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Postcards from the New World

The 20th Congress for the New Urbanism yields a mixed vision for Florida's future

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The Tri-Rail station in Ft. Lauderdale needs bathrooms. I discovered this while rushing to catch a train to the convention center in West Palm Beach. Unfortunately, the Tri-Rail doesn't want to turn into a haven for drug and assault crimes, not that my bladder would care if I had to step over a junkie to pee. So I miss my train to the CNU20's orientation breakfast, give up my perfect parking spot in the station's woefully inadequate parking lot, wind up shoehorned back onto I-95 where traffic prevents me from getting off for two exits to finally find a gas station that only lets me use the bathroom with purchase.

You see this? This sort of unfunny modern-life anecdote is the exact reason we need the Congress for the New Urbanism, an annual gathering of city planners, transportation specialists and architects sharing ideas and methods for creating new sustainable environments. They focus on building walkable neighborhoods, eliminating sprawl, making towns more fiscally sound, reducing environmental degradation and finding lasting solutions to the nightmarish complexity of our current development patterns. These solutions can range from supporting things like, say, high-speed rail to slapping up new neighborhoods, like Orlando’s Baldwin Park.

If these two examples have left you skeptical or of two minds, welcome to the proverbial herd of cats that is the Congress. This year – the CNU’s 20th meeting, held in mid-May and titled "The New World" – the organization chose West Palm Beach as its stomping grounds, a destination that over the next few days will prove a paradoxical reminder of the CNU's mission. On the one hand, West Palm boasts some impressive examples of new urban principles. Clematis Street is a single walkable stretch of bars and restaurants that also includes the library and some parks. More recent is the addition of City Place, a mixed-use square of shops, restaurants and apartments with lighted fountains and community activities. It’s like a more involved version of the SoDo complex on South Orange Avenue in downtown Orlando.
On the other hand, West Palm Beach, has many of the degraded corridors, full of half-occupied strip malls and closed gas stations and car lots that make it practically a sister city with Orlando. Many of its streets, like the eight-lane Okeechobee Boulevard (a dead ringer for parts of Kirkman Drive or Colonial Boulevard), which separates City Place from the Convention Center, take a lengthy two-step process to cross. In this sense, West Palm represents both where the new urbanists want us to go and the major challenges we still face.

One can trace the origins of the Congress to a variety of movements and projects. Certainly, one of the most influential moments was the founding of Seaside, Fla. in 1979. Developer Robert Davis teamed up with outspoken Florida architect Andres Duany and his wife, Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk, of Miami-based DPZ & Company to turn 80 acres of Panhandle beachfront into a compact and functioning resort town. Seaside, which is planned on the traditional European model of a town center, gained its widest audience as Jim Carey's surreal home in The Truman Show

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