February 1, 2003
Give DPZ a Chance
Once students fought for civil rights. Now they want mixed-use, transit-oriented development.
The most prominent advocates of New Urbanism—architects and planners such as Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk, Andres Duany, Peter Calthorpe, and Stefanos Polyzoides—were students during the politically heady 1960s and ’70s, and perhaps that’s when they learned to be visionaries and activists. Surprisingly when they set out to recruit followers, they didn’t think to enlist students. Luckily the students came to them.
The first New Urbanist student activists were born at University of Georgia when a proponent, provocative author James Howard Kunstler, spoke there in 1999. “He brought down the house,” recalls Lucy Rowland, a research librarian who manages a New Urbanist listserv and acts as an adviser for the club. “One guy quit his engineering job and went back to school in environmental design. Another, a freshman in business whose girlfriend dragged him to the lecture, had an epiphany and switched majors the next week.”
The Congress for New Urbanism (CNU) is responding to student interest with a commitment to establish official campus chapters and add a student representative to its board of directors. The organization hopes to formalize student groups during this academic year at the University of Illinois, Notre Dame, Auburn, Clemson, Georgia, and Georgia Tech. There’s interest from students at other schools too—even Brigham Young, which offers no architecture curriculum but where 40 attended the first meeting of a Students for the New Urbanism group in October. (Most of them aim to become developers and want exposure to the New Urbanist approach.) “The Duanys, Plater-Zyberks, Calthorpes, Polyzoides, et cetera, have fought hard for what they believe. I respect them greatly for it,” says Zach Borders, who is currently working toward a dual masters degree in architecture and urban planning at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. He goes on with, well, the brashness of youth, to assert, “The youth is the answer to every question pertaining to, ‘How do we make this last?’”
CNU’s student chapters will provide education on its planning approach, which favors compact, mixed-use, transit-oriented development and architecture where individual buildings blend in rather than stand out. It’s a philosophy that some architecture faculties ignore and others treat with hostility. Brian Wright, who recently completed a master’s degree in landscape architecture at Auburn and is now a designer at Duany Plater-Zyberk, is helping to organize the campus groups. “I wish there had been something like this going on while I was in school,” he says. “My thesis was based on the principles of New Urbanism, but I couldn’t say ‘New Urbanism.’ I won a national ASLA award for it, and my professors gave me an A. But once when I mentioned Seaside, I about got rotten fruit thrown at me.”
The chapters also aim to provide professional networking and job opportunities in an industry that is largely down. “Despite the pooh-poohing of New Urbanism in the architecture schools, a lot of New Urbanist firms are booming,” says Steven Bodzin, CNU’s communications director. “There’s been tremendous growth in New Urbanist development in the past five years, and it’s not showing any sign of letting up.”
During this New Year’s holiday the American Institute of Architecture Students held Forum 2002, its annual conference, in Chicago with the theme “City Reborn.” Bodzin says the event “looked like a clone of a CNU congress,” with its seminars on topics like community-based design and urban corridors, and a talk by Kunstler entitled “Parking Lot Nation.”
“The challenge is for the youth to become knowledgeable and to responsibly carry the torch,” says the young firebrand Borders, who was also chairperson for the conference. “In our eyes we see New Urbanism changing its name in popular culture to Good Urbanism. No one wants the horrid garbage that is currently acceptable in this country. We don’t need a war to motivate a generation.”