Breaking Barriers and Building Bridges: Lynn Richards Takes on the Mantle at Congress for the New Urbanism

Lynn Richards (LF ’13) came to Cambridge 2 years ago as a Lincoln/Loeb Fellow, a role that bridges the Loeb Fellowship and the Lincoln Institute of Land Policy's Department of Planning and Urban Form. Starting this month she has assumed the leadership of the Congress for the New Urbanism, as president and CEO. She made time for a conversation with the LOEBlog about her new leadership role and the influence of the Fellowship in finding her way to it.

The CNU is an organization founded in 1993 by seven architects wishing to codify their previous work into creating “long-lasting and better-performing neighborhoods.” The selection of Richards dovetails with the ethos of her experience at the GSD—being a policymaker in a design school and bringing design to bear in a policy institute.

Richards, with her characteristic wry sense of humor, defines her new job as “Therapist in Chief”—a title that reflects her aim to listen to many constituents and to stitch together the many activities of the CNU. “The CNU is going through a transformation. So much of what the organization has been advocating for has permeated how cities should grow. Seaside, from 1981, incorporated so many aspects that are now considered standards—incubator retail, mixed-use zoning, safe streets, and working with nature.” Seaside, the community in Florida designed by co-founders Andres Duany and Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk, is often held up as representative of CNU’s public image. “Yet, it’s false to hold up Seaside as typical because CNU members have worked to revitalized cities, tear down freeways to reconnect neighborhoods, and create neighborhoods that provide lasting value to thousands of municipalities. CNU helped to change the conversation of how communities grow.”

“Across the county, people are demanding more great places, demographics are supporting this trend, and local governments are responding,” Richards explains. “But more needs to be done. Local land development regulations and funding formulas still support single-family large lot development, "complete"—but not great–streets are being built, and the architecture and design of many new developments fail to inspire.” CNU works to address the regulatory barriers to creating great neighborhoods, an area that Richards understands well as former policymaker at the EPA. “How can we address the barriers at the federal, state and local levels in order to level the playing field so building great walkable urban places is as easy as building sprawl?

One example is the work of the CNU to support health districts that are designed for walking, biking, and greater intensity of uses. Under Obama’s 2010 Affordable Care Act, non-profit hospitals must track their community benefit to the IRS. The CNU is forming a coalition with several federal agencies, associations, and advocacy groups to include land-use changes as a community benefit. A hospital could then get credit for building a crosswalk, widening sidewalks, or creating linkages to adjacent parks. “We want to ensure those connections can happen,” explains Richards.

How did her time at the GSD affect her ways of thinking? Richards reflected, “I came into the GSD as EPA policy director for smart growth, and imagined that everyone would agree with my ideas. But the students challenged me. One student asked how the new town center is better than the mall it replaced—isn’t it just as generic? Where is the organic growth?”

Richards reflects how these discussions enabled her to reframe her thinking. “So let’s get away from certain terms such as "smart growth," "sustainable cities," "new urbanism," and focus on areas of agreement—such as the desire for unique neighborhoods, places with character and difference. In every city, there are these places that people love. Harvard is all about the Yard. Chicago has their neighborhoods. What makes these places unique and organic?”

These conversations had a direct impact on how Richards views her new role. When Richards was formally announced as the new CEO during CNU’s annual Congress in Buffalo, NY, she articulated 3 goals she wants to achieve during her tenure:

  • Design and build more places people love: places that promote and celebrate people, places that inspire us and capture the imagination, places where community is created, where visitors return, and residents don’t want to leave.
  • Focus on design quality. CNU needs to reclaim its brand of design excellence and promote authentic and organic development.
  • Expand our tent. There are thousands of placemakers working throughout the United States to make our neighborhoods safer, cleaner, healthier, and more sustainable. We need to work together, focus on areas of agreement, and achieve our common goals.

However, Richards recognizes that the importance of the Loeb Fellowship year is not just about deepening one’s views, but also on the “how.” How to lead? How to act? “Jim Stockard said to us all, ‘There’s only one requirement of the Loeb Fellowship and that’s is to change the world.’” She explained, “I began to ask myself: how can I change the world? What was my role? What are my barriers preventing real world-changing leadership?”

Richards participated in the Women’s Leadership Seminar, an initiative for Loeb Fellows and Loeb Affiliates. The seminar fostered small group discussions about progressive leadership models, having difficult conversations and unpacking “standard leadership curricula.” Richards cites “Immunity to Change” as being a key text for fostering reflection on how to transform one’s leadership styles to unlock potential. “Leading is not so much the technical expertise, but rather about the thousands of judgments we make around how to treat people, how to engage with the others. These are 'softer characteristics'--the how to do, rather than what to do.”

From EPA policymaker to CEO of the Congress for the New Urbanism, Richards is engaged in helping to shape new pathways and connections among many institutions. Richards’s experience reflects the ultimate purpose of the Fellowship—to provide the fodder and inspiration for a transformation. We look forward to seeing how her work will change the world, in both small and large ways.

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