Summer Camp for Adult City-Obsessed Nerds
It’s been an exciting and exhausting couple of weeks but we recently returned from CNU23 in Dallas, Congress for the New Urbanism’s annual gathering. I’ve been to two conferences this year and neither one was a conference. Strictly speaking, I attended a Summit in January and a Congress this summer. I’m sure there are some important technical differences but I don’t recall drafting any international agreements or voting on any legislation. I guess just to test the limits of synchronicity on my (delayed) return flight I spotted the CEO of ESRI, Jack Dangermond, in the first class section.
CNU is a magical time of year. It kind of feels like summer camp for adult city-loving nerds. Last year was my first congress. I explained that experience as roaming a high school cafeteria and finally finding the table where I belonged. A table covered in maps, drawings, buildings, and all things urban. My second congress was no less satisfying. In addition to reuniting with many of the awesome people I met last year, this year offered some wonderful chaos.
Here’s an analogy for explaining how CNU is different from other conferences. Just as there is a growing trend in both schools and parenting to structure free time most conferences are highly programmed. CNU has plenty of programming but its structured around or is flexible enough to include plenty of free-play. There are long gaps between sessions. Many of the events are fluid and end up morphing into something different once people show up. There are ample opportunities to meet up for lunch or even get a small group together and explore. Last year we led our Canadian friends on our own tour of post-apocalyptic Niagara Falls. This is especially important since it’s a conference to think about cities. The host city itself is an important laboratory. That means setting aside time to simply explore.
What’s refreshing about CNU is that it’s an intensely optimistic and enthusiastic environment. The nature of the conversations are about how we ARE going to change the world rather than what’s impossible. To some extent it’s almost intoxicating. You walk away from CNU with a heightened sense of what’s possibly in the coming year. Part of that optimism, I think, stems from seeing everyone else’s confident experimentations. Maybe the people who attend are like me and need to come for air once a year to get a dose of optimism in order to get through the rest of the work year. The work we all do, trying to make cities better, can be beyond difficult and at times incredibly disheartening. Its good to be reminded there are others out there doing it too.
Tear Down This Highway
Speaking of amazing uphill battles is the work that I think stood as the highlight of this year’s congress, Patrick Kennedy’s effort to bring down an interstate. For those who aren’t following this issue, Patrick and his allies have built a movement to remove the section of highway 345 that cleaves downtown Dallas from a cool area with a lot of potential called Deep Ellum. Ripping out urban highways has become a popular idea for fixing cities. It was also a major topic last year in Buffalo where the Skyway separates downtown from the lake like a poisonous wall.
I first became aware of Patrick’s work from this awesome blog post about the failed lower Manhattan expressway Robert Moses tried to "meat axe" through the heart of New York. It’s a simple but incredibly powerful idea: what if we’d done to Manhattan what we did to Dallas? From an urban design and human standpoint we know this would have been a black mark against American civilization perhaps in equal or greater magnitude as demolishing Penn Station. Financially though, it would have been catastrophic. He puts the averted damage in the neighborhood of $10 billion not including the time value of money or the cost of the highway itself. Thus, NYC owes Jane Jacobs Soooo Much Money. Sadly, this is the reality for Dallas and many other cities in America.
When he applies this same set of calculations to Dallas he finds that rebuilding the crumbling highway would provide nothing but cost while removing could produce an additional $100 million of new tax revenue for the city. I think maybe they should tear it down.
I started to understand the labor and sacrifice this project has been for Patrick during his interview on the “Late Show with Chuck Marohn.” I remember he said something to effect of being so difficult he can’t even laugh about it anymore. That might be my worst fear about this line of work. If the day comes when I can’t bear the absurdities through irreverence I think I’ll have to stop paying attention. The argument is solid and there basically isn't money to fix these things anyways.
Maybe when they tear it down, and tear it down they shall, Patrick will get a statue next to this long forgotten statue of John Carpenter, directer of thrillers such as Escape from New York and They Live, which is currently concealed under the shadow of the highway.