Interview with Lynn Richards

An interview with Lynn Richards, president and CEO of the Congress for New Urbanism.
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In her seven years as president and CEO of the Congress for New Urbanism (CNU), Lynn Richards has activated the CNU community with innovative and aggressive projects that have set forth to transform our cities’ landscapes through the power of incremental change. In line with CNU’s motto “Building Places People Love,” Richards’ bookended her tenure at CNU with a brand new mission statement that strengthens the Congress’s role in the future of urban development. As she concludes her final months with CNU, we sat down with Richards to talk about the Congress’s new directions and initiatives.

Lynn Richards, president and CEO of the Congress for New Urbanism

Lynn Richards, president and CEO of the Congress for New Urbanism.

What are the accomplishments you are most proud of during your seven year tenure?

First is the project for code reform. The Project for Code Reform seeks to meet local governments where they are. Instead of doing an overhaul of your entire code, do the biggest little thing. If you do nothing else, do this one thing to enable a good place instead of guaranteeing a good place. It's this idea of incremental code reform. . . that brings along the political leadership as well as the local government.

The second thing is [something that] John Norquist started for CNU around highway removal in cities. We worked with Congress, both the House and the Senate over the last couple of years. And on December 21, the Senate released the Economic Justice Act, which includes $10 billion for highway removal. And it's currently being incorporated into the new highway or the new transportation reauthorization legislation that will come through in 2021. It’s again this incremental approach.

The third thing is our Legacy Projects, which is pro bono design assistance to underserved communities, particularly in the host community of where we're having our annual meeting. But we've expanded it to do it in other areas. Our members have a call to serve the broader movement and donate their design skills in an underserved community.

Martin Luther King Plaza

The construction of the $75 million Martin Luther King Plaza in Philadelphia began in the late 1990s and was completed during summer 2005. It includes about 250 homes, split between rental and ownership, built in the form of Victorian-style townhouses—the typical housing type in the neighborhood. 

These sound pretty awesome.

It moves the needle…. And serves our mission: what can we do together that we couldn't do individually? And to me, those three projects really meet that call. And it brings into sharp focus of how we can leverage all of the talents of the CNU members to move the conversation forward.

South Main, New Urbanist town

Following a public design charrette run by Dover, Kohl & Partners, construction began on South Main—a New Urbanist town extension that reconnects the small mountain town Buena Vista, Colorado, to the Arkansas River. Today, its central South Main Square is surrounded by mixed-use buildings and provides a gathering space for residents and visitors. Neighborhood streets are oriented to allow views to the mountains and riverfront. 

You all have a new mission statement. Tell me about it.

Our new mission statement really frames CNU's mission “to champion walkable urbanism.” And we do that through education, resources, technical assistance, to create environmentally resilient, economically robust, socially just, people-centered places.

AT&SF Rail Company, Pasadena Santa Fe Station

In 1925, the AT&SF Rail Company constructed the Pasadena Santa Fe Station, the destination of a railroad meant to connect LA to Chicago. During this time, the station became known as the “gateway” to Hollywood, Beverly Hills, Santa Monica, and the San Fernando Valley.

We love how concise yet descriptive it is.

How does the mission statement fit with your new strategic plan?

We finalized our strategic plan in March and then released it in September 2020. It has three strategic areas: creating more complete neighborhoods, legalizing walkable places, and designing for a changing climate.

The Board and I developed it by constantly asking: What can CNU uniquely do?

Daybreak Mews, South Jordan, Utah

The design of Daybreak Mews in South Jordan, Utah, was driven by a need to provide attainable housing—achieved by efficiently using 3.2 acres on the interior of two blocks within walking distance of a light rail station. The 147 houses, ranging from 900 to 1,400 square feet at a density of just above 20 units per acre, are oriented onto a European-style pedestrian mews on two blocks within a large, mixed-use, master planned community connected by transit to the Salt Lake City region.

A lot of organizations are engaged in climate. How are CNU’s efforts unique?

We wanted to focus our efforts on the specific design considerations that can increase the resilience at the building block neighborhood scale. The other aspect, which I find actually more interesting and exciting, is working with welcoming cities, for the ongoing, and for the coming climate migration. There's a lot around the designing for a change in climate, that I feel that the CNU's skills on planning, long term planning, scenario planning, being comfortable with the uncertain—that’s just what very new urbanist has been looking at, this kind of where and how you plan your communities, both in terms of the welcoming places as well as those places that ultimately we'll retreat. I think it's a really exciting area that we're going to be hearing a lot more about. And, you know, I for one want CNU to define that realm of conversation.

Iberville Offsites, New Orleans

Iberville Offsites in New Orleans provides affordable housing for moderate-income families, establishes new standards for green historic preservation, and strengthens a city still climbing back from one of the nation’s worst natural disasters.

How do you see new urbanism in a post-COVID world?

I'm a glass-half-full kind of person. I'm always looking for the silver lining. Yes, the global pandemic has been horrible. I wish we hadn't gone through it. However, I feel that the trends which were kind of creeping along before the pandemic accelerated during the pandemic. For example, how people and cities are reimagining spaces.? I think that these trends are going to continue. And the good news is that we've been over-retailed for decades and the pandemic has accelerated the trend of hyper localism of supporting your local butcher, your farmers' market, etc. So, I'm hopeful for the post-pandemic.

The Cotton District, Starkville, Mississippi,

The Cotton District is a community in Starkville, Mississippi, that stands as an example of Traditional Neighborhood Development. Founded by Daniel Camp, the Cotton District has been praised for incorporating traditional architectural styles in a close-knit, vibrant, and walkable community.

ProWood Market

Wooden brackets, corbels, braces, rafter tails, gable brackets, shutters, are made of Western Red Cedar