2023 CNU Conference: Takeaways & Trends

Downtown Charlotte NC

In early June, the Congress for New Urbanism (CNU) hosted their 31st gathering in Charlotte, North Carolina. CNU seeks to promote innovative strategies and policies designed to create and maintain people-centered places. Its members work to restore urban centers and towns, implement universally accessible designs for communities and spaces, conserve the natural environment, and focus on the built environment’s ability to influence economic vitality, community stability, and environmental health. Given CNU’s commitment to innovation and place—key aspects of TIP’s Talent-Innovation-Place framework—the event provided a unique opportunity to learn more about projects and approaches from around the country.

Two themes arose during the conference that have continued to resonate with me. Addressing disparity through planning and using storytelling as a communication tool have broad implications for how community and economic developers do their work.

Using development projects to address systemic and historic disparities

Our infrastructure, which includes support structures such as utilities, road networks, and housing, was built for a world that no longer exists. Inadequate infrastructure makes people more vulnerable to disasters and extreme weather events such as fires, floods, and storms as well as negative post-event economic effects. The emerging impacts of climate change have further exacerbated disparities in access to opportunity and in vulnerability to disasters. This dynamic emphasizes the importance of action on the part of economic developers and community planners.

  • Commit to existing developments. Investing in areas with existing infrastructure and committing to the places where we have already built is a mitigation approach to development that seeks to avoid further harm to the natural environment. Currently, walkable urban areas represent less than 2 percent of all land in the nation’s 35 largest metros and are some of the most in-demand parts of our communities, providing easy access to educational, professional, and housing opportunities. Unfortunately, purchasing or renting a home in walkable areas is out of reach for many families, but it’s important to consider a wholistic approach to cost that includes not just income and housing, but also utility and transportation costs. From this perspective, walkable areas become more affordable. Households with incomes as high as 80 percent of the area median are cost-burdened when factoring in the costs associated with commuting to work.
  • Keep projects human scale. It is imperative that planners understand where historically human-scale, walkable development is located now and where it has been dismantled by redlining, urban renewal, or other efforts. Sanborn maps are an excellent resource showing the historic footprints of communities, which can help catalogue the effects of redlining. By focusing on continuing or re-instituting human-scaled development in these areas, additional housing options can be made accessible to more people. Incremental development, such as accessory dwelling units, triplexes, and other small-scale projects are often effective ways of (re)introducing density and diversity to an area.
  • Examine systems for fairness. In addition to correcting historic disparities in the physical environment, it is important to examine current structures. Research by the firm Urban3 highlighted unequal property tax assessments in several communities that overtaxed lower- and middle-income property owners, a legacy of redlining. Communities should examine residential assessments per square foot and sales price to ensure that residents of all incomes are paying property taxes equitably.

Applying storytelling to projects and placemaking

Storytelling offers a powerful communication tactic. Public participation and consensus building are the foundation for integrating stories into planning and development efforts. Both require an investment in communication, an understanding of how you will reach different types of stakeholders, and a desire to seek a common understanding. Yet in an age of misinformation, it can be challenging to craft a compelling messaging strategy, communicate effectively with stakeholders, and counter false narratives.

  • Ask questions. The use of story circles offers a novel approach for creating inclusive stories that can directly influence placemaking. Participants in these small groups discuss questions such as who are the characters who are, or have been in a place? Who should be here? Who is missing? What do we all love and want to celebrate? The stories that come out of these groups can be told by developers and planners through amenities, public space programming, infrastructure, and art. In this way, development can better reflect local history and culture through the physical space as well as the people and commercial tenants that inhabit it.
  • Keep it simple. Using the audience as a test-case, one speaker used a simple voting exercise to quickly establish ranked perspectives for a large audience. The speaker used a series of “this or that” voting, with no semantic arguments allowed, to establish shared agreement on priorities. This is an exercise that can be used with internal or external stakeholders to establish consensus quickly. When used internally, the “this or that” technique is an excellent way to establish a shared agreement about how to approach an engagement during its earliest stages.
  • Follow a framework. Stories often follow the same pattern: you meet a character, the character has a problem, something bad will happen if the character doesn’t act, and then there is action to resolve the problem. Planners and developers should consider how their initiatives might fit into this storytelling framework and how smaller stories could be integrated into the overarching narrative of a community or initiative.

Check in regularly. Periodically, there should be an effort to re-cast the vision as an initiative moves forward, ensuring that there is still agreement about the chosen direction. Without regular re-casting, a vision tends to weaken and become less clear, especially in the face of misinformation or strong opposition. One approach to working with diverging opinions is to focus on where there are mutual gains between opposing sides of an issue and create foundational agreements on areas where you can move forward. Another strategy involves conducting a joint fact-finding mission with a trusted leader in the opposition, communicating directly with misinformation networks and providing accurate information.

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