Living Urbanism

Time for change: Reforming the CNU annual congress by Matthew Lambert by Matthew John Lambert
July 2, 2009, 6:55 PM
Filed under: Volume 002 | Tags: , , , , ,

Over the past 3 congresses, I have progressively attended fewer and fewer sessions, opting for direct discussion with friends, colleagues, and complete strangers.  In one such discussion, at an open space1 session, a number of us expressed our growing discontent with the format of the annual Congresses.  The Congress has become too obsessed with the number of sessions that are on the schedule and in the pursuit of scale have become less personal and quite a bit more confusing.  This article will analyze some of the problems with the existing format and position an alternative.

To preface the analysis and detailed explanation, it must be understood that this idea is not the property of any individual per-se.  Instead it was born in discussion at open space, and later deliberated upon in a following session and further refined through careful study and critique.  Folded in are some of the values that are upheld by many CNU members, which are particularly prevalent among the members of Next Generation of New Urbanists (Nextgen).  These can be summarized as: openness to new and challenging ideas, openness to new voices, compassion for those uninformed or misinformed, and a desire to advance the profession through the synthesis of ideas and pursuit of tangible goals.

The Premise

The question posed: what if the congress was run like a charrette?  Perhaps one from left field, but when analyzed by means of intentions, the proposition shows its validity.  Groups and firms run charrettes in radically different ways; who is to say one method is superior to another?  However charrettes clearly exhibit a shared and concise intention: bring all stakeholders and professionals with any input on a given topic together at a table to get shit done.  Charrettes are no nonsense.

Certainly the intention of charrettes mirrors that of the greater CNU, which reaches out to a multitude of professions and invites them to collaborate in the pursuit of a better built environment.  Therefore the premise, at its roots, mirrors that of the CNU at large.  How this premise translated into a conference setting, addressing a diverse audience requires careful explanation.

Motivation, however, must be universally noted: charrettes succeed as a model because they include within the whole a number of tangible goals in the form of deliverables.  Assembling a table full of stakeholders will result in nothing if a clear direction and product is not understood as an outcome.  All year members debate within the forum of email listserves, but with relatively few time-sensitive or even tangible goals.  The congress, in addition to a goal of education, should strive to gather these minds to focus upon and propose solutions to the problems, at many scales, facing the world today.  This is the idea of the initiatives, but we must admit than many stagnate or could simply be better served with the time their proprietors have with each other and like-minded, and often influential, individuals.

To further define the scope of participant and scope of presence, it must be understood that the member base and attendee base of the CNU congress is not singular.  Congresses have to deal with newcomers, young professionals, experienced and established professionals from many fields, founders and early adopters, developers, municipal officials, non-profit group representatives from across disciplines, and many officials from governmental entities.  There is no one format to suit all attendees, and therefore a multitude of stimulating environments best serves the whole.

The Model

With many charrette styles, the model may be a point of contention.  The mother of all charrettes, however, clearly performs perfectly: the Mississippi Renewal Forum.  At its height of activity, the forum performed spectacularly with over 200 people in 18 teams as well as a large contingency of roamers.  The charrette, run by the CNU and including many of the contributing professionals of the CNU member base, covered topics from social integration, coding, transportation, recovery architecture, regional planning, environmental issues, and urban planning for a variety of different cities, towns, and villages, all in a single room venue.  The proposed model simply accelerates many of the aspects of the forum and organizes them to deal with all of the topics handled at a typical congress.

The spatial and functional distribution of the forum is similar to the model being proposed, and must be understood in detail.  At the center of the forum ballroom, a clear path ran the length of the space.  To either side of this spine, teams addressing specific topics or sites had full working environments.  Along the spine, just before the working spaces, teams would pin-up their current work.  Many attendees were government officials or volunteers unfamiliar with the process but interested in being involved.  The pin-up space allowed these people access to all of the current ideas being generated and allowed teams to collaborate with each other.  Drawings and documents on the pin-up boards oriented viewers who, if interested, would enter the working space and engage one or more of the designers.

For those working, ample opportunity was available for individuals to roam around other teams’ products and engage colleagues in discussion and analysis.  While they were roaming, production at their stations would continue.  Throughout the day, ideas of each group would be presented from station to station for those who were interested and at such a volume that those working could hear.  Individuals who did roam from station to station acted like bees, pollinating as they touched each project with the ideas of other groups and those of their own.  In addition to this wealth of information sharing, if one group encountered a problem they needed to be solved by someone elsewhere in the room, they spared no time in searching them out and including all of the necessary stakeholders in conversation.

The Mississippi Renewal Forum model holds many lessons, many of which have been summarized here, that form the underlying basis for the model being proposed.  In addition to the physical products and density of information and information sharing produced, the role of media in the event poses and additional opportunity.  At the forum, a whole media outfit focused upon communicating to the public many of the ideas being discussed and proposed in real-time through numerous media formats.  Without concrete goals in mind, communication would have been impossible.  In the context of a congress, reporting may take place, but it is rarely able to reach a diverse audience.  By following a charrette model, with adequate goals and deliverables, communications are able to find many spins and markets.

Congress Program

Congresses have become devastatingly complex and over-scheduled.  Denver, for instance, hosted over 70 sessions, excluding the 101 and 202 sessions on Thursday and some sessions on Wednesday.  This resulted in, as has been common as well in the past, a confusion regarding which sessions to attend.  Often there are conflicts in personal time scheduling when two interesting topics are presented simultaneously.  This is not the fault of topic time-slot allocation, but rather it comes down to overcrowding.

Within the congress program, each session falls into one of 6 general categories.  I analyzed all of the sessions from the past congress in a spreadsheet and categorized them by topic (analysis following this article): coding, affordable housing, development, transportation, environment, and urban planning.  Some topics overlap, which should be expected, and there were a few outlying topics as well.  When further analyzing the session distribution, it is clear that many topics repeat themselves; perhaps due to necessity in over scheduling, and those people presenting two aspects of one topic are often not in the room together—very much unlike a charrette.

In addition to overlapping topics, the number of sessions and presenters packed into the schedule eliminates any possibility of productive question and answer sessions.  Speakers barely have time to cover their topics, and those participants who wish to learn more are left without an option.  One session that I attended this year broke that mold by quickly covering the topic basics and assembling into circular discussion, much like open space, to work towards a productive goal.  Most others, however, consistently exceeded their time slots, barely allowing more than two follow-up questions.  Clearly programming reform must tackle over-scheduling as well as attendee participation.


Addressing a proposal for a new congress model requires an explanation of the minutia of a given day at the conference.  Rather than begin with a diagram of the space, as most architects and planners would, we will walk through a typical day.

• 9am – 10:15am  Pecha-Kucha  re:This Morning

12 presenters comprise the hour-long morning session.  Each presenter is allowed 20 slides, which are set to automatically change every 20 seconds.  Within the session duration this allows for 12 presenters or 2 per topic.  These presenters are among the Team Leaders within each general topic.  They will take this time to inform the audience of the topics they wish to sponsor in discussion through the day and the goal they have for their discussions.  Goals are formatted as deliverables, meaning that leaders must focus later discussions based upon the premise presented and produce tangible results.

• 10:45 – 1:00pm Concurrent Topics and Lectures

Attendees move from the grand ballroom through the central open space and into either a topic room, six in total, one of two lectures, or participate in an open space session.  The convention space directs attendees through the central commons between all tasks.  The commons is a large open space where information is posted, food and coffee is served, and discussions, impromptu and organized, take place.


Each topic room is outfitted with pin-up boards, a central table to which chairs are oriented, and one projection screen.  Topics are headed each day by a different group of team leaders, of whom there are at least two per day.  Multiple team leaders are necessary so one is always present and the other one or two has the opportunity to attend other sessions to learn, share ideas, or to break off into other related or unrelated discussion groups.  The leader moderates the discussion and may also present topics or ideas for discussion.

Pin-up boards within the rooms are to be filled with graphics of ideas for discussion, examples, or in-progress work.  Much of this information currently makes up the slide presentations within concurrent presentations, which, once all pinned up next to each other, can be discussed in a comprehensive manner.  The attendees are welcome to participate in the discussion openly, or may begin sub-discussions within the room or just outside in the commons and open space sessions.

Team leaders have set forth goals to direct discussions, and they are to moderate towards those goals or modify their goals to better align with the changing conversation.  Attendees are encouraged to ask questions and participate, to change topic venues as they see fit, and to start their own discussions in the open space between rooms.  Notes and outcomes of conversations are posted on boards outside of each topic room within the open space area.

The Commons and Open Space:

The commons occurs in the central area of the conference, what would be called the 100% corner in urban planning.  This is the area where all action occurs because the layout of the topic rooms, lectures, bookstore and trade show, and food and bar require people to traverse this area between events.  Consider this the central plaza, the market square.  In past congresses, this has been perhaps the most productive area yet has not been capitalized upon.  In this proposal two important elements insert creativity into this space: open space sessions and pin-up boards from each topic room.

Typically the congress commons occurs haphazardly in the largest open areas most directly adjacent to the largest lecture halls.  Here attendees run into colleagues and friends, and make important network connections through the vast web that is the social structure of the congress.  This past year, the bookstore location inhibited this interaction, which a few people communicated to me when discussing reform.

To take advantage of the commons, as it naturally occurs, the conference must spatially orient to encourage interaction and program it with ideas, information, and spaces designed for group discussion.  Pin-up boards, outside of the topic rooms track ideas, proposals, images, and other media being discussed or produced in the topic rooms.  This is the influx of ideas and information.

At the center, open space occurs in areas demarcated simply by a circle of approximately 20 chairs and a small sign-post.  The allocation of discussion topics occurs as it does typically, in which people simply write a topic of interest, pick a time slot and location, and pin-up it up on the open space calendar.  The calendar, as we learned in Denver, must be central in the commons.  At each open space the discussion topic is posted on a sign-post for the duration of that topic.  The timing of the resulting discussions is designed to begin new sessions during the lecture interim period when the most people are in the room.  This allows discussion participants to reach out to their social network in order to include them in conversations.


Concurrent with topic discussions, two lecture spaces operate with selected presenters and topics.  These lectures are given the proper time necessary to devote to each topic as well as ample time for questions and discussion.  Many of the compressed sessions in typical conferences are covered in topic rooms and should be pre-empted in the morning Pecha-Kucha.  Lectures are therefore highly selective and in-depth.  Within this time period, up to 4 lectures may take place between the two lecture spaces, which provides ample time to each lecturer, questions for attendees, and a highly refined selection of topics.

• 1:00 – 2:30pm Lunch

Long lunch breaks foster discussion among peers in relaxed environments.  Scheduling of short lunches simply invites atrophy of attendance in the sessions following.  Suggestions for dining locations should be publicized and topic groups may plan for specific locations, encouraging more personal, small-scale discussion.  As with each part of the conference, no one session or meal or discussion group is mandatory, however each is open to new perspectives.  NextGen’s attractiveness is a state of mind, which is open and non-judgmental.  This lesson needs to propagate throughout the congress schedule and discussions.

• 2:30 – 3:30pm Pecha Kucha re:This Afternoon

The conference gathers once again for a quick-fire session describing what has been discussed through the morning per topic and what the goals are for afternoon discussions / workshops.  Here team leaders describe progress, and hopefully also communicate the ways in which their intended topic path has deviated due to the mornings’ discussions.  This serves as essentially a group pin-up session and teaser for follow-up discussions.

• 3:45 – 5:30pm Concurrent Topics and Lectures

Afternoon topic sessions and lectures proceed in the same manner as morning sessions and lectures.  The topic rooms may be more serious as team leaders attempt to fulfill their goals for the day.  If topics of daily discussion require more time, they can move into open space the following day or synthesize with the next day’s discussions.

  • 5:45 – 7:30pm Keynote

Each night a true keynote presentation wraps up the days’ events.  Lecturers from outside of the CNU are invited — influential people who should be brought into the general discussion.  Gladwell, Florida, and Pollan are three examples of outsiders who should be engaged in our conversations.  There are countless others who can serve to highlight the two or three days of focused lectures that are hosted, each of which should allow for plenty of discussion.  Currently attendance at plenary sessions has been dwindling.  I attribute this to a lack of interest in the topics being presented and often in the presenters being featured.  We need to hear new viewpoint that may be controversial.


Continuing Education:

In my opinion, the lowest on the totem is the attendee simply interested in CE hours.  Of course this is a necessity to be fulfilled, though nothing that I would consider as a contribution beyond that of financing.  Each of the concurrent lecture rooms is programmed to provide CE credits for each session.  Those wishing to fulfill CE requirements have a choice of two concurrent lectures during 4 slots on a given day.

Passive Participants:

Many attendees, due to their given nature or intimidation by the level of discourse, wish to listen, take notes, and learn.  I believe this model will serve this group very well.  Each of the concurrent lecture sessions will allow for an in depth study of a given topic and ample time for discussion to follow.  Additionally each topic room will host both high level discussion and a large enough constituency of mid level participants to allow for stimulating interaction.  Viewing the work and theories of leading practitioners pinned up around the room and listening to productive discussions are perhaps some of the best tools for learning.

Lecturer Equals Attendee:

The role of lecture assignments often allows presenters to attend a congress on their company’s dime.  To accommodate this group, we ask them to be team leaders, and to present during the Pecha Kucha sessions in the morning and afternoon.  They perform the task of presenting, however they also give back to the congress through increased participation.  Knowing the nature of many of these lecturers, they simply wish to present engaging ideas and incite conversation, and attendance is often simply a perk.  This forum benefits the presenter, presenter’s firm, and the congress as a whole.  Each presenter / team leader has a greater presence as they are organizer and authority for a much longer period, tasked to collaborate and achieve goals, and gain insight and experience from fellow leaders and attendees.

The Uninitiated:

Communicating the desire of openness in conversation and welcoming new voices eases the integration of new and young members.  Additionally, by allowing people the freedom to peruse pinned up material at their own pace, encouraging them to ask questions if not to a whole group, then to peers on a smaller scale, and providing small discussion groups in open space, new and young members feel welcomed and able to voice their ideas and ask the questions they may be embarrassed to during large lectures.

The Old Guard:

They have accrued a mass of knowledge on all of the main subjects in discussion and can contribute valuably.  Two formats allow differing old guard personalities to flourish: the long lecture format with discussion and the smaller topic based group discussions.  Concurrent and continuous subject matter allows this group to float, choosing those topics that interest them, or pollinating each discussion.  They also are provided with the forum of full lectures with productive question and answer sessions and the ability to attend other full lectures and participate extensively.

The Middle Ground:

For all other members, considered here as the middle ground, the opportunities in discussion, team leading, and production are substantial.  By conducting the congress at more intimate scales, new connections may be more easily initiated.  Break-offs from main groups is welcomed for tackling sub-issues or in pursuing new issues altogether.  A leveled playing field of discussion greatly increases the opportunities any individual may have for contribution and recognition.


The Model:

Over two days I sketched and refined a symbolic model configuration for this type of congress set-up.  Though diagrammatic, these points are incredibly important: foot traffic must be contained, directed, and funneled through a central, wide corridor; locate anchors on either ends of the central corridor, preferably along two axes; the central space must be ample enough to handle the foot traffic, pin-up space, and impromptu and scheduled discussions.

Rough sketch of the CNU proposed layout

Rough sketch of the CNU proposed layout

Application in Atlanta:

To further develop this idea, I took the conference center configuration in the Atlanta Hilton and tested the functionality.  Though the layout doesn’t lend itself to a perfect diagram, it may function appropriately and led to the realization that we still must provide at a minimum one large lecture and keynote space, which may be programmed as the principal lecture hall.  A hall such as this helps to balance the rest of the program and reduce the required size of the remaining group spaces.  The result of the topic rooms, open space, and small conference room are illustrated below.  The trade show, bookstore, and main lecture space have not been modeled, however they have been included within the program space.

Overview of the part of the proposed layout for Atlanta

Overview of the part of the proposed layout for Atlanta

This overview shows the commons and open space at the center with topic rooms to the sides and the small lecture hall in the background.  In the space not illustrated just below this image

Illustration of a typical open space session

Illustration of a typical open space session

Open space groups are comprised of a small set of individuals who are interested in discussing the topic proposed and posted.  Those not interested or who lose interest are encouraged to move to another discussion, topic room, or lecture space.

Typical discussion room layout

Typical discussion room layout

Discussion rooms are the heart of the productive conference.  Ample space should be provided to pin-up discussion materials and for people to work as a large group or to break into sub-groups within the space.  The large table space may remain as such or be spread into smaller working groups as part of the whole.

Small lecture room

Small lecture room

The typical lecture hall remains as an important element within the congress.  Its programming is taken extremely seriously.  Each session intends to draw a diverse audience and cover topics in depth.


The premise of this article is to question the way that CNU congresses are currently run and organized in light of the diverse needs of the congress membership.  This particular proposal has been worked out in detail, beyond what can be described here.  Open space comments regarding this idea can be found on the CNU website.  Debate and proposals are welcome. I only ask that you push aside shock and prejudice to evaluate this idea and its motivations.

1 For those unfamiliar with Open Space sessions I’ll briefly describe them:  Open Space begins by allowing everyone present to propose discussion topic.  Topics are introduced and then compared for conflict or similarity with other proposed sessions.  The resulting discussions are scheduled in time slots throught a day.  Each discussion takes place as a small group, typically between 5 and 15 people, where a moderator keeps the topic flowing and ensures that all participants have the opportunity to contribute.


Matthew Lambert is Director of Technology and a Project Manager at Duany Plater-Zyberk & Co.  He is also an editor of Living Urbanism.

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