For the first 20 years of its existence, the Congress for the New Urbanism (CNU) was a controversial organization in the architecture and planning establishment. Led most prominently by Andrés Duany and Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk, the group advocated for walkable communities but incurred the wrath of many architects, who accused the CNU of nostalgia-tinged pandering. In the 1990s and early aughts, the hot-button issue in the architectural academy was New Urbanism. Rancor toward the group has dissipated in recent years, in large part because many of the participants who engaged in these style wars have passed from the scene; the organization also seems less interested in picking ideological fights. This is probably a good thing, as the truth on the ground has always been a bit more complicated than the tired, binary debate. In May, Rick Cole, a citizen planner and former public official who has a long history with the CNU, was named executive director. Last week I talked to him about his long route back to the organization, its successes and failures, and the relevance of New Urbanism in the age of climate change and racial reckoning.
MCP: Martin C. Pedersen
RC: Rick Cole
You have an extensive history in planning and government service. Tell me about your background and your route to the CNU.
I grew up in Pasadena, a suburb of Los Angeles but a city unto itself, with a remarkable architectural heritage. Growing up, I unconsciously internalized the timeless ways of building. As I got involved in my community, I was instinctively anti-development because the new development being foisted on Pasadena ignored those timeless lessons about how to build for people. Instead, like most cities, Pasadena was building for cars.
So I ran for city council at 29 and ultimately became mayor in my hometown. As incoming mayor, I attended a conference organized by Judy Corbett of the Local Government Commission. She had noticed that there were a lot of environmentally oriented visionary architects on the West Coast, and on the East Coast, there were a lot of visionary, neo-traditional architects, but they hadn’t been in dialogue. She saw the common thread and invited them to a conference in Yosemite. That was the first time Californians Dan Solomon, Peter Calthorpe, Liz Moule, and Stefanos Polyzoides connected with Andrés Duany and Liz Plater-Zyberk from Miami. I was there to watch the sparks fly—and came away inspired.
What year was that?
That was 1991. The conference changed my life. I suddenly discovered vital principles about the right way to build—not only buildings, but the public realm, neighborhoods, cities, regions. The principles were timeless, even if they needed to be applied to the world we live in today. Technology has advanced, but human beings haven’t changed much. We still have two legs to walk, still gravitate towards other people, still need a shared public realm.
I became deeply immersed in the New Urbanism movement and applied what I learned to the challenges facing Pasadena. We rewrote our general plan around bringing light rail to the heart of our city, concentrating new housing and development around transit stations. We also sought to protect the historic fabric of the city that predated World War II, ensuring that infill complemented, rather than overwhelmed, that character. That attracted attention. It drew me into debating people who were dubious about New Urbanism. That thrust me into a role beyond Pasadena.
Who are you debating?
I was debating both modernists and “realists.” The modernists stereotyped us as a bunch of bow-tied reactionaries who wanted to take architecture back a century, accusing us of pasting fake-old facades onto greenfield development to mollify the unwashed masses. While the realists told us,“Yeah, that sounds great, all this idealistic stuff you spout, but it’s never gonna work. We’re past the point of no return. We need to keep widening freeways, we have to keep building sprawl. Not because it’s great, but because your naive ideas will never fly with the public.”
Those debates put me into a prominent role because I was an elected official. I wasn’t a designer, I wasn’t an architect. But as mayor, my focus was: How do we get this stuff done? What laws do we need to change? What plans do we need to rewrite? And, more importantly, how can we build political will to reverse 70 years of momentum going in the wrong direction? The LA Times called me a “planning visionary.” All I did was listen to these folks in CNU and had the audacity to try it at home. And it’s been extraordinarily successful. Pasadena rebuilt a vibrant economy, becoming a destination again.
Is there a new development happening in Pasadena?
A tremendous amount over the last 25 years, including more than 6,000 units of new housing since the general plan, mostly downtown and around train stations. There’d been no housing built in those places for decades.
So what took you away?
After three terms on the council, I decided I was more committed to cities than politics. I went to work for the Local Government Commission, and then three years later, I had the opportunity to become the city manager of Azusa, California.
Where is that?
It’s 12 miles east of Pasadena, a city of about 42,000. I brought New Urbanism to a different environment: a working-class, predominantly Latino suburb, which was less sophisticated in terms of city planning. Again, we rewrote the general plan, again with deep community involvement. That gained a lot of attention, because Azusa was not a community known for progressive planning.
What years were this?
1998 through 2004. One of our great victories was convincing Metro to extend the light-rail line, which stopped in Pasadena, all the way out to Azusa. All the affluent suburbs got one stop. We were able to persuade them to give us two: one in downtown, the other in an area we were developing near Citrus College and Azusa Pacific University.
After six years there, I was recruited by the City of Ventura to be city manager. Bill Fulton, the legendary California planner, was on the City Council. In the nine years I spent there, we finished a landmark general plan that focused on infill and downtown revitalization. After that, I was recruited to be a deputy mayor in Los Angeles during the first part of the Garcetti administration. Two years later, I became city manager of Santa Monica, which has a sterling reputation for good planning. I did that for five years. I was deeply involved in local and regional housing and homelessness issues, when CNU called to see if I’d be interested in their executive director job.
That’s certainly full circle. You were active in the ’90s, when New Urbanism was controversial in the architecture and planning academy. Andrés was a lightning rod, and I think he liked being a lightning rod. CNU took on some baggage in those years that it didn’t fully offload. But it feels like we’re in a different place now. Feels like a lot of the people who fought those old style wars are either retiring, stepping back, or think we’re in a different moment. So I think CNU is potentially in a new place. What are your feelings about that?
One hundred percent. Thirty years ago, the organization burst on the scene like a supernova. It’s fairly remarkable that a handful of architects, planners, and urban designers forged a national profile, directly challenging the status quo leadership of AIA, APA, and ULI. In part they did that by being provocative and confrontational, but also by being ahead of their time. I like the quote, “The future is already here, it’s just unevenly distributed.” The early New Urbanists were seeing around the corner, understanding that a lot of mainstream conventional wisdom was running out of gas, literally and figuratively. Economically, environmentally, and socially, there was no gas left in the tank of suburban sprawl.
To me the frustrating part of those debates, between the New Urbanists and the design avant-garde, the Harvard GSD crowd, was they were talking past each other. One was talking about the style of buildings, the other was talking about planning, so it just didn’t seem like a productive debate.
Neo-traditional architecture was always going to get under the skin of modernists. But the real New Urbanist revolution was not a revival of classic architectural principles, although that’s not without significance. The bigger truth of New Urbanism was the comprehensive critique of modernist hubris: If you junk 5,000 years of learning about how to build places that work for people without needing unsustainable inputs of energy and materials, what could possibly go wrong?
Yes, building cities and towns around people, not cars—that was the real power of New Urbanism. The debate over architectural style was a sideshow.
A total sideshow. And not only that, a lot of the New Urbanist developments were in suburbs, a part of the built environment that the academy had not “discovered” yet. So, again, it was another false debate.
Which overshadowed the profound impact of New Urbanism during the last three decades. I would point to two places where we’ve been remarkably influential and acknowledge the reality of one frustrating failure. First, the vocabulary, ideas, and concepts of New Urbanism have essentially been widely adopted in planning and architecture. When New Urbanists began to espouse them, we were a voice in the wilderness. Now our core principles have become the new dominant paradigm. In states like California and Florida, we’ve changed the way urban infill is happening.
Second, it’s easy to forget that back when New Urbanism was a controversial new movement, “urban” meant urban crisis, urban blight. We helped make urbanism cool again. The movement was extraordinarily successful in shifting attention and investment back into cities and towns. That success came from the tactical handbook of outnumbered armies. You light extra campfires on the hillsides to fool the enemy into thinking you’re more numerous than you really are. We were never that many people, yet in terms of influence, we batted well above our weight.
Here’s the failure: While the powerful titans of real estate, architecture, and planning have verbally adopted the slogans and the buzzwords of New Urbanism, the growth machine building housing, retail, highways, etc. continues largely unchanged. The majority of new development remains placeless sprawl, and most infill is auto-oriented. In that sense, the message of New Urbanism is even more urgent and relevant than it was 30 years ago. Because the costs of the way we’ve been building are coming due. The most obvious symptoms are the unfolding catastrophes of climate change and the revolt against residential racial segregation. Still, organizations, movements, companies—they have a kind of a natural trajectory. Thirty years is a long run. So, although our message remains relevant, it’s a legitimate question: Has New Urbanism as a movement run its course? Is it time to call it something different?
That is a great question. Is it time?
Not if we can take our message into places we’ve failed to consistently take it over the last 30 years. We need to take New Urbanism to Rust Belt towns, disinvested rural communities, and inner cities. We had tremendous success with suburban greenfield developments, and some equally powerful, but less well-noticed projects, such as Hope Six, which rebuilt aging public housing into mixed-income infill development. Hope Six created a better quality of life and more opportunity for public housing residents.
At a net loss of total units, I think.
That’s because the federal government cut investment in public housing.
We have to make clear New Urbanism’s continuing relevance to climate change, affordable housing and racial justice—all of which were embedded in the Charter for the New Urbanism. Today’s concerns ring out from a charter written 30 years ago, but those ideas weren’t consistently applied. So let the word go forth: Living in great places should be the birthright of every American, not the privilege of the affluent. That is the key opportunity for New Urbanism today.
And what’s your message to the younger generation of architects and planners that haven’t fought those style wars and don’t find them particularly relevant?
The Charter says: “Individual architectural projects should be seamlessly linked to their surroundings. This issue transcends style.” The second sentence was inserted at the insistence of Dan Solomon to emphasize that New Urbanism is not a matter of style. New Urbanism is the architecture of community. Our message to younger folks is about recapturing streets for people, rebuilding the public realm, rebalancing communities to be more equitable and integrated, and extending the opportunities for great neighborhoods beyond the ones that have been gentrified.
There’s tremendous idealism in younger architects and planners. We need to organize that energy. I see it happening. We have an exciting new Midwest chapter that’s all young planners. Bruzensky Bois, a young property manager in Florida, is organizing the Congressional Black Caucus of the New Urbanism. He sees the relevance of it to urban equity. When he discovered the Charter, he said, “How come Black people have not had access to these tools, to this kind of power? Our neighborhoods have been devastated by freeways, disinvestment and gentrification. We need to claim the tools of New Urbanism because Black folk were city builders before World War II, just like white people. We built them the right way, and we need to recapture that legacy.” That’s inspiring to me and demonstrates that New Urbanism belongs back at the center of the national conversation.
Featured image: Old Pasadena, Ca. Cole led the rewriting of Pasadena’s general plan to focus new development adjacent to light-rail stations.