For many people in Australia, the term 'the new urbanism' is something of a dirty phrase. I'm not sure if it's because it conjures images of traditional architecture or something far deeper. However, perhaps the term proposed by keynote speaker Andres Duany, himself one of the founders of the new urbanism, may appeal more.

I'm sitting at the Congress of New Urbanism at the end of the 2013 Great Places tour with client RobertsDay. In a long presentation containing several complex arguments that I'll make no attempt to summarise, Duany pitched the ingredients of lean urbanism.

He also suggested that we learn a lesson about lean urbanism from Salt Lake City - even though "we all came here knowing Salt Lake City is the worst city we know". While the present Salt Lake City isn't what the founders had in mind because it's been affected by sprawl, the planned Salt Lake City was really intended as the 'gentlest grid'. It was also built with very little money but a lot of smarts. After all, the Mormons built something close to 736 cities in 100 years, and that's an American success story.

However, Duany also described Salt Lake City as a study in successional urbanism - a series of buildings built 'on the same chassis'. It was also an approach used at Seaside - and in fact the first decade of the new urbanism, when everything was incubated.

Instead of pitching the 'climactic condition' on day one, Duany says it's "all about being lean again". And, while there's a terrific bias everywhere for hi tech green, that approach is, he believes, destined to fail. In fact, Duany contends that Seaside really had modern green solutions long before hi tech came along - sustainable urban drainage, reflective roofs, walkability, native plants - but they were there because it was cheaper. "It was the recession and Davis was saying we had to be smart," he says. "Debt drove us to environmental solutions."

He mounts the argument that in 2008, the century began. At the time there was the real estate bubble which revealed that the US is broke; that while we might have reached peak oil, energy will never run out and the permanent condition is that it's just never going to be cheap; that climate change is real and is also the long emergency; it's a slow motion crash that casts a pall.

Our challenge is that we need to work with the demoralisation of hitting one tipping point after another. However, citing Kunstler, we can turn all these problems into a virtues and pleasures and joys, if we too don't get infected with the pall, he says. In the face of people giving up: re-embracing big houses (when did they not?) and big cars (not in Australia) we can have urban agriculture, and walking, and ceiling fans, and porches and more.

Duany says that LEAN is the now urbanism and that for the new century; about the protean organism that is CNU, the idea of viruses and membranes, the vernacular mind, a subsidiarity process and successional growth; interim buildings, light green tech, pink codes, flexbuildings and pod practices.

Let the other groups be the heavy artillery. The right place for the now urbanists is as the light cavalry: organised but nimble. 


AuthorAmanda Falconer