A look at New Urbanism in the Midwest

What do people want from their cities?

It’s a question on the mind of urban planners around the world—from the largest metros to the smallest towns.

Since 1993, a worldwide movement and organization has been working to answer this question with a universal, age-old concept: community connections.

They’re called the Congress for the New Urbanism (CNU), and they’re a nonprofit group of 2,600 global thought-leaders on design, development, policy, implementation, and activism.

“New Urbanists believe that well-designed cities, towns, neighborhoods, and public places help create community: healthy places for people and businesses to thrive and prosper,” says the Congress for the New Urbanism’s websiteDan Baisden

According to CNU, New Urbanists work in cities and towns across the world pushing their communities toward similar goals of stopping sprawling development, building sustainable places, preserving historical assets, and providing a range of housing and transportation choices in cities.

Dan Baisden of Fort Wayne has been a member of the Congress for New Urbanism for almost three years. He joined in August 2015 and became a regional leader for the CNU-Midwest chapter.

Today, he uses his membership as executive director of Main Street Van Wert in Ohio, promoting the rebirth of the city’s historic downtown.

Baisden says he’s always loved cities and how they work, but most importantly, he says, “I’ve been fascinated about why people do or don’t love where they live.”

While hazy concepts like “love” or “quality of place” can be difficult to define, New Urbanists are suggesting concrete ways planners can achieve these aspirations.

It starts with going back to why and how cities were created in the first place.

Focusing on people, not cars

For much of the last 100 years, engineers have looked at community growth in relation to how they can move vehicular traffic quickly and efficiently through downtowns.

City centers have not been thought of destinations, but rather as obstacles for drivers to get through on their way home to the suburbs.

But it wasn’t always that way.

Before the invention of the automobile, cities were communal spaces where people of all types lived, worked, and walked in close proximity to one another.

Then, as more people bought personal automobiles, cities began to sprawl into suburban developments characterized by large homes and expansive yards with taller privacy fences, Baisden says.

But chasing the American Dream also led to a dark side of negative consequences for neighbors and neighborhoods.

“No longer could people easily socialize with friends or pick up a bottle of milk or stop by the dry cleaners,” he explains. “Everything required a car.”

New Urbanists believe in redefining community growth by getting residents back out of their cars and bringing them together in central, common spaces.

“When you can only participate in community life by having a car, you have lost something,” says urban planner and Fort Wayne Redevelopment Manager Joe Giant. “You don’t engage with the environment in the same way as when you get out of the car and walk. You see things differently.”

And yet, like many Midwestern cities buoyed by the industrial boom, Fort Wayne has become a place where residents are largely reliant on cars to get around.

Recent census data shows that about 87 percent of people who work in Fort Wayne use personal vehicles for transportation. About 9.5 percent carpool, and 3.5 percent find another way to work—be it public transit, biking, or walking.

To help curb the effects of automobiles and isolation, planners like Giant and Baisden are working to make regional communities more walkable and human-scaled.

“Many people now are looking for more ‘density’ or living closer to more people, like a downtown might offer,” Baisden says. “They want amenities and opportunities within a walk or bike-ride distance.”

Along with focusing on a city’s buildings and their relationship to one another, New Urbanism also focuses on people and their ability to interact and engage with the built environment.

Public areas where furniture can be moved or where there is space for conversation and gathering create environments where people can linger and engage.

“It’s about people and place-making,” Baisden says.

Small adjustments like lights make a big difference in converting this Van Wert, Ohio, alley into a "third place."

Creating a ‘third place’

Along with building for people instead of cars, another core tenant of the New Urbanism movement is a concept called the “third place” pioneered by sociologist Ray Oldenberg.

In his 1989 book The Great Good Place, Oldenberg explains that a third place is a hangout spot, community center, or “home away from home” that provides people an essential zone to hang out beyond their home (the first place) and their workplace (the second place).

“This can be anything: a park or a gym or a bar,” Baisden explains.

In Van Wert, he’s creating opportunities for third places in simple ways like decorating alleys to be inviting and engaging for public use.

“Creating better cities isn’t expensive or time-consuming,” Baisden says. “It starts with each individual interacting with people in the same space: saying hello, holding a door open, sitting next to a stranger, and striking up a conversation at the coffee shop. We can all be a part of it.”

By making third spaces for people, planners are fostering community in their cities on a daily basis. People in northeast Indiana connect and learn from each other at local restaurants like Queen of Sheba.

For examples of this in Fort Wayne, Baisden says look no further than popular hangouts like parks, pubs, neighborhood coffee shops, and small businesses.

They’re places where people of all walks of life are strengthening the fabric of society by experiencing chance encounters, getting to know each other better, and contributing to the personalities of their neighborhoods.

While social platforms like Facebook and Instagram demonstrate people’s basic desire for community, Giant believes people also crave ways they can get to know each other better beyond the screen by connecting in person.

New Urbanism creates opportunities for that by rediscovering what originally made cities attractive—different people living in close proximity with one another, working together, and sharing life.

“Giving people a chance and a place to rub elbows with people who aren’t just like themselves or encourage them to share a table or sit on a bench together helps create and support connection,” Giant says.

Learn more about the Congress for the New Urbanism

If you are interested in making neighborhoods diverse in use and population and creating just and equitable cities for all, you may consider joining the Congress for the New Urbanism.

Membership is $40 per year (free for students), and participants in northeast Indiana are encouraged to join the CNU-Midwest chapter to help build better legacy cities. https://www.cnu.org/get-involved/become-member

Read more articles by Rebecca LaRue Karcher.

Rebecca LaRue Karcher has worked in media, public relations, and local government for more than 25 years in Fort Wayne. Her undergraduate degree in Journalism is from the University of Kansas. She also has a master’s in Organizational Leadership from Indiana Tech. Currently, she is serving as director of Communication and Community Engagement at Trinity English Lutheran Church. She has one son, who is in graduate school. In her spare time, she practices yoga (but not enough) and acts in community theatre whenever she gets the chance. Neither her husband, Rich, nor herself is from Fort Wayne, but they love their friends and the opportunities here.

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