CNU 22 Post-Mortem Part 1: Addressing the Criticisms


Before I talk about what I liked about specific parts of the Congress, I want to once again speak to where I see the movement going and what it needs to do to get better. This is partly in response to the open letter to new urbanism published on Sunday morning by Colin Dabkowski in The Buffalo News. This is also in response to any and everybody I’ve seen on Twitter, heard directly from on Facebook, sat with in the corners of bars and even Skyped with over the years, plus good friends and family from home, who just don’t understand what’s going on here and why it seems so elitist, sometimes racist, sometimes sexist and anything else that could be lobbied against the movement. Also, I say we because I am a card carrying-CNUer and I do feel like I’m a part of the greater movement.

We are more than the three guys that speak all the time

I was with Colin until he said that he only went to a few sessions and then wrote his story on new urbanism based on that. There was so much other stuff that happened this week. He was at Silo City, but did he have a chance to chat with anyone out there while enjoying the food trucks? I know the debates were a little deep at the NextGen night, but the Pecha Kucha was as good as any other city and had a variety of topics. Yes, the urban triage idea is in a book and it’s being touted as the next best thing. However, is that our fault? Our fault in that we as a media tend to gravitate towards the same old folks and the same old books and the same old hooks when it comes to community development and placemaking. Thankfully, there are our blogs and our papers and our libraries, all with multiple voices. Maybe we don’t all get published the way we should, but we can self publish and self promote. As this article states, a book is not a book deal. No matter what, it’s still a book.

We are taking tangible steps to deal with the diversity problem

We have board members who are women and non-white. I can’t confirm any LGBT members, but I’m sure someone is. We have people who represent all the elements of creating a built environment on the board. I saw at least 5-7 women and 20-30 men of color on the convention floor. There have been years when I’ve been one of maybe two women. Yes, the numbers are still bad, but they can get better and are getting better. As a well-known author, speaker and rabble-rouser in the movement, I will do my part to make sure we examine issues of those who are non-white, non-male, non-straight and even non-urban. Urbanism is the term, but it’s really placemaking and place maintenance that we do here. Next year, I hope we can do even more events with community groups and that we can make more free and reduced price tickets a reality for our students and long-time community workers.

You have to be willing to explore and challenge what you hear.

Despite what you might see when you view a speaker on stage, most of those folks are gentle giants at our many social gatherings. If you recognize someone at the hotel breakfast bar, please reach out and sit next to them. They may be busy, or on the move, but they really don’t bite outside of being on stage. You may however find yourself in a heated debate, but I guarantee you that you both will have learned something at the end of it all. Likewise, if you don’t like a session, feel free to leave. Architecture critique has always prided itself on being honest. In these past few years, the CNU has opened up an Open Source Congress, free of charge and available for anyone who wants to create a topic on the spot to do so. All the NextGen events, also created to allow more voices and more people in the fold, are free and this year had a very local flavor as folks on the ground pitched in to make sure we had more events and more connection to the local community.

We do need to do more outreach

I am very fond of the affinity group model that other professional and trade organizations use. Yes, I know CNU is more than just a trade organization, but we do have a formal structure and many do come to us to learn and to be guided. In addition, often-marginalized groups have a hard time engaging a situation, even when the best of intentions are made. Something that may not hurt you, may be very hurtful to someone else. This doesn’t mean we have to be pandering, but do be mindful that just because your idea makes sense in your group of bros, that it makes sense in the wider world of community development practice.

We are a roundtable, a group of friends, a salon. Yes, that means more talk and less action, but we can change that.

I want to encourage everyone to continue to debate, to raise your voices and if you think you belong at the table, pull up a chair and sit down and start speaking. If no one listens, it’s not always because your voice is invalid, it just may take a while to soak in. Somebody in that conference hall wants to hear you. Even better, the next Congress will be at multiple locations. We hope to bring that same spirit into the NextGen events and extend out to get more people at the Congress who may not normally be able to pay for a major convention or spend several days at lectures and sessions. I’m going to keep writing these posts and presenting these podcasts and telling as many stories as possible. I hope to hear about more freeway removals that re-engage the communities that were destroyed. I want to see the charter spread, and be reminded that the charter calls for the reversal of urban renewal, disnivestment, and segregation. I also want the CNU-A numbers to grow and for people to continue the charge to take back their communities, their homes, their streets and the like for a people scale.

I love you all, warts and all

For those of you with whom I’ve had the privilege to attend many congresses, as well as some of the other industry conferences, and have coffee and dinner with when you happen to come to Greensboro, none of this will be new to you. We all realize that sometimes our ideas can be over the top, that sometimes our methods don’t work. Other times, we feel like what we believe is so common sense, the numbers speak to it all, that we can’t believe no one believes us. Yes, we are the mainstream now, but we have a long way to go to make sure everyone feels welcome. Yet, we’ve made a good start and I think it’s somewhat unfair that we keep having to read the articles and the criticisms. But let’s just keep working hard. The good work will and is speaking for itself.

And tomorrow, what we did right in Buffalo.

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About Kristen Jeffers

I'm Kristen. Almost five years ago, I got tired of not seeing black women as nerded out about trains, better streets, riding bikes, walking not just out of necessity, tall buildings, old buildings and honestly a lot of other things. I was in grad school for community and economic development (ok, it’s actually an MPA), and I wanted to make sure people knew I existed and that I could help them do this thing called placemaking better. Five years later, I’m still doing that, although not from my hometown of Greensboro, NC, but from Kansas City, MO. I spend most of my time in Kansas City promoting better biking and walking infrastructure metro-wide with BikeWalk KC and the Kansas City B-cycle. But I also wrote a book A Black Urbanist (you can grab that over on the right) and sometimes I give speeches and help other communities tell their stories at design charrettes and public meetings. I’ve also written or appeared in all of the major “urbanist” publications, either as a subject or as a writer, as well as most of my hometown papers as subject or writer as well.