Meeting The Vanguard

Mike Lydon's picture

This past week I had the pleasure and honor of participating in the Next American City's Urban Vanguard conference. Held in Washington DC, the event brought 35 young urban leaders together from a wide variety of backgrounds. The magazine--one of my favorites--did an outstanding job organizing and running the two-day blitz of tours, events, networking opportunities, and intimate conference sessions. In an effort to keep this brief, I have outlined three highlights from the second day of the conference. 

Afer formally presenting our own work to fellow Vanguards, Harriet Tregoning's keynote address provided all attendees with an opportunity to hear the latest from a smart growth luminary. From abolishing parking minimums to expanding the city's bicycle and transit network,Tregoning energetically shared the work she is undertaking as Washington DC's Director of Planning. Attendees seemed just as impressed with her engaging presentation style as they were with the progressive moves she is making to create a better and more sustainable city--one that may serve as a model for our whole country. What is more, Tregoning  arrived at the event by bicycle, which may be the fastest way to impress this blogger. After all, not every urbanist walks the walk...

After the presentation, Tregoning fielded tough topical questions on diverse issues like removing the city's federally imposed height limit and the supposed dearth of excellent modern architecture in the city's largely historic core. Her response to the former cited the impressive amount of development the city can still absorb without building an inch higher. In answering the latter, she admitted that some better design could occur, but reasoned that DC is not exactly a 'starchitect' type of town. Both debates, as you can imagine, could not be settled in a mere afternoon. 

Following the keynote,  Vanguard attendees broke into three groups to exchange ideas loosely related to our areas of expertise: Public involvement, transportation, and land use. Great discussion was generated amongst the architects, planners, politicians, writers, policy wonks, and advocates in the room. Indeed, it's rare to have the chance to speak to so many bright people across disciplines at once, and its instructive to learn how a generally likeminded group of urbanists can see a single issue through so many different lenses. 

Later that evening, the Next American City's monthly Urban Nexus event brought DC's most well-known bloggers together to discuss the role of blogging and its ability or inability to spur debate, increase public involvement, and create physical and policy change. The impressive roundtable included, amongst others, David Alpert from Greater, Greater Washington, Matthew Yglesias of Think Progress, and Ben Adler who is a Next American City Fellow and contributor to Politico.Many individual experiences and opinions were bandied about, including thoughts on the limitations of online media and social networking. However, in the end it seemed most panelists shared personal anectodes explaining how harnessing web 2.0 technology is helping them create change, or in the least, build awareness and opportunities for civic engagement. This was noted to be especially important in the face of the shrinking print media industry that often fails to cover local "hot button" issues with any sort of regularity or journalistic acumen.  

While it is not quite clear how the Vanguard will be involved with the Next American City in the coming year--dozens of ideas were discussed and a draft manifesto was created--it is clear that we will all  work with the good folks at the magazine to help them advance the discussions surrounding the 21st century American city. And as exciting as that is, I am already looking beyond the next year with anticipation, as collaborating and following my fellow Vanguards long into the future promises to be as inspiring as it was to learn about the accomplishments that brought them to Washington DC in the first place. 


Mike Lydon is Principal of the Street Plans Collaborative and co-author of Tactical Urbanism: Short-term Actions for Long-term Change (Island Press, 2015).



Jess Zimbabwe's picture

keep the momentum up

Hi Mike:

I agree that last week's events were both well-organized and inspirational. Do you worry that the Vanguard Fellows will have a hard time keeping up the energy when everyone returns home to their demanding jobs? I hope not, but it's the kind of thing you sometimes see in that situation.


Jess Zimbabwe, Executive Director
ULI Daniel Rose Center for Public Leadership in Land Use

Mike Lydon's picture

Point well taken, Jess.

Point well taken, Jess. Whatever way the Magazine chooses to engage us further, I am hopeful that it will allow everyone, busy schedules and all, to have some level of meaningful participation. I know I have already followed up with several Vanguards, discussing future collaborative opportunities. I am hopeful it will extend from there, and recognize its also up to us to push the agenda to get as much out as we have put in.

Great seeing you in D.C.


NAC Vanguard


I too thought the Next American Vanguard was a fabulous experience. It was quite refreshing to be in a room with individuals that share the struggle in fighting the good fight. Further, to learn about the various initiatives, success stories, and lessons learned from the myriad of young leaders was quite insightful. I hope that we can continue the efforts/initiatives coming out of the Vanguard on a national, regional, local, and block level!

Josh Martin
Charleston, South Carolina

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