CNU 22: Ken Greenberg Outlines Challenges to 21st Century Urbanism

The opening plenary of the 22nd annual Congress of the New Urbanism opened to an audience of over one thousand attendees. Keynote speaker Ken Greenberg, a Toronto based urban designer and author of the book Walking Home: the Life and Lessons of a City Builder addressed the audience. His message is that even though New Urbanists have accomplished much in the 22 years since the founding of CNU, there is much to do and that new urbanists need to change to meet the coming challenges of the 21st century.

Greenburg highlighted the many challenges facing urbanism today. The first is the oft cited decline in the use of automobiles. “We are seeing the back of cars,” he told the crowd. Total miles traveled is down and young people are delaying getting their drivers licenses at a significant rate compared to a generation earlier.

Second is the growing gap in income inequality between urban places and suburban places. In Toronto from 1970 to 2005 a majority of the city’s low-income population moved from the urban core to suburban communities while the core experiencing prosperity.

Greenberg CNU22Ken Greenberg addresses the CNU. Photo by Paul Knight.

This divide is happening in cities across North America as urban cores have become desirable, and suburban areas experience decline. These trends were reported by UrbanCincy last month in Atlanta.

Greenberg goes on to say that this growing divide is also resulting in a political divide where urban places are not politically strong enough to demand for better urbanism because in most cases political power is still held in the suburbs and rule areas. As money grows scarce, money for urban areas dwindle. Urban areas are increasingly competing against the suburbs for scarce national resources. This is a familiar issue in many cities, including Cincinnati.

“All things public are under intense stress,” Greenberg argues, “just when we need them the most.”

Greenberg’s message to political leaders is, “There can be no national vision without a vision for cities.” Politicians should eliminate the “perverse subsidies” that continue to encourage costly, difficult to adapt and non-resilient infrastructure.  He equates changing the direction of what he called the “sprawl industrial complex” to trying to turn an aircraft carrier: It will happen slowly.

The divide is allowing cities to both create good urbanism and bad urbanism because policy is so hard to change, good urbanism is often done by granting exceptions to policy.“We have plenty of examples of good urbanism. The challenge is to change that from being the exception to being the rule,” he told the crowd.

However the challenges remain tough.  Greenberg urges that urbanists need to stop operating in silos and unite to build good policy. The threats of climate change and an increasingly urbanized world mean that cities are a necessary part of the future. He argues that we should embrace them and build them right.

  • matimal

    I’d argue that Cincinnati is doing a better job at getting resources vis a vis it’s suburbs than in the past. I think that explains the viciousness of suburban resentments of Cincinnati’s successes from people who ironically still join the growing throngs in downtown and our.

    • TimSchirmang

      Haha, I commend your dedication to hating all things ‘suburban’ – however you define it.

    • matimal

      and I commend your willingness to display your obliviousness about how cincinnati and and other american metros really work for all to see. You are hardly alone and let us all see how little many Americans understand who pays for what.

    • TimSchirmang

      Enlighten me, but do so without using your conclusion (suburbs are free-riders) as part of your reasoning.

    • matimal

      prove that suburbs are free riders without acknowledging that suburbs are free riders. What a charmingly absurd suggestion. I’m not the enemy, Tim, Mason, west Chester, and Harrison are.

    • TimSchirmang

      Beg the question. Look up the meaning of the phrase and then feel free to reply again.

    • matimal

      Enlightenment is an active process. You must enlighten yourself, grasshopper. You’ll have to direct your sanctimonious indignation toward someone else from now on.

    • TimSchirmang

      C’mon man, I am trying to engage with you in a substantive dialogue, but this is proving very difficult. My original reply was (at least intended as) a lighthearted remark about how consistently you raise this urban vs suburban dichotomy in various posts on this site. I was genuinely amused at how you found an opportunity to antagonize the issue in response to an article that tries to suggest constructive cooperation.

      You obviously believe that ‘the way metros work’ clearly shows that suburbs are nothing but leeches on the urban core. You’ve made this point many times and I am simply asking for you to elaborate. I further asked that you do so without using your conclusion as an underlying definition or assumed part of your reasoning because recently you did just that: “suburbs are areas fiscally separate from the largest metro and… exist to shield people from the costs of cities”.

      You can reach any conclusion in the world if you’re allowed to start there in the first place. If avoiding that sort of nonsense is ‘charmingly absurd’, I can only reiterate my initial reply.

    • matimal

      you are serious? I don’t have time to explain the economics and politics of post-war America, but you can educate yourself through academic books available on google books and through our well-stocked public library. good luck, knowledge really is power.

    • TimSchirmang

      I also forgot, remember that tax foundation article you recommended I read, the one titled “Gas Taxes and User Fees Pay For Only Half of State and Local Road Expenses”? Did you actually read it?? Here’s the link again:

      Scroll down to Table 1 my friend. See the same data on mass transit? The article could also have been titled “User Fees and Taxes Pay For Less Than a Quarter of State and Local Mass Transit Expenses”. How does that data point fit into your Mason-West Chester-Harrison = enemies model?