban projects that price people out. Just as we love compact urban development, we need to think about cooperative economics. Yes, people outside of CNU have been saying this and other things about community justice and better design for years. Let’s stop fighting over who said it first and start drawing up workplans. Too much talking and we’ll keep losing people to unemployment, obesity, financial ruin and other things I believe the charter exists in order to fix.
With all that said, I really enjoyed seeing everyone who came this year. Those of you who I spent the most time with know who you are and need to know that you better answer texts, and FB messages when I decide to show up in your city.:P I look forward to continuing to spread good news about our various neighborhood projects, writing more about placemaking and coming to meetups and better blocks or whatever we decide to do this year.
I hope to see all of you in Salt Lake City. Let’s change the world and make lots of noise. After all, design alone will not save, but we can save through design.
Kristen Jeffers is The Black Urbanist. She holds an MPA with a concentration in community and economic development from the University of North Carolina at Greensboro. She writes to bring together the community members with its designers, planners, policy-makers and visionaries. She's been obsessed with cities since her childhood, when she started taking trips on the floor with maps, toy ...