Congress for New Urbanism

Last week I attended Congress for New Urbanism‘s conference in Buffalo, NY and had a wonderful time learning about ideas, projects, and research on new urbanism and placemaking. Here are a few highlights from my favorite presentations:

Jeff Speck: New Urbanism 101

Jeff Speck's book, "Walkable City."

Jeff Speck’s book, “Walkable City.”

Jeff Speck is an urban planner and designer and most recently published Walkable City: How Downtown Can Save America, One Step at a Time. The three-hour presentation went into great detail on urban planning and design, but what resonated most is also a key message through his book: Walking has to be easier and better than driving a car. Speck’s “General Theory of Walkability,” illustrates how walking to a destination can be better than driving. A walk must be:

  • Useful
  • Safe
  • Comfortable
  • Interesting

Speck has spoken on this topic many times and just last month he gave a presentation at TEDxMidAtlantic.  The best way to learn about the General Theory of Walkability is to watch the presentation yourself.

Charles Montgomery: Happiness in Cities

It turns out presenting at a conference is a great way to sell books—My colleague purchased her own copy of Walkable City and I left Buffalo with Charles Montgomery’s Happy City: Transforming Our Lives Through Urban Design.

Charles Montgomery's "Happy City."

Charles Montgomery’s “Happy City.”

Coming into the field of planning with a community organizing background, I am sometimes surprised to see the majority of discussions based on cars and buildings. Montgomery does an excellent job bringing people back into the picture and focusing on what all of us really want: To be happy. Montgomery’s book explores the relationship between cities and people.

By now, we should all know from Knight’s Soul of the Community that how people feel about where they live has an impact on the community’s economy. Montgomery’s research illustrates how people in car-dependent communities are more likely to be unhappy and untrusting than people who live in more walkable areas. This is just another reminder of why focusing on placemaking is so important to Michigan communities.

The presentation also left me with a few  memorable “fun facts” about happiness, which I’m sure I’ll learn more about when I start the book. They include:

  • Name tags make people nicer at public meetings
  • Nature boosts altruism
  • People like each other more when they sit in clusters
  • People who live in the suburbs and high-rise apartments experience the least amount of trust

Jennifer Hurley: I Love Meetings and You Can Too!

As expected, all of the presentations I attended focused on urban design, planning and architecture. To give my brain a change of pace, I attended a presentation by Jennifer Hurly on how to run successful, enjoyable meetings – unfortunately a topic many people need better training on.

Jennifer Hurley's slide on effective meetings. Write an agenda!

Jennifer Hurley’s slide on effective meetings. Write an agenda!

Hurley works with people across the country to run effective engagement meetings for urban planning topics. This is also one of the discussions I had with planning leaders at a civic engagement meeting I hosted a few weeks ago and wrote about here.

Some of the quick takeaways Hurley left her audience with were:

  • Don’t have a meeting if you don’t need discussion to make a decision or take action
  • Know the meeting’s purpose and make it known to participants
  • Start and end the meeting on time
  • Break up activities to keep things interesting
  • Set rules of engagement: Be present, stay on topic and finish the topic before moving on, encourage all to participate, evaluate, etc.

For those interested in this topic, feel free to contact me at scraft@mml.org. As requested by the civic engagement focus group, I’m putting together a training on running effective community meetings. We’ll announce the opportunity on the MML website when things are finalized, but I would be happy to keep you in the loop!

Overall, the conference was very informative and engaging. I came back to Michigan excited about our work and inspired by the work of others. It had been a while since I was able to attend such a large conference as CNU and I’m glad to have had the opportunity.