Trends in New Urbanism: A Conversation with CNU’s Lynn Richards

CNU’s new President and CEO lays out her goals and what she sees as the biggest trends for 2015

By Matt Carmichael on January 28, 2015 at 6:50 am CST

A controversial New Urbanism project: Palo Alto’s JCC

I believe that the health insurance companies are going to start spending hundreds of millions of dollars on community design.

Lynn Richards

Many of the changes sweeping our cities and suburbs find their roots in a document called the Charter of the New Urbanism . It’s a simple set of statements signed by many of the leading urban theorists and practitioners (and not coincidentally a few of our advisory board members). The organization that carries on the work of the Charter, the Congress for the New Urbanism, named a new director last year. Lynn Richards brings valuable experience from within the federal government – most notably at the Environmental Protection Agency including serving as the acting director in the Office of Sustainable Communities. She sat down with Livability Editor Matt Carmichael in CNU’s Chicago office to talk about her goals for CNU and what to look for in 2015.

Livability: Why did you take on this role?

Richards: There’s an inside-outside game to be played, and I felt I could be more effective on the outside. Everyone knows that things in Washington are stuck. I feel that where we’re going to get traction in terms of making big changes is with outside groups working directly with the states. I think states are going to the big movers and shakers.

Livability: Really? It’s more common to hear people in this space talk about how cities are driving all the change.

Richards: There are 75,000 units of local government, and there are 50 states.

One of the projects I did at EPA was to suggest to states alternative permit language for their stormwater. It sounds like such a small thing. You do one change in one state, and it’s a lot easier. I’m not going to say it’s easy – but now it’s easier to do high-density, mixed-use urban infill in 33 cities in West Virginia and 92 cities in Tennessee. That’s the real power. When you look at the amount of money that flows from the federal government to the states in formula funding for transportation or water infrastructure, or schools, or parks and recreation. If you can work with states to identify the discretionary areas of grant-making and work with state agencies to consolidate – like Mitt Romney did in Massachusetts – to direct the infrastructure upgrades that meet certain placemaking and smart growth or New Urbanists standards then you’re beginning to make a difference. You’re never going to get 50 states, but you might get 25.

Livability: In the coming years, where do you see the biggest opportunities for change: In the cities or the suburbs?

Richards: When you look at the surveys that have been done over the last 20 years by groups like the National Association of Homebuilders and National Association of Realtors – from both sides of the political aisle – the results are incredibly consistent: Anywhere between 30 and 50 percent – maybe it’s as high as 60 percent now – want the mixed-use, livable, walkable community, but that means that 40 or 50 percent don’t. The issue isn’t to demonize the people who still want your single-family detached home out in the middle of nowhere but rather to say, “If 50 percent of the population want a walkable, livable space, and the market is only responding with 5 or 6 percent, there’s still a significant gap and that’s the gap we’re addressing.

Livability: CNU’s charter is almost 20 years old. There are many New Urbanist projects out in the world, and we can see how things are changing and see what and what didn’t work. How are these projects changing communities?

Richards: There is no one size fits all. The beautiful part about the charter is that context is everything. We are in the business of creating places. We are in the business of transforming places. Sometimes it is the incremental. It’s a building on a block, and perhaps the block hasn’t come along. Maybe it’s an entire block. Maybe it’s a corridor. We can’t expect immediate results.

Livability: Affordability and equity are key topics cities are addressing. Due to the lack of supply you mentioned, these walkable areas are almost a luxury good today. How can CNU help address that?

Richards: We know how you design a unit in an apartment building can create better affordability by how you lay it out and the materials you use. We know how design can really enhance or kill a place. So how can we use design to address the issue of gentrification? We can solve it. We’re the best and the brightest. Our 2,600 members are rock awesome. We’ll figure it out. Even location-efficient mortgages won’t cut it. It gets you a sliver of the gap.

Livability: Sort of like how school vouchers won’t cover a high-end private tuition…

Richards: The education system is another red herring. To have a great place, you need to be able to be available for everybody. That includes families with kids. When you look at the demographics in another 20 years, about a quarter of the population will have school-aged kids, but that’s on the decline.

Livability: How can transit help?

Richards: One interesting factoid that came up in our transportation summit is that the models that public transit agencies use to determine bus routes value people’s times. If you’re in an affluent area, your time is valued higher, and if you’re in a less affluent area, your time is valued lower.

If you’re in an affluent area, you’re more likely to be doing the spoke-and-wheel model and commuting into the job centers. In less affluent areas, you’re likely to have nontraditional commuting patterns and commuting times – getting to the job at the airport at 4am. Our models don’t take that into account.

Livability: What do you see as the major trends to watch in 2015?

Richards: I believe that the health insurance companies are going to start spending hundreds of millions of dollars on community design. There’s plenty of evidence of that. The idea that where and how we have built our neighborhoods, cities and towns are making us unhealthy is pretty well documented and understood. The healthy insurance companies are looking at community design now as a health measure.

This transcript has been edited for length and clarity.

Matt Carmichael is a contributing editor and former editor-in-chief of He is a recognized authority on demographics, consumer trends, economic development and best places to live.

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