Thursday, May 17th, 2012
When Congress for the New Urbanism (CNU) held its inaugural convention 20 years ago, the traditional idea of walkable downtowns that are easily accessed by surrounding neighborhoods and serviced by public transit had been obliterated by commuter suburbs, inexpensive automobiles, and increasingly dispersed communities. Determined to ameliorate the affects of sprawl, which the CNU founders viewed as harmful to the nation as a whole, they banded together, began holding annual conferences, and, two decades later, have successfully transformed their then-radical idea of using mixed-use development to create sustainable communities into an internationally respected design practice that more and more people seek out when looking for a place to live.
New Urbanism’s continued success is marked by the remarkably wide turnout of young professionals at CNU 20. New Urbanism has made its way out of the obscure corners of urban planning and into academia, where the newest generation of design experts is learning the value of incorporating sustainable development practices into their own careers.
Although New Urbanism has the support of many planners and design professionals, actual change in the built environment is impeded by a misconception that big-box developments, which concentrate goods and services under one roof and have ample parking for cars, are more financially viable than mixed-use developments that adapt themselves to an existing neighborhood fabric.
Of all the sessions I attended at CNU 20, I was most compelled by the research discussed during the Friday morning breakout session, “The Economic Benefit of Good Urbanism.” The panelists used data from extensive financial and policy analysis to demonstrate that the economic benefits to municipalities from big-box stores are significantly less than those provided by mixed-use developments.
Panelist Joseph Minicozzi of Urban3, LLC gave examples from his research in Asheville, North Carolina, where his firm compared the property tax generated by a Super Walmart on the edge of the city with a typical acre of mixed-use development in Asheville’s downtown district. The Walmart consumed 34.0 acres and generated property taxes of $47,500 per acre, while the mixed-use development consumed only 0.2 acres and generated $634,000 in property taxes per acre. A sample set of 15 cities from Montana to Florida provided similar results, underlining the economic potential of creating mixed-use developments on Main Streets, vibrant neighborhood hubs, or central business districts in communities across the nation. I was happy to see real numbers (and large ones at that!) to make the case for sustainable, mixed-use planning.
You can read more about the analysis in the author’s own words in this Planetizen essay.
My own breakout session on Friday afternoon, “Preserving Affordability: Gentrification without Displacement,” was equally satisfying. More than 100 people gathered to hear Alexander Gorlin, Rosanne Haggarty, Jaimie Ross, Alexander von Hoffman, and myself consider strategies for spurring economic development while maintaining affordability. Employment-oriented transit, an idea explored in CNT’s publication Prospering in Place, is an important way to increase employment options for households at all income levels while decreasing transportation costs and maintaining neighborhood affordability.
More and more planners and design professionals have recognized the benefits of implementing sustainable New Urbanism principals. That’s wonderful progress. I’d like to see us New Urbanists doing even more to explain the benefits of these principals to our friends, neighbors, and family members to ensure we see more of these principals shaping the DNA of our communities.