I received a small bit of money from the University to attend the Congress for the New Urbanism last weekend in West Palm Beach, Florida, which if you don’t know, is a twenty-year old gathering of the architecture and planning left wing. It was a short trip, a surgical strike junket. I was in and out in two days, having delivered an eight-minute talk about my dissertation about bicycles in front of a small room packed to the gills with people I never got to know.
All conferences are the same, separated only by sartorial subtlety. This one had its own rules too, secret codes spoken by initiates. For example, where I expected to find seas of thick architect glasses, each more outlandish than the next, instead I encountered non-outrageous eyewear, subtle and plain. It was as if the attendant architects had consciously rejected the trademark of their trade. Instead, as befits a group that explicitly rejects futurism and modernity in favor of tradition and history, it seemed like most of the more well-known CNU figureheads sported the traditional WASP uniform of khakis and dark blazers. Meanwhile, most of the rest of the conferees donned bland grey and navy blue outfits, the intentionally un-noticable uniforms of the bureaucratic urban professions, innocuous yet informally formal.
The Congress occupied about half of the West Palm Beach convention center, filling a hallway overlooking Okeechokee Drive, the main arterial South Florida’s strange social landscape, and the center’s halls filled with displays touting various new urban developments (a new neighborhood in Mobile, another in Arizona) and exciting displays like that of the National Vinyl Siding Institute or another one devoted to form-based codes. Sprinkled in their midst were a few local planning stands, like the display for the West Palm Beach bike share, or for South Florida’s potential commuter rail expansion.
My talk was on my ongoing dissertation research, which involves examining different approaches to bicycle planning and advocacy, particularly how different groups try to attract new riders. It was a shorter version of a talk I’ve given before, edited down to its essence: despite lots of good intentions, rates of cycling in the North America are very low. Why is this? To attract new riders we need to build cycling facilities that feel comfortable, and tan accommodate all the different ways and reasons that people ride bicycles. That’s it, though with many more details, photos, clips of videos from my interviews, jokes, etc.
The crux of the talk is about this theory of how people don’t make decisions based on rational calculations about the environment or exercise, or ratios of cost and efficiency. Rather, and I did this in my talk for a hot second, I introduce the concept of “affect”, which is the idea that people act at least as much through bodily habit and non-concious feeling as through intentional decision making. Needless to say, this is kind of a difficulty notion to unpack,which is one of the reasons why my eight minute speech had about as much impact as a dandelion seed.
In a way, though, the idea of affect is perfect for an audience of new urbanists. For all its critics, the new urbanism movement is dedicated to the premise of place, the notion that how a street ‘feels’ is important. The architects and planners in the room last Friday had all gone to great lengths in their professional lives to defend things like decorative brickwork, flower planters, and window shopping, fighting losing battles with the cold calculations that have reduced our urban environment to a series of parking structures and concrete block bunkers. In a way, the difference between a narrow sharrow in a half-guttered bike lane and a Green Wave’d cyclepath is a lot like the difference between a Stroad’ed strip mall and a mixed-use walkable neighborhood: each depends on the importance of cultivating comfort and on building environments that accommodate a wide variety of lifestyles.
That said, there’s definitely a gap within the ‘urban fields’ surrounding what you might call urban theory. On one hand you have the kinds of literatures that interest ‘academics’ – things like affect theory or assemblages or real estate capitalism. Here you’ll find lots of French philosophy, self-contained radicalism, and mystifying jargon. Meanwhile, the busy practical professional education of planners and architects requires its students to spend the vast majority of their lives at work, engaged in large projects or making portfolios all night in their studios. Most architects and planners that I talk with are all-too-rarely able to take a break to read a book or discuss abstract and potentially useless questions like “what is a city?”
Looking back, I might have chosen to emphasize slightly different things. New Urbanism has a lot to offer, particularly because it’s focused on thinking beyond simple functional models of space. Someday, I’d like to have more time to talk and think about what we can learn from the attempts over the last twenty years to build urban environments that make us feel more alive, more human. The quality of the environment isn’t simply the ‘icing’ on the cake of modernist functionality. On the contrary, how a space makes you feel is the cake. That’s all there is! Starting to understand and shape the affective quality of a space is an important step along the way to building good cities.
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