NeoExcellence Breakfast: John Norquist on New Urbanism and Cleveland

Submitted by Sudhir Kade on Mon, 09/19/2005 - 10:33.

John Norquist at NEO Excellence Roundtable

A full house at the City Club of Cleveland enjoyed another excellent NeoExcellence presentation Thursday morning by John Norquist, former Milwaukee mayor, current President of the Congress of the New Urbanism, and author of The Wealth of Cities. Norquist heralded Cleveland for its ‘amazing urban form’ which represents tremendous opportunity for the creative infill and city-ward migration necessary to transform Cleveland into a development success story like Vancouver, British Columbia. Cleveland definitely has the potential to become a more vibrant, culturally active, pedestrian-friendly city. To make this vision a reality several challenges will need to be overcome, beginning with the overarching goal of reversing the suburban sprawl problem. This problem is indicative of an outward migration to outer ring suburbs that is further exacerbated by a lack of compensatory population growth.

Norquist drew parallels between Cleveland and Milwaukee, the city he managed as mayor for several years. Milwaukee, he explained, suffered industrial demise created by factory shutdowns between 1950 and 1970 that led to significant job loss. The city was able to recover, however, by building on its strong urban form and restructuring zoning laws to fight separate use zoning and support the existing urban fabric through mixed-use construction and creative infill. Another key to successful urban development highlighted is a streamlined building permit process with facilitates and expedites distribution to willing developers. This is contrary to prevailing opinion and traditional Cleveland behavior – which has been characterized by deliberate and frequent tax abatements and incentive distributions. Norquist challenged such behavior as legitimized bribery which only serves to display urban dysfunction. Such over-subsidization serves to overshadow the rest of the real estate market and diminish city income . Eliminating subsidization also serves to allow developers to control the entire building process and thus develop faster – the mayor and Alderman can be circumvented entirely this way to reduce red tape and facilitate progress.

Another necessary action Cleveland must pursue is expansion and enhancement of the public transit system – a development pattern that moves away from freeway construction. Norquist pointed to Buffalo as an exemplar of city demise as a result of failure to invest in urban development. He further commented that building highways results in the Detroit metropolitan area and despite popular opinion is not free of cost. Furthermore, there is a direct correlation between more transit and higher urban real estate values. ‘Urbanism is good for all people’, he added.

A lively question-and-answer session which followed the presentation drew comments from Norquist on some of the following issues:

  • Modernism is not a bad thing – but terminated vistas are needed and care must be taken to preserve and restore beautiful historic architecture.
  • Sustainability is intertwined with New Urbanist strategy and illustrated by improvements in lead abatement, alternative energy implementation, and parks conservation. A new sustainability metric has been created called ‘LEED-NU’ which certifies construction as both environmentally friendly and cognizant of traditional neighborhood development.
  • Biking: adds to the charm of a city so bike lane construction needs to be advocated (ODOT is an obstacle, and engineers not just planners) need to get the directives and information necessary to make a bike-friendly urban core a reality


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