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  THE TOWN PAPER
VOL. 4, NO. 4 -- WINTER 2002
 

NU at the University Level:

"We are facing an era of economic austerity and global turbulence that will compel us to live differently. In the future, the New Urbanism is liable to be the Only Urbanism as the experiment of suburbia implodes." -- James Howard Kunstler

Remarkable things happen when Jim Kunstler comes to town to preach the virtues of traditional communities and trash the system that doesn't value them. Kunstler calls these "gigs," and at one particular gig held at the University of Georgia (UGA) in 1999, college student Jacob Lindsey and manufacturing engineer Walter Kawa were among the standing-room-only crowd.

Leaving Kunstler's lecture energized after hearing his description of a built environment in desperate need of reform, these two immediately took action. Lindsey decided to switch his major from business to landscape architecture the next day and Walter Kawa soon followed after quitting his job of 20 years with an engineering firm.

Soon after, the two met in an Athens, Ga., coffee shop and drafted a charter onto napkins for a new organization called SNU (Students for the New Urbanism). The organization was formed because Lindsey felt there was a complete lack of teaching and thought about new urbanism in the academy.

"Most faculty members are indifferent to the new urbanism," said Lindsey. "Some are openly critical. Jack Crowley, Dean of the College of Environment and Design and SNU faculty advisor, is a major proponent, although his influence on the school is mainly through curriculum change, which happens at a glacial pace," he said.

Lindsey thinks that landscape architects are mostly ahead of the curve. "The profession of landscape architecture is largely unencumbered with issues of style," he said. "Some students are actually entering the profession with intent to save the world."

To promote their new organization, Lindsey and Kawa set up a website and discussion listserv that, besides the monthly meetings and informal discussions in hallways and diners, is the backbone of the group.

The students who comprise the SNU at UGA have been busy learning about well-designed cities and how to design better places. "We took a weekend field trip to Charleston where we toured places like Beaufort, Newpoint, Habersham, I'On, and of course the Holy City [Charleston]," reminisces Lindsey. The students have also been steadfast helpers at two CNU Councils and two charrettes - one in Alabama, the other in Macon, Ga.

Having acquired some experience in those prior charrettes, SNU has, with the help of UGA faculty members, organized a weekend charrette for the Garden Springs Neighborhood, a majority African-American and Hispanic immigrant mobile home park in their city of Athens. The park had been sold to developers without the residents' consent, and the nearly 400 low-income residents were evicted with their trailers from the property.

"Our charrette focused on the design of a new park, with mixed housing types and a small commercial component, to be owned cooperatively and constructed on a minimal budget, said Lindsey. "The designs produced at the charrette have been passed on, and have been used in acquiring equity for the purchase of new land."

Future plans include a charrette in Covington, Ga., as well as a regional or national symposium for students in spring 2003.

The group's constant booster, Lucy Rowland, who is also the students' associate adviser at UGA, urged them to seek official status within the Congress for the New Urbanism (CNU).

"New urbanism will stagnate if it does not eventually become a staple in the academy," said Rowland. "Andrés [Duany] can continue to lecture widely about modernistas and star architects who are ruining places, but unless the battleship continues to be turned around by the students and recent graduates who support new urbanism, the modernistas win."

Rowland says the fact that the first three SNU groups (the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and Brigham Young University have formed student chapters as well) are not at Notre Dame and the University of Miami is, in a way, confirmation that the movement is already broader based than the critics of new urbanism, such as those at Harvard Graduate School of Design, would like to believe.

"Today's students have the potential to take new urbanism to the public and to achieve greater levels of acceptance in time," said Rowland. "If we fail to create a meaningful place for students to grow the movement, we may have to abandon new urbanism as another 'experiment.' I'm not willing to allow that."

In January 2003, CNU will provide a model and guidelines for school chapters. Perhaps an equally important benefit to having CNU student chapters is the assurance to practicing new urbanists that there are others who will follow, as equally compelled to the making of better, more sustainable places to live.

Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk, CNU founder and dean at the University of Miami School of Architecture, while optimistic about the future of new urbanism in the hands of these young leaders, acknowledges that they have challenges ahead. "The next generation can look forward to improving the quality of design. Excellence in the architecture, urban spaces and gardens is an aspiration with still plenty of room for distinction. This also ties into keeping the movement alive intellectually, working on its refinement."

Kunstler adds, "Young urbanists will have a tremendously difficult task helping a distressed populace understand that the rescaling of American life can lead to a better future than the struggle to maintain a failed suburbia. This will require political skill on top of the technical expertise entailed in urban design."

Lindsey and his new generation of new urbanists are unfazed. "With the comment 'we want to change the world,' I do not mean to imply naïveté - my peers are cynical, media savvy and self-aware," said Lindsey. "They see the designer's shrinking sphere of influence, and they realize the difficulty of accomplishing change in our environment. It is the scale of moral outrage that keeps us motivated."

When asked how he and other students will we go about changing the world, Lindsey responds, "One place at a time, of course."    

For more information about organizing student chapters, please contact Steve Bodzin at the Congress for the New Urbanism: 415.495.2255 or visit sbodzin@cnu.org.