Congress for the New Urbanism: Building Places People Love

Campus Martius in Detroit (Credit: @CNUMidwest /Twitter)

Campus Martius in Detroit (Credit: @CNUMidwest /Twitter)

The Congress for the New Urbanism (CNU) is an international nonprofit organization working to create vibrant and walkable cities, towns, and neighborhoods, where people have diverse choices for how they live, work, shop and get around. Through 25 years of advocacy, CNU has changed the national conversation from a debate over sprawl to a discussion on how to reinvest in our existing communities. People want to live in well-designed places that are unique, authentic and walkable. CNU’s mission is to help people build those places.

CNU’s 2,600 members are architects, urban designers, engineers, planners, developers, historic preservationists, bankers, small business owners, health professionals, government officials and citizens who care about our communities. Though its members come from diverse backgrounds, they have a common set of goals: building more beautiful and sustainable places, preserving historic assets and traditions, and providing a range of housing and transportation choices.

CNU’s goals are closely aligned with smart growth principles, and CNU is a leader in creating innovative ways to connect and empower its members to create positive changes to create healthy, thriving communities.

CNU identifies barriers – and opportunities – and creates coalitions to advocate for and change the rules of development. This has been done in the past with their creation of the Incremental Developers Alliance, a Facebook group turned official organization that trains people to be small developers and helps remove barriers to their success.

The following provides highlights of some of CNU’s major activities:

CNU 24

CNU educates professionals through the annual Congress, while encouraging members to learn through collaboration. Recently, CNU held its 24th annual Congress in Detroit, Michigan. In order to immerse attendees in Detroit culture, CNU “broke out of the ballroom,” and instead held conference sessions in redeveloped historic buildings throughout the city.

CNU 24 attendees gather outside the Fillmore in Detroit (Credit: @ActiveCities / Twitter)

CNU 24 attendees gather outside the Fillmore in Detroit (Credit: @ActiveTowns / Twitter)

Sessions took place in the Detroit Opera House, the Historic Gem and Century Theatres, the Fillmore Detroit, the Detroit Beer Company, the YMCA of Metropolitan Detroit, St. Clair College Centre for the Arts and Willstead Manor.

In addition, CNU 24 put the spotlight on Detroit speakers, who could tell the Detroit story from the inside out.

Perhaps the most exciting part of the conference was CNU’s “City as Platform” field sessions. City as Platform events all happened on one day, in place of attending plenaries. Instead, attendees were encouraged to get on buses to Detroit’s outer neighborhoods to immerse themselves in the innovative, diverse work happening on the ground.

CNU attendees toured Michigan Avenue checking out revitalized spaces and discussing how to reactivate vacant spaces (Credit: @MRC_SLC /Twitter)

CNU attendees toured Michigan Avenue checking out revitalized spaces and discussing how to reactivate vacant spaces (Credit: @MRC_SLC /Twitter)

“City as Platform was just one day of CNU trying to immerse people in Detroit, leave an impact on Detroit, and help Detroit leave an impact on the people who came.”

CNU paired member-experts with local organizers who led sessions focused on having a group discussion about a neighborhood-specific issue. The goal of each session was for attendees to see and learn about an ongoing project, and leverage CNU members’ expertise to provide input on the project and engage with the local people.

“We got the chance to get out of downtown and get our hands dirty,” said Sam Warlick, CNU’s Messaging and Development Manager. “I would trade the rest of the conference for that day, because there was such amazing collaboration happening.”

“We got the chance to get out of downtown and get our hands dirty.”

Detroiters are making places people like (Credit: @MyGreenprint / Twitter)

Detroiters are making places people like. (Credit: @MyGreenprint / Twitter)

City as Platform topics included How Art & Urban Farming Rejuvenate Neighborhoods, Planning for a Pedestrian-Oriented, Transit-Served Future In Detroit, Rehabbing Homes As A Way to Build Civic & Financial Equity, Designing Mixed-Industrial Communities To Be Healthy Places, and Infill Strategies for Neighborhood Development, among others.

This innovative conference format was a deliberate effort by CNU to ensure that conference attendees got to know the real Detroit, help its residents and communities, and leave a lasting impact on the city.

“City as Platform was just one day of CNU trying to immerse people in Detroit, leave an impact on Detroit, and help Detroit leave an impact on the people who came,” Warlick said.

Legacy Charrettes

CNU also aspired to leave a lasting impact on Detroit through its Legacy Charrettes program, which began several months before the Congress kicked off.

Prior to the conference, CNU sends member-expert urban design teams into the neighborhoods of the Congress host region to help solve community design issues. Communities were selected through an application process based on their need and their readiness for implementation.

The design teams provided (free of charge) three days of community engagement, urban design work, and the kind of services that a town of significant means would hire at great cost to make an impact on a downtown or corridor.

CNU held four Legacy Charrettes in Detroit prior to CNU 24 in June.

“We were barely at our desks and they were implementing it.”

One charrette focused on creating a walkable and connected downtown for Hazel Park, Michigan. Another worked on solutions for building affordable and market-rate housing in Southwest Detroit without creating displacement. Another’s goal was to make Detroit’s Grand River Avenue more walkable, bikeable and accessible.

Hazel Park, Michigan (Credit: Michigan Municipal League / Flickr)

Hazel Park, Michigan (Credit: Michigan Municipal League / Flickr)

But something special happened in Pontiac, Michigan. After a walking tour of downtown Pontiac, the design team recommended the town re-stripe many of their roads either as two ways, or with improved street parking, to improve circulation and connectivity.

It just so happened that Pontiac was re-striping roads the following week. They immediately edited their re-striping plans and implemented the recommendations of the charrette, literally on the ground.

“We were barely at our desks and they were implementing it,” Warlick said.

The Legacy Charrettes are another way for the Congress to leave an impact on their host cities.

“If we’re bringing 2,000 people with national leading design expertise, that should have a serious impact on the urban design of our host city,” Warlick said.

2016 was the second year of the Legacy Charrettes program, which will continue in Seattle next year.

“If we’re bringing 2,000 people with national leading design expertise, that should have a serious impact on the urban design of our host city.”

Project for Code Reform

CNU continues to work with the host region of Michigan on a new project called the Project for Code Reform, which will launch in October 2016. The goal of the project is to convene stakeholders with ideas on how to improve zoning codes and regulations, and build a consensus on a strategic, flexible approach that’s affordable and implementable for municipalities on a budget.

The project will begin with a series of workshops in Michigan, the pilot state for the project. CNU is working with their funders at the Michigan State Housing and Development Authority to develop the workshops, which will convene stakeholders including experts, local government, local developers and local planners to discuss regulatory barriers and solutions.

The Project for Code Reform is a multi-year project that will promote codes to facilitate walkable development.