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Why is CNU Still Relevant in the Design, Development and Governance Conversation? (A #CNU24 Reflection)

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As of Saturday June 11, the Congress for New Urbanism has convened for 24 times. Since its inception, it’s gone through an evolution, an evolution powered by its roots in the architectural tradition of design and critique. It’s precisely this history which makes it still relevant in the greater design, development and governance (which I’m going to shorten to DDG) conversation.

Exactly why is CNU still relevant? For three reasons: the new focus on diversity of both voices and vernaculars, the approachability of the conference venues and the ability to debate the principles of new urbanism and push for their integration into other key parts of the DDG conversation.

Diversity in Voice and Vernacular and Body

First of all, my introduction to CNU  happened because of my willingness to speak up and speak out against the seemingly lack of diversity, at least in online spaces, in the DDG fields. I was invited, as part of what was then a separate track of NextGen ideas, to speak on diversity and equity. I felt unworthy to do it alone and I brought in two people who I knew would knock out the conversation in their respective spaces.

Fast forward to 2016. While Andres Duany has always brought a bit of the Cuban/Latin vernacular into his talks, you couldn’t beat the multitude of people of color, both women and men, on various stages in this conference. From Pashon Murray bringing the group her work with Detroit Dirt and the local ground perspective, to Mitchell Silver bringing in planning and landscape architecture and good governance, to Tony Garcia holding down the banner for the small scale public project work to myself debating the racialized aspect of the gentrification conversation and why we should use more words in talking about place-based social ills to task and Army base planner Alexander Dukes sounding off on the autonomous cars debate. Not to mention so many other attendees of color, from not just Detroit, the Midwest and the United States doing great work in many fields and other presenters of color who I may have forgotten, being that I was only in Detroit for the Friday and Saturday portions of the Congress.

Finally, on the diversity front there’s a growing Women’s Caucus. Women of all stripes have struggles in an industry cluster that has often failed to pay, respect, promote and engage women on the same levels as men. While I love writing and graphic design, those areas of the project often bill lower and are often the domain of the women in the firm. Then there are the issues around work-life balance, especially in design firms that seem to know no end to the workday. I’m looking forward to helping get this started and supporting the other ladies, with both moral and technical support.

Approachability of Conference Venues

Detroit is the poster child of urban decay, grit and resilience, along with car culture and sprawl and highways. Yet, it provided this year’s Congress with the dream venue, a walkable cluster of theaters, hotel ballrooms, parking lot vendor bazaars(also with many vendors of color)  and even an open street with the planned weekend closing of Monroe Street through Greektown for us to enjoy. You could also get a quick sense of the downtown via the People Mover and Ubers and bikeshare bikes were at the ready to whisk you away to the Eastern Market and Lafayette Park.

Even though I was staying with my aunt (and also visiting mom) in the upper Northwest corner, while I was downtown, the venues were compact. Many mentioned how much they were able to enjoy proximity to venues at the various hotels and AirBnB options, in addition to others leveraging family and friends. I also purchased food from the food trucks and shades from the fashion truck. I missed out on the downtown bowling, but enjoyed giving my presentation in a presentation venue that was essentially the top floor loft space of a bar and maintained the relaxed feel you expect from such a space.

And lastly, with the Pecha Kucha, the dance party and the closing party, we blended our conference and regular Detroit fun and idea sharing together. It felt like the best of the CNU 19 Madison project lodge and yet it was a long way from that congress’s $75 closing party.

Ability to Debate Amongst New Urbanism and Also Through Other Design, Development and Governance Principles

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Having been at this blog and my design, development and governance education and career for almost six years now, I’ve had the opportunity to not just attend five CNUs, but also two state level APA conferences, two New Partners for Smart Growth, several Streetsblog trainings and meetups, one state-level City and County Manager Association conference, another city governance focused training two N.C. State Urban Design Conferences, a major design charrette where lots of out-of-town professionals were brought in and the inaugural Strong Towns meetup. As I’ve written before, it’s vital in our sector to present ones work and discuss best practices.

I used to think that my value in the space was getting paid to present my work (and it is, to a certain extent still). Yet, now that I’m doing field work, I’ve found the best thing for me to do is to go to as many of our conferences and tell the story of my work and remind folks of my design philosophy. My goal in my career is to be able to have a solid balance between field work (project design and stakeholder engagement) and peer critique, debate and training (keynote speeches and workshop facilitation, along with actual debates like on Friday night that other can spread the word about inside and outside the room).

Lastly, most other conferences in our field only exist to throw information at folks for the sole purpose of retaining licensure in that discipline’s certification. CNU, while offering licensure and education of its own under it’s own and other licensure programs, centers idea exchange for the sake of idea exchange, and not just from the big deal people. Now this is something that has evolved over the years and there is still an emphasis in the main program of “big deal” folks. Yet, there’s nothing stopping me from showing up in town, getting my own venue and telling people I’m going to be hosting a talk, book signing or the like and getting them to show up. In the past two years, efforts have been made, if I announce it with enough advance notice, to get it in the main program book and on the website.

Remember, I am a young writer, without licensure, but with plenty of passion and skill in interpreting what’s going on in the DDG world. I’m a black woman who’s not very wealthy. I shouldn’t be here. Yet, in its current iteration, CNU’s big tent allows me to flourish without limits. There may be people in the fold who are my polar opposites and may even say harmful things not just to our profession, but the world in general. Yet, at the end of the day, the greater force of the movement is behind open doors, diverse voices and spirited debate. The relevance comes in allowing more people like me to come inside and be welcomed immediately. Even if it’s just me doing the welcoming.

I’m Kristen Jeffers. Over five years ago I started this space to discuss diversity in the design, development and governance professions. I currently write this blog and also do stakeholder engagement, speaking and other writing work. I hold a Master of Public Affairs with a Concentration in Community and Economic Development. I am a North Carolina native living in Kansas City. You can follow me on Twitter and Facebook, as well as Instagram. You can email me. You can get emails from meLearn more about who I am and why I do what I do. And here are all my prior reports on CNU.

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