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Seeing us in CNU

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SAVANNAH is quite flat.

I suppose that if I rode my bike more (or ever, sorry John Bennett) I’d have a better and more constant appreciation for Savannah’s flatness. But a week of walking up and down the hills of Seattle really brings it back to you, and your shins.

And that’s what I did last week, as I attended the 25th annual meeting of the Congress for the New Urbanism (CNU) in Seattle, along with about a dozen other professionals and citizens of Savannah, including a city council member, our zoning director, and multiple representatives of the Downtown Neighborhood Association (DNA).

We were all there because CNU 26 will be in Savannah next May.

In an organizational meeting with CNU staff, one Savannah representative wondered aloud if the people back home would “get” the CNU, or if many might perhaps reject it outright for having the word “new” in it.

What could Savannah possibly want with people talking about a “new urbanism,” when we spend most of our time reveling in what is old?

Well, that is the whole point. Members of the CNU want to revel in it too – they have found their inspiration and lessons on how to build a “new” urbanism from the places that got it right the first time. Places like Savannah.

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As I’ve mentioned before, Savannah comes up all the time in graduate school programs in city planning and urban design. It’s in all the books. Everyone is familiar with it, even if they have yet to visit it.

CNUers are really, really eager to come here for their 26th annual meeting a year from now. One might even say giddy.

These architects, city planners, urban designers, real estate developers and other professionals dealing with urban form are not coming to Savannah to tell it what to do – they are coming to take lessons from it.

These people get it. These are the best possible tourists, because they understand what truly makes Savannah work.

Don’t believe me? Eric Brown, principle of Brown Design Studio, and one of the co-chairs and organizers for CNU 26 plans to hold outdoor studios in which attendees will literally go out into the wards and measure things – widths of streets and sidewalks, curb heights, tree diameters, porches and stoops – all to better learn the physical details of what makes a great place.

So it was, standing in historic Moore Theatre in Seattle, before the collected membership of the CNU, containing urban thinkers whose works I’ve been reading for years, that I remembered that Savannah has wonderful, even remarkable urbanism.

Like I’d remembered that Savannah is also flat. It’s so obvious that one can overlook it, but as they say, “familiarity breeds contempt.”

Despite the hotel developments that we bemoan, and the one-way streets that we bicker about improving the safety of, and some of the more recent developments that have broken the sanctity of the Oglethorpe Plan (I’m looking at you Civic Center), our National Historic Landmark District is really quite special, and admired by professionals the world over.

It all comes down to its small blocks, mixed uses, historic architecture, and a very pleasant distribution of greenspace.

This isn’t to say that CNU 26 will be nothing but a love-fest of urbanism wonks gushing over the squares of Savannah. Challenging topics will also be tackled.

Given Savannah’s current slate of issues, and what was discussed at CNU 25, I’d predict sessions somehow addressing the following subjects:

Tourism - Savannah’s Tourism Management Plan (TMP) is scheduled to be completed, adopted, and implemented by fall of this year. So, by May of 2018 when CNU 26 rolls around, it should be a ripe subject for dissection by a host of professionals. I’d also suspect that short-term rentals could come up.

Equity – This is a topic of increasing concern for the CNU. Many criticisms of New Urbanist developments center on how they are very often designed for affluent residents, and don’t do a better job of addressing affordability. Since this congress will be in Savannah, there will likely be discussion of how (or if) affordability can be kept in a historic district that can only accommodate so many people. Finally, related to tourism, are the revenues from the Historic District’s largest industry being equitably distributed?

Climate Change – There was a somber mood on this subject at CNU 25. Many, including the patriarch of the CNU, Andres Duany, are shifting from strategies seeking to mitigate climate change, to strategies that focus on taking it as a given and adapting to it. However, they still insist that mitigation cannot be given up on, as worst-case scenarios for sea level rise would just be too costly for any reasonable adaptation strategy. It feels as if the CNU has moved to the final stage of grief on this subject – Acceptance. Savannah being a coastal city, and as I’ve mentioned also very flat, this is likely to arise as a major theme of CNU 26.

We have a year to get ready, and there’s a lot of work to do. The local CNU-Savannah chapter will be recruiting volunteers to help out when CNU 26 arrives, but you can always get involved before that. Go to CNU.org and become a member.

Attend a local chapter meeting. Though there will not be a local May meeting due to the national meeting, the next one will likely be the third Thursday in June.

cs

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