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Thursday, July 30, 2009 08:36 am

Compact, climate-friendly, competitive

To restart the economy while saving the planet, the Congress for the New Urbanism advocates traditional neighborhoods for all

This small-format Safeway at 298 King St. in San Francisco sits at the terminal of the Caltrain commuter rail line and the intersection of two street-running light rail lines.

“This is one of those moments to step up and articulate what urbanism is worth to America.”

That’s how Scott Bernstein, president of the Center for Neighborhood Technology, summed up the call-to-service at CNU 17, the 2009 Congress for the New Urbanism, June 10-14 in Denver. The planning organization has stepped up its no-sprawl message, lobbying in D.C. for a new federal law that promotes sustainable development patterns through urban reinvestment. The Obama administration reportedly is listening: “The biggest urbanist in the White House is Barack Obama,” observed John Norquist, CEO of CNU and a former mayor of Milwaukee.

New Urbanists are a frankly evangelical bunch; for nearly two decades they’ve preached that compact urban form can help correct everything from poverty to obesity. Increasingly, their anti-sprawl message appeals to both policy-makers and next-gen lifestylers (the one third of Americans who now say they’d like to live near a coffee shop and a streetcar stop in a cool city neighborhood). At CNU 17, two overarching themes of national import emerged. One was the economy, stupid: how smart city-shaping, supported by the right federal transportation policy and funding, offers a powerful tool for communities across the U.S. to create value, wealth and jobs now. The second was climate action: how U.S. policy that promotes compact (re)development is essential to the fight against global warming.

Whether legislation incorporating new urbanist language will actually get passed by Congress during the next year remains to be seen. Norquist emphasized, “There’s a lot of work to be done.” Here’s a peek at policy trends.

Climate action

CNU 17 was headlined “the Convenient Remedy,” to emphasize new urbanism as a key antidote to “the inconvenient truth” of global warming. CNU is launching a climate-action campaign to encourage everyone to cut driving by half — a goal feasible only if cities provide ample transit, walkable-bikeable districts, and live-work-play neighborhoods. In a lead session on the Green Dividend, CNU co-founder Peter Calthorpe presented compelling research contrasting urban carbon footprints against those of suburban sprawl. For example, in the San Francisco Bay Area, modeling shows that every house exported to far-flung suburbs results in five times the greenhouse-gas emissions. By contrast, attested Calthorpe and other presenters, the compact development patterns that lower a community’s carbon footprint also make it more livable, attractive and fiscally strong.

But at a session on “Selling the Green Urban Advantage,” Robin Rather of Collective Strength cautioned the CNU faithful. Most Americans won’t make lifestyle changes just for the abstract good of “sustainability” of the planet or “placemaking.” What works, according to the firm’s research: repeated, upbeat, “what’s in it for me” messages about how driving less can make our daily lives happier, healthier and wealthier. A good example is the three-minute film announced as the winner of CNU’s 2009 video contest. The entertaining short Built to Last asks, “What’s the greatest threat to our planet?” After ruling out cars, cow flatulence and aliens, it answers, “cul-de-sacs!” and promotes the pleasures of five-minute walks over 20-minute commutes. Catch it on YouTube.

Transportation reform

In more sober language, the same ideas are in the draft cap-and-trade climate bill making its way through Congress. Thanks in part to CNU’s lobbying, said Norquist, the bill specifies that cap-and-trade money can be invested in transit projects and in small-scale street networks — but not in huge whiz-by roadways or cul-de-sacs. The draft legislation also incorporates standards from Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design for Neighborhood Development (green-building on a neighborhood development scale), which favor places with at least 90 intersections per square mile.

Norquist pointed out that while federal highway policy has eased congestion, its focus on just moving cars has harmed cities like Detroit. Fast highways bypass neighborhood shopping centers and business districts; old-fashioned street networks connect them. As cities nationwide reel from the economic meltdown, CNU is seizing the moment to convince lawmakers to take a fresh approach.

“The entire transportation funding system for this country is broken,” asserted board member Mike Krusee, a member of CNU’s legislative committee and former chair of the Texas House Transportation Committee. Rather than rewarding failure (suburban sprawl), he suggested, new federal funding criteria should favor the most efficient roadway and transit projects — those that connect densely populated areas. Bernstein and others spoke about how CNU is tying in the affordable housing piece, too — renewing collaborative efforts with Housing and Urban Development and advising the HUD-U.S. Dept. of Transportation Sustainable Communities partnership.

Alongside groups like Reconnecting America, CNU has always promoted transit-oriented development. Now CNU has a road-funding message too: Prioritize new Main Streets, not honking-big separated highways, to help cities nationwide stay economically strong. Toward that end, urbanists are working to shape the bill that reauthorizes the Transportation Equity Act for the 21st Century, or TEA-21.

The rewrite of this federal transportation law governing highways and transit projects that receive federal aid, is occurring at a pivotal time: as concerns converge for the economy, climate, alternative energy and transportation’s role in growth and development patterns. TEA-21 has provided federal aid for highways — and even for bike, pedestrian and recreational trails — yet excluded local road networks. That’s an omission CNUers aim to fix. Their emphasis on efficient networks is influencing the “complete streets” policy advocated by House Transportation and Infrastructure Chair James Oberstar (D-Minn.) in a white paper released June 18. The blueprint also announced the creation of the Office of Livability within the U.S. Department of Transportation, promoting transportation plans designed to create livable and environmentally sustainable communities.

In Springfield, as in cities nationwide, it’s the central neighborhoods built before World War II that are most beloved for their character. In sum, CNU 17 issued a call for city dwellers to actively support well-planned reinvestment in central areas now — and in new places patterned after them. Better for livability, better for the planet.

Katherine Gregor, who grew up in Bloomington-Normal, is staff writer for the Austin Chronicle.


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