Carson Poole: Reflections from the 24th Congress for New Urbanism

Carson Poole, Place Lab's project specialist, attended the 24th Congress for New Urbanism, June 8–11 in Detroit. In this SITE entry, Carson shares some reflections and takeaways from his experience at the event.

It was my first time visiting Detroit, and I was really struck by the monumental scale of downtown (where most of the conference took place), and the number of projects going on in the City that are coming from neighborhood entrepreneurs, nonprofits, City government, and the private sector. Major developments include the M1 rail line, continuing revitalization of the riverfront, conversion of vacant land to green infrastructure through low-impact development, and anchor-institution based development in the University, Hospital, and “Tech Town” areas, to name a few. There is so much work being done in Detroit that it is hard to get your arms around all of it, but it also means there are plenty of opportunities to get involved.

Conceptual image of Detroit's QLINE. Rendering: M1 Rail

Conceptual image of Detroit's QLINE. Rendering: M1 Rail

The Congress for New Urbanism is a membership-based organization that focuses largely on urban design and policy related to design and development, especially zoning and building codes. It’s members come from the fields of urban design, architecture + landscape architecture, and planning. Their key issues are transportation (and walkability), health, environment, finance, and added after last year’s congress, equity. The conference was organized with a different theme to each day, and several tracks that ran through the entire week. 

There were some fantastic speakers and workshops throughout the week at the conference, including Senior Fellow at The Kresge Foundation Carol Coletta; Detroit Planning Director Maurice Cox; former commissioner of the NYC Department of Transportation Janette Sadik-Khan; and former Mayor of Charleston, SC, Joe Riley, who gave a really amazing presentation about his 40 year run as mayor, and all of the work he had done that put human-scale planning, housing, and community-economic development at the forefront of the City’s agenda. 

Several speeches during the conference focused largely on the failures of social policy as key drivers of urban problems, and that these policies (or lack thereof) must be understood as influencing the poor design of communities and buildings, and not viewed as separate phenomenon. I took this to mean that you can design a community with all of the aspects that guide new urbanist principles, but without strong policies in place that guide their use, they ultimately fail. 

A speaker who particularly stood out to me was Scot Spencer, from the Annie E. Casey Foundation. Mr. Spencer works in Baltimore, and drew a direct line between police brutality, racist policy, resulting social unrest, and issues of economic opportunity in Baltimore. He challenged the attendees in the audience to think beyond just issues of walkability, design, and mixed-used development to consider the broader landscape of policy and action that influence one’s experience of a city. 

From the workshops and seminars I attended, I think the two most important concepts I came away with that are directly tied to the work undertaken by Place Lab:

Incremental Development as a way of building neighborhood wealth. By enabling many small scale developer-residents, incremental development is a tactic for creating reciprocal benefits within a neighborhood. An Incremental Development Alliance was just funded by a Knight Cities challenge grant, and I met with one of the founders. We had a discussion about their workproducing toolkits, guides, webinars, and doing in-person workshopsas a way to ensure that local people are able to take advantage and capitalize on any value created in the neighborhoods in which work is being done. I was reminded of the work that Naomi Davis, at Blacks in Green and the South Side Homesteaders project, is doing already. 

We show up, look around, and as long as it doesn’t look like the roof is going to cave onto these kids’ heads, we let them do what they want.
— paraphrasing the Mayor of Detroit, in relation to "Pink Zones"

Lean Urbanism is a concept that happened somewhat by accident in Detroit, but one that Detroit City government and the CNU are building upon as a positive development. Lean urbanism lowers the barriers to entry and allows for more people to get involved in place-based work. Detroit city government's years-long inability to regulate development left room for innovation by residents, and allowed for people to do adaptive reuse or redevelopment without onerous permitting and oversight processes. Detroit is now exploring lean urbanism “pink zones,” where permitting and code enforcement is simplified and in many cases reduced. The Mayor of Detroit explained it as, roughly: “We show up, look around, and as long as it doesn’t look like the roof is going to cave onto these kids’ heads, we let them do what they want.” It’s good to see this concept, already in action and being piloted in many areas around the country, is gaining acceptance in the planning field. Coupled with workforce development and skill building, applying Lean Urbanism will mean that people have better opportunities to get involved in development within their own neighborhoods, build value and wealth around them, and not have to rely solely on the resources of outsiders.

What we reject is the ‘Help the Negro Industry.’ People coming into our community, thinking they know best, trying to save us. We can save ourselves...The ‘Help the Negro Industry’ is what allowed billions of dollars to come down for urban renewal, but the urban did not get renewed. We are absolutely committed that urban renewal not be repeated.
— Naomi Davis, Founder of Blacks in Green, in a 2014 interview with Newsone


Mays, Jeff. "Naomi Davis: Blacks in Green Founder Pushing For Self-Sufficient Communities Using The Green Economy." Newsone, 2014.