National Leader Of New Urbanism Offers Milwaukee Ideas

Sep 11, 2019

A leading national advocate for walkable cities and mixed-use development is urging Milwaukee to take additional steps toward those goals. Lynn Richards of the Congress for the New Urbanism spoke Tuesday to the Milwaukee Rotary Club.

The concept of New Urbanism says walkable communities can be vibrant and places people love.  The concept already has a foothold in Milwaukee, as former Mayor John Norquist practiced some of its principles — backing downtown housing and the Riverwalk — before leaving the city and becoming the president of the organization in 2004. 

Lynn Richards took over as leader of the New Urbanism group five years ago. Richards said one of her current projects is getting local governments to reform their zoning, parking, stormwater and street design codes to help create that walkable, mixed-use feel.

"If you make it easier to do the type of development that you want to have happen, it will happen," Richards told the Rotarians.

She said there can be significant hurdles to code reform, including long and expensive political and legal fights. So, Richards recommends gradual or incremental improvements. 

"Because it empowers your suburban communities like Wauwatosa, it empowers folks in Milwaukee, it empowers the planning directors in all the small towns that make up your region to say, 'You know what, we can start this, we can start with just one thing,' " she said.

One of the attempts to make Milwaukee more walkable has been the Riverwalk.
Credit Chuck Quirmbach

Richards also said New Urbanism is sensitive to claims that it promotes gentrification for the more affluent.  She said backs more affordable housing. 

"Like converting your garage and enabling someone to live in your basement. So often, it's not about building new, it's about converting or transforming what you already have," Richards explained.

City codes could also be changed to allow for more single-family homes to become multi-family housing, she said, that could be useful for people just out of school or in a changing domestic situation.

Over the next decades, cities will continue to change. The question, Richards asked, is: To what sort of community?

Support is provided by Dr. Lawrence and Mrs. Hannah Goodman for Innovation reporting.

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