Good Urbanism -- Not Just Good for You: A Report from the American Planning Association's Meetings in New Orleans

I am writing this from New Orleans where I have been attending the annual conference of the American Planning Association (APA). It's also been for me a voyage of discovery, because I had never been to the Crescent City before. The fact that my first visit here comes five years after Hurricane Katrina and the failure of the levee system devastated the city has only made the impact on me and my thinking about cities deeper.

This is the third time in 20 years that the APA has held its conference in New Orleans, and I can venture a guess why in addition to the pleasures of the town the APA likes the place. If you read a history of New Orleans (and I happen to be reading a good one, Ned Sublette's The World that Made New Orleans), you're overwhelmed trying to keep track of the continual ferment of change over 300 years.

But then if you look at the map of the city, you immediately note that from and including its earliest settled part, the French Quarter, the city radiates out in well-organized grids. It turns out that the one constant over the city's history has been the street grid laid out by French engineer Adrian de Pauger in 1721, complete with canals to drain sewage. New Orleans didn't sprawl haphazardly over the mudflats; it was planned. Maybe at least those years when it meets in New Orleans the APA should name an award after de Pauger.

One thing that is sprawling is the program of the conference. Five thousand planners are here, and to keep them busy there is a range of sessions and panels that signifies more than anything that planning means different things to different people. Here are three topics I picked out at random that appear in the conference program adjacent to each other: "Rural Land Use and Transportation Coordination"; "Ethnicity, Religion and New Orleans' Development"; and "Sustainable Freight Movement in Metropolitan Areas".

But still it's possible to discern common themes running both through the conference program and much of the "conversation" going on about planning inside and outside the convention center. There are two themes that jump out. One is general while the other is more specific. The general one is "sustainability," and the specific one is "what shall we do with the suburbs." In this article I'll write about sustainability.

Going back to the early years of this decade, "sustainable urbanism" has been becoming the mantra that urbanists of all stripes could unite over, whether they called themselves smart growthers, or new urbanists, or didn't put themselves in any camp but wanted to create good cities and towns. (For a while the adjective "livable" was in contention for this role, but sustainable won out.)

Only a few years ago sustainability was a concept that had real meaning. Although the exact wording of a definition was debated (including at various UN conferences), sustainability was generally agreed to mean that people today should not develop in such a manner to prejudice the future in the three areas of social life, the environment, and the economy. This had meaning in the urban context, because cities necessarily involve and need to be evaluated in all three categories.

Unfortunately, for sustainability to become the byword it had to evolve from a meaningful concept to a cliché; as a cliché it was for a while useful to bandy about, but now it has been reduced even further. I'll call it now a caricature of a cliché, as it seems that for most people who use the word it now means only one thing -- how much CO2 something emits.

I saw this in a presentation at the APA conference by Nathan Cherry, the author of Grid/Street/Place, a book I reviewed in Huffington Post back in January. Mr. Cherry gave an excellent presentation of the ideas in his highly useful book, but I was surprised when after describing how planners could use the book to design more urbanized developments to fix suburban sprawl (theme #2), the big benefit that he mentioned was that this would reduce carbon emissions.

I.e., Mr. Cherry didn't focus on what would be the more likely selling point for the reformatting of development that Cherry advocates -- that people enjoy those more urban places. At least for this audience of planners he thought he had to make sure they knew that what he proposed was sustainable.

To me urbanists are making a mistake to focus on ever narrowing concepts of sustainability that reduce the complexities of cities to one-dimensional environmental formulas. While it is true that the most effective way to build "green" is to build compact cities and towns, good urbanism doesn't need to be, and shouldn't be, sold as something that's "good for you".

Frank Gruber writes a weekly column on local politics, which often involve land use issues, for the Santa Monica Lookout News, a news website. His first book, Urban Worrier: Making Politics Personal, was published last year by City Image Press.