March 10, 2009
by Bill Millard

Event: New Urbanism for New Yorkers
Location: Museum of the City of New York, 02.25.09
Speakers: John Norquist — President, Congress for the New Urbanism (CNU); Robert Yaro — President, Regional Planning Association (RPA)
Introduction: Susan Henshaw Jones — President & Director, Museum of the City of New York; John Massengale — President, CNU New York Chapter
Organizers: CNU-NY; RPA; American Planning Association NY, CT, and NJ chapters; Institute for Classical Architecture

Since the Regional Planning Association (RPA) announced its original plan for greater New York in 1929, RPA President Robert Yaro noted those familiar with the organization’s and the city’s history may be viewing the current economic crash with a sense of déjà vu. Both the RPA and the Congress for the New Urbanism (CNU) interpret White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel’s already-famous line “Never let a serious crisis go to waste” as a signal that spatial reconfigurations comparable to those seen during the New Deal may be imminent. The RPA’s initial plan was in many respects a precursor of New Urbanism, and with a president who reads Jane Jacobs, political and economic conditions may be more favorable toward transit-based planning and other public quality-of-life investments than at any point in living memory. Yaro and CNU President John Norquist discussed the current prospects with different emphases and warnings, but in many respects the groups are working with the same playbook.

As introductory remarks by CNU-NY’s John Massengale emphasized, President Obama’s stimulus bill carries the promise of serious progress for urbanists, planners, and regional residents. It’s severely needed, said Yaro — New York’s over-reliance on financial services is now exposed as a vulnerability, a failure to diversify the local economy — but he also offers historical perspective as a caveat against panic. Somehow, we keep bouncing back, Yaro argued. Resilience has a lot to do with density, institutions, and transit, and in these respects the New York region is well prepared to take advantage of the moment.

High-speed rail is an $8 billion priority in the stimulus package, raising the chance that the U.S. may finally get “an Acela that works” (and begin to catch up to nations like Morocco, where the 500-mile Tangier-Casablanca high-speed line is expected to be running by 2013). A strength the region has cultivated more consistently is education: eight of the world’s top 20 research universities are in the Northeast Corridor. Yaro contrasted the city’s relative economic vigor with the post-industrial despondency found upstate. He offered a 14-point set of principles for reanimating the broader Great Lakes region as industrial areas in South Korea, Germany’s Ruhr Valley, and Scotland’s Strathclyde region have done. Cities like Rochester and Buffalo likewise have strong cultural/educational bones; through placemaking strategies integrated into regional- and national-scale planning, Yaro believes, they can and should recover.

As mayor of Milwaukee (1988-2004), Norquist presided over the kind of urban renaissance that Yaro foresees elsewhere. This city reversed a longstanding economic decline, tore down a highway that disfigured its waterfront, built a vibrant walkable neighborhood in its stead, and revised its zoning according to CNU-style form-based codes. Having opposed cities’ over-reliance on federal funding over the years, Norquist sees both constructive and destructive potential in the Obama stimulus. He cautioned that the package’s emphasis on projects that are “shovel-ready” could open up the field to some highly counterproductive national investments. Highway building plans that communities have decisively rejected, he noted, may spring back to life as short-term jobs programs. If the nation takes that approach, he says, we stand to repeat the devastation we brought on ourselves in 1960s urban renewal.

The rise and decline of cities, Norquist emphasized, can be alarmingly swift. His images of Detroit and Berlin during and after World War II illustrated the criticality of transit and grids in a city’s development. By institutionalizing the recognition that streets exist for economic and cultural purposes, not just vehicle movement, Norquist says, we have the chance to capitalize on crisis, repeating the experiences of the New Deal and the City Beautiful movement after the 1890s depression. “As we come out of this recession,” he said, “people who learn these lessons and have these skills… are going to do a lot better. Because America’s going to change.”

Bill Millard is a freelance writer and editor whose work has appeared in OCULUS, Icon, Content, The Architect’s Newspaper, and other publications.


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