About the Council for European Urbanism

Joanna Alimanestianu, Architect-Urbanist, Co-Founder of CEU

Opening address at the Conference on Climate Change and Urban Design
Oslo, September 2008

I’d like to tell you about the origins of the Council for European Urbanism and the premises we held at the time and, I think – I hope – still hold today.

The focus of all of our work is, I would argue, one of Europe’s most precious assets: its compact, mixed-use, beautiful urbanism. It is especially precious today because it is one of the most effective resources we have in dealing with climate change, and the other related challenges we face today.

I know it may seem rather audacious to say that “beautiful urbanism” can help fight climate change, and perhaps even help save the world! But there are reasons to think this is an important truth.

When I refer to “beautiful urbanism” I mean settlements with a wholistic quality where the architecture reinforces the urbanism, and the urbanism supports the architecture. I mean places rich in local identity, where city squares are grand yet of human scale; and where living quarters, even the most modest, reflect a human grandeur. I mean places that residents love and visitors can’t forget. We surely all agree that Europe is endowed with a rich heritage of such places.

But we also notice that these places are too often treated as mere wonders of the past, marveled at from a distance as though they are out of reach. And that for some strange reason creating places like these seems to be forbidden, as though we don’t deserve them.

There is another phenomenon happening, perhaps even more than ever before. It is a craze for spectacular buildings and surprising spaces: powerful art that jolts the mind and emotions. Fair enough: in special places, we can and should welcome the extraordinary. But in the end what matters most is the quality of human habitat as a supportive urban system: places that provide a health-promoting context, where life is worth living, where people feel they can be who they want to be – and who they want to become.

Fortunately people are beginning to wake up to the importance of our environment, and the unique perils it faces today. We are all worried about what we may be leaving behind for future generations. Sustainable urbanism has – rightfully so – become our leitmotif. But if sustainability is to be more than a buzzword, we must understand that its roots do not simply lie in building technologies and innovations, but in the way people live together; and how urbanism with architecture allows and encourages people to live well. This is really a matter of common sense – which is to say, of using our natural ability to see wholistically and to move beyond the narrow and fragmented ways we have been doing things for too long.

It has taken an alarming change in our natural environment for us to question our modern ways of living. We are finally realizing that our excessive habits of production, consumption and waste haven’t made our lives wonderful and simply hasn’t added proportionally to our well-being, and that in fact, will undoubtedly lead to our demise. Scrambling to face this challenge, we are researching ways to reduce the emissions we generate, and minimize what we call our “carbon footprint”.

We in our movement, along with many others are certainly addressing the technological aspects of sustainability and carbon footprint, with smart building designs, renewable materials, more efficient energy use, and other innovative approaches.

But we must address the deeper dimension of sustainability, which has to do with quality of place, and place-making. If we want people to live a low-carbon lifestyle, they must want to live in a low-carbon place – in a place that is compact, walkable and transit-supported. They must want to live closer to their neighbors, spend more time outdoors walking, biking, using public transport and sharing public spaces.

Again, where is there any better collection of wonderful, successful, educational examples of how to do this, than here in Europe?

By the way, in Europe people produce on average less than half the carbon footprint than Americans do. And by many measures, Europeans enjoy a higher standard of living – a higher quality of life. This is an important clue to bear in mind as we confront our challenges today.

We are now at a time when climate change has pushed us past a major tipping point. Up until recently the view of modern life has been all about novelty, change, flexibility, globalization, and quantity. Now there is a new set of values that are starting to govern our thinking: ecology, fair trade, slow food, slow urbanism, and quality. We are seeing the return of the local: local places with their own unique characteristics; places where we enjoy living and being productive; places where we feel we belong; beautiful places we love and want to care for. These are the places that are truly sustainable, because people find them worth of sustaining.

As a European-American with dual citizenship, I have long asked myself, why in the world are the Europeans copying the worst of American environments? Isn’t it obvious how great European urbanism already is — and how precious? What strange infatuation, or inferiority complex, keeps us from opening our eyes, recognizing and appreciating what Europe has given us, defending it, and promoting it? It is so much better than the sprawling suburbs and dying cities centers we’re headed for, if we continue copying the ‘route number ones’ and the commercial malls, the office parks and the isolated high schools that have proliferated all over the US – and now in so many other countries.

How can we stop this damage, this sprawl, this homogenization of our world? Where are the urbanists who will make a difference?

This was what was on our minds back in 2002, when Andrés Duany, also a European-American, urged me to gather like-minded lovers of European urbanism – both Europeans and Americans. We realized the urgency and necessity for international collaboration. We were mindful of our trans-Atlantic history: after all, it was European architects, like Le Corbusier, who first had the grand machine-based vision for human settlements, and the Americans who then appropriated and developed it as a blueprint for sprawl. Now that American sprawl has become a global model, with imitators from Europe to Latin America to China. As Americans, the New Urbanists have been uniquely positioned to diagnose this disease, and to develop antibodies; and to look to Europe’s rich heritage for some of the best cures available. So surely we both have lessons we can learn from each other.

Why did we choose the name “Council for European Urbanism”? What kind of urbanism were we talking about?

It’s more than measurable parameters like connectivity and density: it’s the specific local quality, diversity, and exceptional beauty of Europe’s hamlets, villages, towns and cities. Its Europe’s richly varied forms of urbanism based on heritage that we want to recognize and value. And it’s the post-war degradation of that same urbanism that reminds us how urgent it is that we protect European quality of place – not only for our benefit today, but also as our inspiration and our guide, to provide for our children and generations to follow.

Thanks to our American colleagues we have extremely useful tools like the charrette, a collaborative method to bring together experts to work with local professionals and stakeholders. We also have the Transect, the Smart Code and the various forms of architectural guidelines and pattern books.

These are all great tools, but they are not solutions by themselves.

Let us think of them as techniques with which to identify local qualities, and revive local heritage. They are the means with which we can inspire locals to appreciate, appropriate and care for their own environment. These can become invaluable tools in our pursuit of a truly sustainable Europe – with places that feel right, that feel like home.

With this in mind, as our movement advances let me share some concerns that I think we must address together.

1. Too often we New Urbanists, with all our experience and good intentions, come in with preconceived ideas, formulas and stylistic solutions. And with our repeated successes in other places, this may seem understandable. But Europe, with its rich variety of local characteristics, shows us the weakness of this approach. The problem is not style per se, but the need for contextual design, both urban and architectural, that evolves from and reflects the local culture, heritage, history and aspirations of the people. These are all crucial ingredients for meaningful and authentic identity of place.

Romanians are just not the same as Germans – nor is Transylvania the same as Bucharest (even though they are in the same country!). They can not and should not be treated as though one size fits all. We need to do a better job learning from the genuine character of each place and its people – building its “wholeness” by integrating all scales, from the streetscapes to the details of building facades.
Photo: Sandy Sorlien

It is only with this approach that variety and diversity of our built environment can be celebrated and that we can be true guardians and promoters of what is truly local, offering a real choice of human habitats.

2. Too quickly we, as New Urbanists, turn our backs upon the most damaged places – avoiding them as lost causes. I am referring to those disfigured, fragmented neighborhoods, villages, towns, even cities that have become mazes of congested roads, ugly buildings, in-your-face signs and undefined spaces. These are places that because of 20th century planning — or lack of it – have proliferated around the world. Most recently, in Eastern Europe, these places have been multiplying because of a double phenomenon. First totalitarian political regimes wiped out the local heritage, and then a rapacious form of capitalism spurred rampant growth, replacing beautiful and precious forms of local identity with cheap, ugly and unsustainable versions of global sprawl.

These disorienting places, promoting confusion, aggression and desolation, are too often accepted as today’s reality – a fait accompli with a momentum that is inevitable. Remarkably, some people actually celebrate this cacophony and argue that to strive for anything else is futile and inauthentic.

Of course, we New Urbanists have been pointing out the logical absurdity of this argument. But we must also demonstrate effective methods to heal these distressed places. We must show that it is possible to regenerate a local identity and beauty that belongs.

This mission is difficult: we, as outsiders, must wade through mess and confusion to decipher what is locally meaningful. Locals, inured to the damage and oblivious to a better world, most often have forgotten, or never known, that quality of life that improves from generation to generation, building on the past.

While we need not be anti-modernists, we must certainly work to break the hypnotic grip of 20th Century modernism, with its message to ignore context, history and specific local need, and its suggestion that anything new will automatically be better than anything that came before.

So how can we find the inspiration – the essence, the structure and the forms – to develop master plans and write pattern books for places that seem to offer nothing to work with?

I suggest that as we decipher the spirit of a place and hunt down the ghosts of what was, we also look for successes from other places. Here is where the failed dogma of modernism went wrong: there is nothing wrong with borrowing what works well elsewhere, adapting and modifying it for local use. In fact, this is the way that the greatest places of humanity have always grown. The art of local place making is in the choosing, adapting and combining what is wonderfully right for a specific place. And the craft is in the evolutionary process — in a vernacular process — that builds upon successes, both local and borrowed ones. It is in this way that the art and the craft of place-making can combine, to weave a place back together into a new and authentic whole.

3. Are we really living up to the wholistic demands of our chosen profession of urbanism? We may credit ourselves for sustainable built environments with compact urban fabrics, a mix of building types and a choice of transportation. And I have heard some say that this is more than enough – that we can‘t take on everything. But if our goal is to actually design and build sustainable neighborhoods, we must also inspire and facilitate social sustainability — that is to say, the thriving social mix that is the life-blood of a neighborhood. As Jane Jacobs reminded us, monocultures are not healthy in nature, or in cities.

We have come a long way over the past decades, learning to collaborate effectively with other disciplines. We have teamed with traffic engineers, environmental engineers, retail experts and many others, to assure that our designs work structurally and functionally. But as true urbanists, we must take on the thorniest issues of social structure, economics, affordability – and perhaps more important, opportunity, for people to build a better life. We must establish a collaborative foundation with visionary politicians, entrepreneurs, economists and others to find practical, equitable methods to assure a social mix that will remain healthy over time. Without a wholistic approach to sustainability, our efforts are in vain.

In addition to these three concerns – the importance of local authenticity, the need to heal damaged places and the imperative of social sustainability – I would like to conclude with a final point of urgency.

With our experience and vision, and our network of expertise, we must take a more active role in initiating projects to improve the built environment. We can not just wait for projects to come our way. We must take on trailblazing initiatives – such as a master plan for Bucharest, Romania, or a recovery plan for a damaged place like the US Gulf Coast, as the CNU did after Katrina. We need strategies, team work, and an army of colleagues to call on – including each other – to make these happen, as large-scale public-private ventures.

Of course these must be much more than just market-driven projects. True, they must be market-facing – but they must be much more. Since they will be contributors to the urbanism of a city for generations, we must ensure they are beneficial to all stakeholders, and not just the immediate market. We must pioneer the creative new collaborations working with public, private and NGO partners, other individuals – and other allied movements.

Ours is a movement to celebrate the best qualities of European urbanism, and to use these qualities to build the foundation of a truly sustainable future. As urbanists we must never fail to champion the wholistic art and craft of place-making. And let us always remember that our work must be built for and around human beings, empowered to shape their lives in thriving and beautiful settlements.

Joanna Alimanestianu is an architect and urbanist with an international practice and offices in New York and Brussels. She is also the Co-founder of Council for European Urbanism.

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