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Lecture Notes: new urbanists sing the praises of cities

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Chicago's a long way from Seaside, Florida, the meticulously planned beach community that's the jewel in the crown of the new urbanist movement, but the ideas behind Seaside are applicable here as well. Beyond the movement's hallmark waterfront promenades and pedestrian malls, new urbanist principles also inform the planning of regional public transportation networks, the conversion of failed suburban malls, and redevelopment projects like the transformation of Chicago's public housing from modernist high-rises to clusters of mixed-income town homes like North Town Village, near Cabrini-Green.

"People in Chicago complain about the architecture," says John Norquist, president of the Congress for the New Urbanism. "But that's a sign of health. That means that there's a serious public dialogue going on. Some of the other midwestern cities are so destroyed that there's nothing left to talk about but nostalgia for the past." This month, Norquist and the CNU--an advocacy group and professional association--moved their headquarters to Chicago, where they'll be well positioned to participate in the dialogue.

Norquist, the former mayor of Milwaukee, attended the inaugural CNU conference in Alexandria, Virginia, in 1993. It was the first formal gathering of a small group of architects who, in the late 80s, began advocating a return to the tradition of integrated, pedestrian-friendly urban planning that had largely been jettisoned by their modernist predecessors. "Modernism was a very seductive philosophy," says Norquist, "but on the negative side was separate-use zoning: buildings as objects instead of as part of contexts....Instead of the ingredients of the city being comprehensively integrated, the ingredients of the city are separated, spread out over the landscape."

As mayor, Norquist became one of the country's most vocal proponents of new urbanism, publishing The Wealth of Cities, about the continued importance of urban centers, developing a three-mile promenade along the once-moribund Milwaukee River, and famously tearing down a section of elevated expressway and replacing it with a boulevard. He was elected to his fourth term in 2000 but was soon embroiled in scandal when a former aide with whom he'd had a sexual relationship sued him for harassment.

The case was settled out of court, but his popularity took a dive. In December he stepped down as mayor, four months before the end of his term, to run the CNU, which now has 2,300 members in 30 countries.

The CNU was previously based in the Bay Area, where two of the founding members live and work. In recent years, however, the location didn't make much sense. With over half the organization's members on the east coast, and ambitions for national influence, the group needed a more accessible home base. Chicago fit the bill: in addition to being convenient to both coasts and a center for what Norquist terms "good urbanism," the city is--between the explosive growth in the northwest suburbs, the economic fragility of the south suburbs, and rising property values in the city--a hotbed of debate on urban development and sprawl.

Since the beginning of this month, the Chicago staff of three has set up temporary camp at the Wicker Park offices of the Center for Neighborhood Technology while the finishing touches are put on their own space, in the Marquette Building. But despite their transient state, they've already been active around town. Two weeks ago Norquist gave a talk at the University of Chicago on "how genius can lead to evil"--specifically how the strictures of modernism as articulated by Le Corbusier ended up producing the Robert Taylor Homes and the Dan Ryan expressway. On February 29 he's slated to speak in Rockford about that city's untapped urban potential.

"The urban form is attractive; it's regained its cachet," says Norquist. "People don't look at living in the city of Chicago as something strange, or that you have to be a tremendous advocate of social justice to want to live in the city. There are people that feel that way about Detroit still, and there are people who felt that way about Chicago 25 years ago."

At 6 PM on Thursday, February 5, CNU cofounders Daniel Solomon and Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk--who along with her husband, Andres Duany, designed some of the first new urbanist developments in the country--and board chair Hank Dittmar, an expert in transportation policy, will read from their work at the School of the Art Institute ballroom, 112 S. Michigan. It's free; call 773-278-4800, ext. 152, for more information.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Cynthia Howe.

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