New Urbanism, Renewed Neighborhoods

The History of the New Urbanism Division

It is with pride that I am able to say, "Welcome to the New Urbanism Division." The division is now up and functioning a little over three years after it was conceived as a project of the Planners Task Force of the Congress for the New Urbanism (CNU).

A few years ago, the Planners Task Force recognized the need to enhance the resources available to professional planners interested in the tools, techniques, and application of the principles of new urbanism. Having been involved in APA leadership over the years, I felt that the appropriate venue to achieve this purpose was through APA, the planners' not-for-profit educational organization. As a result, the formation of a new division became a task force objective and I assumed responsibility to coordinate with APA.

At the 2000 APA National Conference in New York, there was a pivotal discussion on the need for a division focusing on the principles of new urbanism and traditional town planning with Frank So, then Executive Director of APA. This discussion identified the basic issue that followed the process of division approval until the board finally approved the division. The major concern, and I believe critical fundamental misconception, expressed by Mr. So was whether the practice of new urbanism was better served through the Urban Design and Preservation Division. It was pointed out that the practice of new urbanism is much broader than simply an urban design approach.

Many in the planning profession see the practice of new urbanism as simply a return to alleys, porches, and picket fences. But new urbanist town planners intend to focus on the process of town and community building in a comprehensive manner by application of all of the 27 principles of the Charter of the New Urbanism. This process focuses on an integrated and sustainable approach to community building from the region to the site. While relatively simple and straightforward, the principles are fundamental to the practice of comprehensive planning and are not understood or applied by many APA members.

Following the 2000 national conference, it was obvious that a new division was critical if we as planners were to benefit from the practice and principles of new urbanism. A steering committee was formed in accordance with the requirements of APA for new divisions. This committee represented all six regions of APA and developed the application. In addition to myself, the members of the committee included Tom Committa (Pennsylvania), David Fuller (South Carolina), Rich Unger (Florida), Suzanne Rhees (Minnesota), Shane Hope (Washington), and Phil Erikson (California). This committee prepared the purpose, objectives, and bylaws; solicited petitions and CNU congresses; and did the necessary follow-up and administrative work needed to comply with APA requirements.

The first action was to coordinate with the sponsors of the 2001 annual conference in New Orleans to provide conference sessions. As a result, there were a number of sessions directly on point or given by planners who are also members of CNU. However, the behind the scene focus of the year was an ongoing dialogue between APA members, division officers, and APA staff on whether the new division was warranted. The critical issue remained: Why is new urbanism different from urban design? Other issues included whether new urbanism was a "fad" or simply a "niche" that didn't warrant a division, and overall issues of whether there were too many existing divisions.

The elected APA leadership understood the need and supported the effort. One proposal included combining new urbanism with the urban design division. Once again, we stressed the broad philosophical approach of new urbanism and the need to coordinate with the Urban Design Division, not to replace it. It was noted that it was our intent to establish a division that provides a focused forum for the education, research, and communication of the application of the principles of traditional town planning and new urbanism. These principles are intended to provide the foundation for planning at the regional and local level to achieve sustainable communities.

This year-long debate culminated in the approval of the New Urbanism Division by the APA Board of Directors at their annual meeting in Chicago in 2002. The new kid on the block is designed to return planners' focus to the core of our profession. With the time and effort APA has expended on the Growing Smart Initiative, this division will provide practicing planners the tools necessary to bring meaningful change at the community level.

The New Urbanism Division is designed to reintroduce the tools needed to develop and implement holistic town plans that truly build sustainable communities. It is focused on providing overall skills of sustainable development, including transportation, environmental sciences, land development, public services, finance, and basic community design principles. Of course, it must be applied with sensitivity to today's social, cultural, and physical environment.

It is time to return planning professionals from simply neutral public administrators to visionary planners, bent on recapturing potential for building great places where our culture is nurtured and all people are enriched by the places where they live.

The purpose of the New Urbanism Division is to:

  1. Reestablish the art and science of traditional town planning practices as a fundamental technique of comprehensive planning at all scales of human settlement from the region to the individual building.
  2. Encourage and support efforts to plan development, based on traditional town planning practices, in a way that promotes a sense of community, and is sensitive to cultural, environmental, and historical resources.
  3. Educate other planning practitioners and the public about the importance of quality urban design, neighborhood structure, and a sense of community.
  4. Coordinate with the Association of Collegiate Schools of Planning and the Planning Accreditation Board to include courses in the practice the New Urbanism as part of the required curriculum.
  5. Report on research activities related to traditional town planning and serve as a resource and information network to members interested in the New Urbanism.
  6. Establish useful relationships among professionals in planning, public administration, transportation, the environmental sciences, land development, education, government, and research that share a common professional interest and affiliation with traditional town planning.
  7. Provide for the exchange of information and ideas among members about traditional town planning and the New Urbanism.

New Urbanist principles have evolved from a theoretical ideal to the cutting edge of planning practice. The public has embraced the principles that reinstate the human community and the neighborhood as the driving force behind development. At the very least, people should have a choice, an opportunity to live in a development that encourages a healthy lifestyle and protects natural resources, instead of being forced to decide between the least damaging suburbs on the outskirts of a sprawling city.

The New Urbanism Division is fundamentally much broader than the focused approach of any one existing division. It will act as a supplement and a complement to the work of other divisions. The New Urbanism Division will fill a void by providing assistance, resources, and information about traditional town planning.

The New Urbanism Division will contribute to the advancement of techniques and the competence of APA members. Scores of cities struggle to amend outdated regulations that allow only suburban sprawl. The division will provide a resource network to benefit planners, developers, and researchers, which will in turn assist in the education of the public, developers, and lenders in the principles and benefits of traditional town planning.

While the New Urbanism concepts are increasingly being applied in planning offices around the world, the greatest need is continued research, information, and communications. We need your expertise and active participation.

Following the approval by the board, I served a short time as the interim chair. However, I must give considerable thanks to Gina Tirinnanzi who followed me and served as Interim Chair most of 2002 and did a tremendous amount of work in transitioning the division from paper to action. Under Gina's leadership, the division held its first election of officers in early 2003. The voting resulted in the election of Terry Wendt, Division Chair; Ray Chiaramonte, Division Vice Chair; and Murphy Antoine, Division Secretary-Treasurer. The executive committee has appointed Suzanne Rhees as Newsletter Editor and Nathan Bilger as Web Master.

In working on this new division, it is my desire to bring about greater coordination between CNU and APA. The practice of town building requires the use of the tools and techniques that have been CNU's focus the past 10 years. The development of the New Urbanism Division that concentrates on this process will be of considerable service to the membership of APA.

In the coming months, you will see more information about this new division. In the meantime, we encourage you to join. We are excited about the potential impact of New Urbanism, and look forward to the return of traditional towns.

Rick Bernhardt
New Urbanism Division Member