Richards will lead CNU: 'We are at a tipping point'
Partnerships are key to advancing the urban placemaking agenda, says Lynn Richards, who will take over as President and CEO of the Congress for the New Urbanism on July 1.
Photo by David Cooper
Lynn Richards will take over as President and CEO of the Congress for the New Urbanism on July 1 after John Norquist steps down. Richards has worked in the Environmental Protection Agency’s Office of Sustainable Communities — known as EPA’s smart growth office — for 14 years.
She has served in a number of leadership positions, including acting director and policy director. In 2012 -2013, she was awarded a Loeb Fellowship at Harvard’s Graduate School of Design.. She has worked on White House initiatives with Congress and the Office of Management and Budget, and on strategic planning in the area of community design and development.
To get Richards’ views on her upcoming leadership of CNU, she was interviewed by Better! Cities & Towns editor Robert Steuteville.
How close are the EPA’s smart growth program, where you worked for so long, and CNU in terms of their goals?
CNU and EPA’s smart growth program share a common purpose: to create great places with vibrant economies, people walking and biking on the street — places that people love. While EPA is a policy shop, CNU clearly is a design shop. Members are constantly identifying and designing the innovative design and development approaches. CNU defines the cutting edge in terms of community design.
Tell me about your short term plans, how you would like to begin your time at CNU?
I am in listening mode. I’ll be working part-time, meeting with the local chapters and then the board as a whole in June and talking with members. By Friday, June 6, at the Congress for the New Urbanism in Buffalo, I plan to state a little more clearly the direction I think the organization will go.
Why do you want this job — what opportunity does it present to you?
Across the country, we are at a tipping point. People are choosing to live in walkable places with a mix of uses. Demographics are supporting this trend, and local governments are responding. But more needs to be done. Local land use regulations still largely support large-lot development. CNU can play a dramatic role in moving the conversation around community design and development. That’s why I’m excited about it, and that’s why I applied for this job.
CNU is perfectly poised to provide dramatic leadership in community design and development. How do we provide that leadership? How do we reactivate our base? How do we capture the momentum that all our members have created? I don’t know the answers to these questions, but they are good questions and good conversations to have.
How do your connections in DC influence all of this thinking? You have been in DC working with this national power structure for a while.
I bring to CNU a well-developed national network of contacts. I have colleagues that have been working around these issues, and I maintain a national set of networks. I want to make those connections stronger so we can all work together to achieve more than we could alone. I’d also like to see CNU strengthen the role of chapters to help us partner with groups at the local, and regional, and state levels. .
What are the areas where CNU has been successful and you would like to see more of an augmentation of their efforts?
CNU has had some impressive victories recently, such as the adoption of the Designing Walkable Urban Thoroughfares manual (co-written with the Institute of Transportation Engineers) by the Federal Highway Administration, the partnership with HUD to create design guidelines for the HOPE VI program, joining together with US Green Building Council and the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) on LEED-ND and working with HUD and the FHA to raise the cap on commercial in mixed-use buildings.
CNU also supports 12 member-led initiatives that we can build on. I’d like to see CNU become more proactive with these initiatives and hire its members to work directly in communities to road test its innovative policies. Let’s raise the money and get in the driver’s seat. Put out an RFP where we want to dive deeply into a technical issue around which our members are excited.
Second, we need to continue to address the barriers to good development, but I would like us to look more at the state level. I can use my network to connect CNU with a lot of statewide organizations. You have the ped-bike people, the health initiatives, and community development organizations. These are all local, regional, and state organizations that are advocating for places people love, and we will benefit by bringing them all to the table.
To what extent do you see CNU expanding its partnerships with other organizations?
Strengthening existing partnerships and creating new ones will be one of my priorities for the next 12 to 18 months. As a movement I believe we have the technical solutions. Creating the momentum to implement these solutions, that’s the nut that we haven’t cracked.
I think Smart Growth America is one of our strongest collaborators. They are building a structure to address the political challenges and political will. If EPA is the policy shop, and SGA is creating the political shop, then CNU can really provide the technical expertise. And it is not just those organizations. Shelley Poticha just recently joined NRDC as part of an urban solutions team. Shelley is really interested in working with those communities that received HUD grants: How do we move them from plans to implementation? Harriet Tregoning just went from DC’s Office of Planning over to HUD’s Office of Sustainable Communities which is now Resilient and Sustainable Communities. The exciting thing is that across the country, major organizations are all getting new leadership. Local Government Commission has a new director. The American Planning Association is going to have a new director. HUD has a new director. CNU has a new director. That presents a unique opportunity in the movement for all of us to step back and say, we are carrying no baggage from before, how can we leverage each others’ efforts and strengths?
Which really enables people to start anew and strengthen their joint efforts?
Yeah. And then you also have the newcomers coming to the table — particularly in the health field. You have people at the state and local area who are now engaged in community design from a public health perspective. This is what I mean by a tipping point. If we can’t get something done, right now, we’re never going to be able to.
Do you see CNU expanding its members in this way?
Absolutely, and that goes at two levels. My hope is that as we expand our partnership base, the membership will naturally expand. I also think it is important for CNU to provide opportunities for members at all level — the fresh out of college, the mid-career, and the more experienced members. At every level, you need a place to give and receive your support. The giving part is important. The good news is that not only does everyone want to make a contribution — they have great contributions to give. We need to provide a platform. By focusing on that, we will naturally swell the membership base.
Does the CNU have an image problem that it needs to address?
During my interview I was asked by board members whether I considered myself on the inside or outside. The fact that that question was asked goes directly to the image problem. There shouldn’t be an inside and outside. Why would we want anyone to think that they are on the outside? Yet, that is the image that people perceive. If we push people out and say no, your voice doesn’t matter, only this narrow perspective of great design matters, we begin to lose people and limit our role.
That’s not to say that good design isn’t important. I would go so far as to say I think it’s critical. I’m tired of seeing a new town center that looks just as generic as the next town center. What are the unique attributes of this particular neighborhood right now that we want to identify and celebrate? What are the unique design elements that create a place that makes people feel welcome and happy?
One idea I have is for us to run a competition and ask people – university students, business owners, whoever – to send us a video, drawing, or picture of unique design elements that they love. Not the whole place — that’s what the Charter Awards are for — but let’s look at this particular corner or this particular street. I was at Belmar (a shopping mall redeveloped as a town center in Lakewood, Colorado), and architect Tim Van Meter had this great idea. Affordable housing was facing the back of a garage. He said ‘we can’t do this.’ He ended up taking up a bunch of parking spaces on the first floor, only 40 spaces or so, and turning them into small shop spaces where tenants pay a reduced rent. I think it’s $400 for the whole space. These micro-shops breed local businesses that support broader community activity. The only requirement is that you activate the space.
Design is important to what we do, but we should expand that conversation and talk about more of these moments that really activate spaces.
Can you give people any sense of where you would like the organization to be in four or five years?
CNU has made an incredible contribution over the last several decades. I believe that CNU has even bigger contributions to make going forward. By working together — CNU headquarters, the board, current and future members — we can make a bigger impact on community design and development for creating better places.
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