John Norquist, a former mayor of Milwaukee and the current CEO of the Congress for New Urbanism, argues that it’s not so much that cities need more government assistance for sustainability to take hold. Rather, the market wants sustainable urbanism, but, in this instance, the federal government is making it difficult to pursue what the market wants. Norquist explains what we can do about it, and how.
To start, I asked Norquist how he developed his early avocation as an urban crusader.
Early on in life, I liked cities. My dad was a Presbyterian minister, so we moved around a lot. I was born in Princeton, N.J., and I lived in many places, from Red Lake Falls, Minn., to Rushville, Ind., to Bloomington, Ill., but the city I knew best was my parents’ hometown, Saint Paul, Minn. There I watched Payne Ave go downhill, and this was a formative experience. It was the liveliest of the East Side districts, but following bad advice, the city took out the streetcar line, and then pulled the parking off the streets, and it ruined the district. I was too young to know what was happening, but I saw it and it left a lasting impression.
Eventually I was elected to the Milwaukee legislature, beating an incumbent who wanted to build a freeway through the district. Three years later, with the help of the governor, we killed it. The district thrived, and I was eventually elected mayor.
What are you crusading for today?
The market wants walkable urbanism, but the federal government makes it difficult to pursue what the market wants. For example, federal highway design standards emphasize speed and obstruct creation of Main Street districts with walkable shopping. Separate-use zoning laws embedded in Federal Housing Administration (FHA) and Fannie Mae rules make it nearly impossible to create mixed-use Main Street today. But if you look at the current post-recession real estate market, you see that many areas that are thriving date from before World War II. It is very difficult to build this sort of thing new. Street standards and zoning won’t allow it. And even then you can’t finance it.
How does finance play into urbanism?
Federal programs and the financing associated with them, including FHA, treat mixed-use as a major risk factor, and discourage it through strict limitations. But if you look at the older parts of the U.S., where you find the classic ingredients of Main Street—apartments on the second floor, offices and stores on the first, like Flatbush Avenue in Brooklyn—these are the areas that have performed better in the aftermath of the Great Recession.
Before the FHA was created in 1934, if you wanted to operate a retail store, you would build the store with apartments on top. When you went to the bank, the loan officer would say, “Great! You’re diversifying the risk.” But the federal attitude has infected the private financing market, too, so you get adverse selection. Developers reason, "Why bother?"
I see a lot of new Main Street-style development. How’s it happening?
The good news is that Carol Galante, commissioner of the FHA, just raised the commercial limit from 25 percent to 35 percent for condominium developments, with a provision that it can go up to 50 percent in some circumstances. Now, the federal agency is looking at changing the HUD programs (HUD 220 and 221D4) to reflect the same percentage. Attitudes are loosening up, so it’s not hopeless, but we have a long way to go. Projects are getting done, but if you knew the backstory on each one, you would hear a tale of high cost, frustration, and endless bureaucratic struggle.
We really don’t need to create incentives, so much as we need to allow urbanism to be unleashed. The demand is already here.
Urbanism seems to support communities. How are local governments reacting?
Local governments are very hungry for tax base. Federal money goes mostly to states, not cities and villages. Communities have to grow their own taxable value. And they have come to realize that any infrastructure built in their jurisdiction should add value; they should, and have, started demanding that any federal or state project built in a city contribute to that city’s economic vitality and livability.
Thoroughfares in the urbanized context have greater purposes than just moving traffic. They need to also serve as a setting for commerce and social interactions—in other words Main Street. As local officials are becoming more outspoken on this, it’s starting to change design. Local officials no longer look kindly on big through roads and beltways, which can undermine downtown commercial centers, crippling the tax base.
What should we be doing now to encourage the federal government to remove obstacles to urbanism?
Right now, we’re encouraging FHA to continue opening up mixed-use development, until they take all the obstacles away entirely. We don’t ask the federal government for more, we actually ask for less.
Likewise, with roads we want the U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) to continue to open their collective minds to walkable Main Streets in urban context. In Canada, they do not have a national highway department; each province takes care of the roads, and all the highways connect just fine—even between Quebec and Ontario, and every city has great transit systems. Maybe the feds shouldn’t feel that they hold the major responsibility for financing infrastructure. But with that said, Ray LaHood, the current DOT secretary, has done a great job making the agency much more sensitive to urban issues.
What can we look forward to in 2020?
Urban and environmental programs that become economically viable will succeed. Those that do not, won’t. In other words, if it gets a return on investment, and it makes sense, you don’t need to wear a headband and Birkenstocks to get behind it. I predict that by 2020 the opposition from the right side of the political spectrum will wake up from the trance they have been in and realize the obvious: that energy efficiency is synonymous with fiscal responsibility. I predict they may become leaders in this movement.
Of course, the liberals need to realize that just because something is a government program does not mean it’s good. Programs must be reconfigured to allow the market to express itself. Today, as it was yesterday, good real estate is near trains and commerce—transit-served, walkable neighborhoods have tended not to decline like autocentric suburbs have during this recession. I’m very optimistic about U.S. cities and urbanizing suburbs in the next decade.
Building on its successful launch in 2012, ECOHOME’s Vision 2020 program continues in 2013, focusing on eight critical areas in sustainability: Energy Efficiency + Building Science, Building Design + Performance, Materials + Products, Sustainable Communities, Water Efficiency, Codes, Standards + Rating Systems, Indoor Environmental Quality, and Economics + Financing. Track our progress all year as our panel of visionary focus-area chairs, our editors, and leading researchers, practitioners, and advocates share their perspectives on initiating, tracking, and ensuring progress toward sustainable priorities and goals in residential construction between now and 2020. The program will culminate in an exclusive Vision 2020 Forum in Washington, D.C., in September 2013, and with a special edition of ECOHOME in Winter 2013. Click here to see the 2012 Wrap-Up.