Spreading the New Urbanism Gospel to Local Government Stakeholders

by Don Browne

It has been my privilege to blog about the growing New Urbanism movement on behalf of the Vinyl Siding Institute (VSI) this past year. For new readers and those who aren’t familiar, New Urbanism is a planning and development approach based on the principles of how cities and towns have been built for centuries: walkable blocks and streets, housing and shopping in proximity, and accessible public spaces. Some would call it a more “humanistic” approach to neighborhood design.

                              I like to call it “a return to front porch society.”

VSI has become a strategic partner with the broader New Urbanism movement, as many homebuilders and industry professionals are finding polymeric siding and accessories to be essential assets in creating affordable, sustainable and beautifully designed communities. A prime example of this alignment is VSI’s new book, Architectural Design for Traditional Neighborhoods, whose four authors are active members of the Congress for the New Urbanism (CNU) (in addition to being award-winning designers).

VSI’s advocacy efforts for legislative reforms to enable home builders to use modern materials is another vital indication of their support for New Urbanism developers, who want to use more sustainable and design-friendly exteriors and accessories for their projects.

But what can home builders, developers and other advocates do to promote greater acceptance of New Urbanism concepts and principles among local government leaders with the most influence in deciding the fate of their proposals? 

Here are a few lessons and opportunities that I have learned as a new city council member in my community that could be beneficial for the building professionals that VSI serves.

 

Talk to your local community development departments about the status of your city’s building and zoning codes.

Consult with your local community development departments. There is a likelihood that key staff are already members of the Congress for the New Urbanism (CNU).  You will also find the timing to be right because many community development staffers have recognized that their building and zoning codes need to be updated. I was pleased to learn that a neighborhood in my district was being considered for a pet New Urbanism project, and my “yes” was all that they needed to hear to move forward. In many states, building codes are dictated at the state level, but cities and other types of local governments can determine their zoning regulations. Incidentally, the CNU set as a goal in 2019 to reach 42,000 local governments with zoning authority in the next five years.

What’s more, my advocacy for revising local codes based on the principles of New Urbanism has led to more opportunities to spread the gospel. I was recently invited to a “Coffee with the Alderman” event at my local Chamber of Commerce. I was referred to them by the city’s community development department because they thought my interest in New Urbanism could inspire Chamber members with the means to develop properties. And a couple of local business owners outside the Chamber have also approached me for help and ideas on revitalizing their business districts that have struggled in recent years due to archaic designs and subsequent vacancies.

 

While you’re at it, reach out to your local legislators, too.

Local council members are always looking for a new cause to champion, especially if there are opportunities to build alliances that transcend party politics. Although the movement started in the 1990s, New Urbanism is considered a new, fresh and trendy concept that can make legislators look like innovators, especially when the economic benefits are easy to demonstrate. Whether it’s a new neighborhood development or a commercial district renovation, advocating for form-based code and its cost-efficiencies offer common-sense solutions that appeal to everyone.

In my first meeting with the community development leadership to discuss zoning amendments, I invited the City Council President, who has over 20 years of service and is also a county legislator.  While she is a wealth of knowledge, she was not familiar with New Urbanism or the city government’s affiliation with the CNU.  Yet, the principles appealed to her sense of what appropriate and responsible development should be.

 

Identify opportunities in your community that could benefit from New Urbanism-style developments.

The beauty of New Urbanism principles is that they can apply to just about any type of neighborhood or town. They are not just for blighted urban areas, but they can build better suburbs and rural villages, revitalize commercial districts and downtowns, and create meaningful new (ground-up) developments that have a far-reaching impact on a town’s social and economic health.

The CNU website has a fantastic Project Database with a wide range of New Urbanism developments throughout the U.S., North America and the rest of the world that is sure to have several templates with applications for your town’s planning.

In my city, there is a growing concern among neighbors and city council members alike that we are becoming saturated with new multi-unit developments. Many believe that more single-unit, front porch housing developments attract home buyers with more considerable pride of ownership and who will take better care of their homes and neighborhoods. While the truth behind this theory may be debatable, I have seized this opportunity to sell both my colleagues and residents on the benefits of New Urbanism projects that “speak their language.” I often cite Seattle’s High Point Redevelopment Project, which replaced a blighted public housing project (consisting primarily of single units) with an economically diverse and sustainable community with parks, trails and other spaces that emphasize connection to neighbors and nature.

 

Show them the book.

My favorite new tool in my local fight for New Urbanism awareness and advocacy has been the VSI’s new publication – Architectural Design for Traditional Neighborhoods. Written by what some would call the “Fab Four” of Colorado’s design community, this 61-page opus has something for everyone interested in developing intentional and sustainable communities. From a glossary of architectural styles to innovative design guidelines, “the book” shows stakeholders how polymeric siding and other modern materials can open up a universe of possibilities for developing community-centric neighborhoods.

As mentioned in a recent blog post, the book made a powerful impression on building professionals during its “launch” at the American Institute of Architects (AIA) conferences, with many discovering that vinyl siding is among the most sustainable products on the market.

In my own experiences with sharing the book, I have been amazed to see fellow legislators speaking vehemently against the prohibitions on modern materials for home renovations in historic districts – even after receiving the book just hours before. Its quality writing, combined with provocative renderings and photos, makes the book a user-friendly sales tool for promoting New Urbanism.

 

Tell everyone you know about New Urbanism.

Whether it’s your neighbors, local government officials or other building professionals, start a conversation with everyone you know about the impact New Urbanism principles could have on the future planning efforts of the communities you serve. Chances are you are going to find valuable allies who not only appreciate the benefits of a more connected and accessible neighborhood but can offer powerful resources to the cause.

One city leader has offered to introduce me to local New Urbanism developers. And the Director of Libraries recalled a case study conducted about a traditional Chicago neighborhood that survived the awful heatwave of 1995 with no deaths, in stark contrast to an adjacent modern “suburban-style” neighborhood with the same demographics.

 

Some Final Thoughts

Over the years, we have witnessed too many development projects in the various communities in which there has been a vast divide between a developer’s proposal and what a community envisions – especially when tax increment funding (TIFs) is involved.

Spreading the New Urbanism gospel is an opportunity to bridge a community’s needs and desires for walkable, affordable and beautiful neighborhoods with designers’ best intentions – and polymeric siding and modern materials can make it possible.


Don Browne is a writer, entrepreneur and local legislator who believes that the power of words can change the world. He provides unique writing services for clients in the construction, health care, IT and hospitality sectors. He has a passion for small business and start-ups, as well as writing about Irish history, family and corporate biographies. As a homeowner and father of four who is passionate about community development, Don looks forward to writing more about the exciting possibilities of creating traditional neighborhoods and more sustainable communities using modern materials.

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