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  • Michael Mehaffy

How can we change the "operating system for growth" to create more livable cities and towns for all?

Updated: Apr 7

The answer is an evolving set of tools and strategies employed by municipal governments, non-profits, practitioners and citizens - ones we will explore, and help advance through research, at the 60th IMCL conference, April 26-28

Orenco Station in Hillsboro, Oregon, an example of a new neighborhood that scores very well on livability metrics, as well as other metrics of ecology, health, and social well-being -- but many barriers remain to making more livable places.

EDITOR'S NOTE: This is another in a series of posts featuring topics to be discussed at the 60th International Making Cities Livable (IMCL) conference, in the beautiful livability case study of Newport, Rhode Island USA, April 26-28, 2024.

In 1965, the architect Christopher Alexander wrote these lines:

“The non-art-loving public at large, instead of being grateful to architects for what they do, regards the onset of modern buildings and modern cities everywhere as an inevitable, rather sad piece of the larger fact that the world is going to the dogs…. Their growing reluctance to accept the modern city evidently expresses a longing for some real thing, something which for the moment escapes our grasp.”

Alexander devoted the rest of his career seeking to grasp this real but elusive thing. For him, it was the quality of a livable neighborhood, which he later said was "not very complicated"... "a balance of privacy and contact... safety from traffic and noise... from crime and violence... beauty... intimacy.... streets and public places where everyone feels at home...."

Yet the modern "operating system for growth" too often seems to deliver something very different: urban structures that are too dangerous, too ugly, too unwelcoming -- even exclusionary -- and just too costly, in many more ways than one.

This is the opposite of a livable city -- or a sustainable one.

Yet we can see hopeful examples of livable cities, towns and suburbs, that are still being built today, including many of the inspiring case studies presented at conferences of the International Making Cities Livable conference series, begun in 1985. Among others, they include the successful suburban retrofit of Carmel, Indiana, the remarkable regenerated city of Le Plessis-Robinson, in the Paris region of France, and the celebrated urban extension of Poundbury, UK, as well as the widely-studied transit-oriented suburb of Orenco Station, in Oregon, illustrated at the top of the page.

The problem is, these places are too often the exception rather than the rule. Their builders consistently report that there are still too many barriers, too many entrenched obsolete standards, and too many perverse incentives and disincentives, making it all too difficult and rare for them to be able to build livable places. What we need, they say, are effective tools and strategies to overcome the barriers, reform the standards, and change the incentive structures. In a sense, we need to reform the "operating system for growth" that has locked us in to the current unsustainable course -- in city-making, and perhaps too, in our world as a whole.

This is the critical topic of implementation -- a main focus of our upcoming conference in Newport, Rhode Island, April 26-28, and of other conferences in the IMCL series begun in 1985.

So what are the tools and strategies that we must employ to change this urban state of affairs? One vitally important area is the emerging research and best practice in transportation planning reforms toward greater walkability and bikability, reduced car dependency, and more meaningful transportation choice. The University of Colorado researcher Wes Marshall will discuss this emerging research, and its translation into implementation of a new generation of walkable, bikable streets, featuring better street networks and street design. Alex Krumdieck, Director of the Urban Design Studio of Auburn University, will explore the disruptive influence of parking standards, and alternative strategies to mitigate the heavy impact of parking areas on urban livability while maintaining mobility.

Research shows that what is needed is not only the functional infrastructure of walking, biking and other modes, but an improved quality of the user experience, including aesthetics. If we are going to expect people to walk, bike and take transit, they themselves will have to find those attractive choices, including aesthetic attraction and enjoyment. Researcher Akosa Wambalaba of the United States International University-Africa in Nairobi, Kenya, will provide an international perspective on this issue, using case study data from Nairobi.

The conference will also include other researchers exploring user experience and livability. Among others, Justin Hollander, Professor at Tufts University, and Ann Sussman, President of the Human Architecture and Planning Institute, will discuss research on "cognitive architecture" and the results of eye-tracking research to provide useful guidance for the design of more walkable, livable urban features. Marjo Uotila, City Council Member of Kaarina, Finland, and Chair of INTBAU-Finland (a partner of the IMCL), will present new research on user preferences in architecture toward more livable cities.

We will also explore urban resilience, including economic resilience. Too often, cities chase after seemingly attractive development models that carry hidden "externality" costs, and city leaders fail to recognize the very real cultural and economic wealth they have in their own back yards, with opportunities for infill and regeneration. Chris Allen, Sponsorships and Partnerships Coordinator at Strong Towns, will share an update on their widely recognized work to make cities and towns more resilient and livable, with a focus on municipal finance.

Another vital subject for livable cities is the need for more climate-friendly development, in an age when this issue has come to pose an existential threat to humanity and to the biosphere. Research has shown the importance of walkable, diverse, mixed-use urbanism, especially in comparison to sprawl, in slowing the emissions that drive climate change. What's more, mitigation strategies (i.e. reducing emissions) often overlap with adaptation strategies (i.e. coping with a changing climate). For example, planting trees, reducing paved areas, and using "cool surfaces" (reflective of solar radiation) serve both goals of adaptation and mitigation -- and provide many other benefits for livable cities besides.

Several speakers will address issues of climate and resilience, including John Hans Gilderbloom, Professor of Sociology at the University of Louisville. His work focuses on the disproportionate impacts of environmental damage, including climate change, on vulnerable populations -- and what can be done about it. His most recent work looks at positive steps to be taken to deal with climate change, with case studies of families in Rome, Mumbai, Louisville, Georgetown, TX, Los Angeles, Amsterdam, and Nairobi. The work is documented in an upcoming film titled Climate of Hope, and he will show a trailer at the conference. Other conference researchers will present work on Urban Heat Island (UHI) effects on health, including Veronica Westendorff of UNC Charlotte, and urban alternatives to adapt to sea level rise by William Kenworthey, Regional Leader of Planning for HOK, and a national leader in resilient urban design.

One of the barriers to better development is the stakeholders' fear of the potential negative impacts of new development. History shows that they may not be wrong -- and moreover, it's their neighborhood that is impacted, and they have a right to participate in the public decision-making process about its future. On the other hand, they don't have the right to exclude others unjustly, or prevent the development of resources (including housing) that the community needs. So it's entirely proper to challenge them to step up and be proactive rather than reactive (an approach we have referred to as "QUIMBY" urbanism, for "Quality In My Back Yard."

One way to do that is to work with the community to adopt pre-approved plans in order to expedite urgently needed housing, including more diverse and more affordable housing. Allison Quinlan of Flintlock LAB will discuss this emerging practice across the USA, including the development of townhouses and other "middle housing" and infill types. Instead of reacting to infill development they don't like, neighbors are challenged to identify development they will support. Regulatory authorities and financial institutions are also challenged to adopt streamlined and pre-approved processes, and overcome the barriers to getting the diverse and affordable housing we need.

We will also explore other ways to deliver more diverse and affordable housing -- not only in quantity, but in quality, and properly located. David Woltering of Woltering Community Planning will explore effective strategies to deliver "Not Just More, But Truly Livable, Housing for Generations to Come." Kent Watkins of the National Academy of Housing and Sustainable Communities, will discuss the importance of location-efficient housing, and new methods to deliver it more equitably --including fascinating (but also questionable) new AI technologies.

Another way to overcome stakeholders' fears, and thereby ease approvals as well as outcomes, is to build temporary and incremental versions of proposed changes, such as narrowed or pedestrianized streets, pocket parks, street improvements, and other features of more walkable and livable neighborhoods. Sometimes residents imagine the worst, and temporary changes can provide a non-threatening way of letting them see the reality and its benefits ("seeing is believing"). Krista Nightengale, Executive Director of the Better Block Foundation, will describe their remarkable tools and strategies that employ this approach.

Another crucial need is for zoning reform to end exclusionary zoning by use and housing type, and allow greater diversity and mixing of activities. Rachelle Alterman, Professor of Urban Planning and Law at The Technion, IIT, will discuss the emerging research on planning law and its new reform tools and strategies, as well as the problematic impacts of tall buildings, and strategies to add more "middle housing" as an alternative. (As the research and many examples show, it's possible to achieve quite high numbers of units without tall buildings and their negative impacts.)

Affordability is a related and critical issue for many cities, and University of British Columbia Professor Patrick Condon will explore the evidence for land valuation as a major driver of housing cost, as well as the limits of density alone -- and tall buildings -- in achieving affordability. That's essential if we're going to have livable cities for all -- as is a fairer distribution of resources and amenities. We will be joined by Senchel Matthews, Associate Director for the Built Environment for the Full Frame Initiative, a Massachusetts-based social change organization that works to create a country where everyone has a fair chance at wellbeing. FFI partners with communities, nonprofits, and public systems to change structures and beliefs to improve wellbeing for all. We will also be joined by Professor Edgar Adams of Roger Williams University, exploring how we can achieve a just city through "reclamation and repair."

One of the major developments in urban research is a clearer picture of the importance of public space as a fundamental urban arena, bringing all citizens together to enjoy, create and prosper. Indeed, it seems increasingly clear that public space plays a role in creating all of the benefits that cities give us -- and its decline in many places plays a role in the negative impacts of urban growth, including car dependency and emissions, high-consumption lifestyles, declining health, social isolation, and other high "externality costs".

Research documents the importance of key characteristics that public space must have in order to function properly (including access, affordance of activities, visibility, and other elements). Setha Low, Professor of Anthropology and Environmental Psychology with the Public Space Research Group at City University of New York, will discuss the findings of her new book, Why Public Space Matters. She will be joined by sociologist David Brain of New College of Florida, Kristie Daniel, Program Director of Livable Cities at HealthBridge, Andrew Rudd, Human Settlements Officer at UN-Habitat, and others who have been working on public space implementation projects around the world.

The 60th IMCL will also include prominent leaders in the international placemaking movement, which is effectively using tactical approaches for improving public space. The legendary Fred Kent (at left), early collaborator of public space pioneer William H. Whyte, will describe the work of his "Social Life Project." Ethan Kent will describe the work of PlacemakingX in supporting a growing international network of local placemaking innovators. Madeleine Spencer of PlacemakingUS will lead a workshop on new placemaking tools and strategies.

The Kents and others acknowledge a debt of gratitude to Christopher Alexander, whose "pattern language" methodology encapsulates a wide range of tools and strategies for making livable cities and buildings. Alexander's method continues to bear fruit through the work of IMCL colleagues, including the most recent A New Pattern Language for Growing Regions: Places, Networks, Processes. That volume is squarely focused on implementation, and on new developments including new technologies, techniques of sustainable building, and methods to manage rapid urbanization in the Global South. It also includes a companion wiki, (developed by wiki inventor Ward Cunningham, also a pioneer of pattern languages in software leading directly to wiki and Wikipedia).

Also working in the Global South is Ben Bolgar, Executive Director of the Projects Team at the King's Foundation in London. The Foundation works with the Commonwealth Association of Planners, which includes senior planning officials of India, Pakistan, Malaysia, Canada, Australia, and many African and Caribbean countries. Ben will give a report on this important work and how research is driving urgently-needed reforms to practice and policy -- but more needs to be done.

Other partners in the conference will discuss the state of implementation for livable cities, and the role that research can play to drive more effective change. Mallory Baches, President of the Congress for the New Urbanism, will give a report on the strategic plan of that organization, and its work to drive reforms to professional and educational standards. Christy Milliken will describe work by Seaside Institute to share knowledge about project successes and lessons, both in the US and internationally.

We will also be fortunate to hear from leading practitioners to share their front-line expertise from the field. This year, we will be joined by Steve Mouzon, a nationally prominent urban designer of many noted projects, founder of the Urban Guild (a partner of the IMCL), and author of the landmark book The Original Green. We will also be joined by Christine Storry of Utopia Architects in New South Wales, Australia, and Nir Buras, principal of the Classic Planning Institute in the USA. Also joining us will be Daniel Morales of Morales Architects, speaking on user preferences, beauty and neuroscience, and David Dixon, Vice President and Urban Places Fellow at the global design firm Stantec.

Other prominent researchers, practitioners and city leaders include Sallie Hambright-Belue,  Associate Professor at Clemson University, speaking on educational reforms; William Batson, Professor and Director of the Community Urban Rural Enhancement Service (CURES) Center of Prairie View A&M University, speaking on suburban retrofit; Robert Knapp, Professor Emeritus of Physics and Sustainable Development at The Evergreen State College, speaking on the qualitative aspects of sustainability and the work of Christopher Alexander; and Anirban Adhya, Associate Professor at Lawrence Technical University, exploring morphological typologies and their impacts on livability.

Stefan Norgaard of Columbia University will also discuss hopeful examples of incremental "bottom-up growth" in post-Apartheid South Africa, and the lessons for other parts of the world. Ryan Sandwick of CalPoly San Luis Obispo will share strategies to better translate academic research into community actions to revitalize downtowns.

We at the IMCL believe it is particularly important to learn from projects and their post-occupancy successes and lessons learned. That is a key reason that the IMCL hosts its conferences in key case study locales, encouraging research and communication about them. We often hear from the visionary leaders who worked on these places, like Jim Brainard, former long-time mayor of Carmel, Indiana, a remarkable success story of suburban retrofit. We will hear from other government officials too, on the tools and strategies they have employed effectively and the barriers remaining, including Rory Nisan, Deputy Mayor of the City of Burlington, Ontario, and Mary Gardill, Project Manager for Large-Scale Private Public Projects for the State of Massachusetts.

We will also have the opportunity to tour inspiring downtown Providence projects, including affordable and beautiful housing, by Cornish Associates Managing Director Buff Chace, Brent Runyon of Runyon Heritage Associates, and Don Powers of Union Studio Architects. We will also have the opportunity to see transportation innovations in Newport by Bike Newport, on a bike tour led by President Bari Freeman. (For attendees and guests who want to sign up for the tours, the link is here:

The above-mentioned Orenco Station in Oregon (explored in several past IMCL tours) scores remarkably high on metrics of ecology, health, and social well-being, as well as community satisfaction. A study by sociologist Bruce Podobnik reported that Orenco Station achieves much higher rates of walking as well as higher indicators of social capital and resident satisfaction. A study by Professor of Planning Reid Ewing and colleagues found that "parking demand was less than one half the parking supply guideline in the ITE Parking Generation manual; vehicle trip generation rates were about half or less of what is predicted in the ITE Trip Generation Manual; and automobile mode shares were as low as one quarter of all trips, with the remainder being mostly transit and walk trips." Orenco Station is also much more compact than the vast majority of suburban neighborhoods, yet it's very popular and livable -- and it features abundant outdoor amenities supporting a healthy and low-carbon lifestyle, as well as "not so big houses," many of which sport solar systems and other green technologies.

Orenco Station and many other examples demonstrate that we can build (and rebuild) a new generation of more walkable, ecological, equitable, livable cities, towns and suburbs. But to do so, we must commit to learning from our successes and failures through research, and to deploying (and sharing, and further developing) proven effective tools and strategies for implementation. There is much more work to be done, as we will learn about in Newport -- but also many hopeful and inspiring examples to celebrate.

Please join us for a fascinating, productive and, we think, very important gathering in Newport. More information is here:



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