Harvard Business Review Says: Get Ahead of "Major Cultural and Demographic Shift Away From Sprawl"

Report cites CNU 18 as knowledge source for navigating important transition

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The latest issue of the Harvard Business Review has some advice and analysis that may make a few companies rethink upcoming moves to office parks where employees are assured plenty of parking spaces but may find nearby lunch options begin and end with the vending machine court.

An article in the May issue of the authoritative business periodical spotlights forward-thinking companies moving headquarters into city centers, including United Air Lines in Chicago and Quicken Loans in Detroit. “These companies are getting a jump on a major cultural and demographic shift away from suburban sprawl,” writes assistant editor Ania Wieckowski. “Businesses that don’t understand and plan for it may suffer in the long run.”

In accounting for the emergence and growing strength of this trend, the report cites a number of business and quality of life imperatives: awareness of the economic costs and inefficiencies of gas-dependent patterns, the negative health impacts of sprawl, the distinct needs of growing cohorts of singles and empty-nest baby boomers, and a consumer/employment culture that increasingly values local connections and shared experiences.

And HBR astutely recognizes (what else would you expect us to say?) the role of the Congress for the New Urbanism and its annual conference — CNU 18 which kicks off in Atlanta May 19th — in expertly navigating these waters. Writes Wieckowski:

Solving problems like these is on the Congress for the New Urbanism’s agenda as the group holds its conference this month in Atlanta, fittingly cosponsored by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. As the CNU’s charter explains, proponents of New Urbanism, an architecture and design movement, advocate for “neighborhoods...diverse in use and population” and “communities...designed for the pedestrian and [public] transit as well as the car.

Max Reim, principal of Montreal-based Live Work Learn Play and a participant in a CNU 18 202 seminar on enlivening "the mixed-use heart" of urbanist places, tells Wieckowski how new urban environments bring home, work and "third places" such as coffee shops and other gathering spots into close proximity "with plenty of room for pedestrians and bikes. Houses are on the same streets (often in the same buildings) as shops; trains and parks are within walking distance from home."

In compact, walkable centers, “many of the benefits of costly national branding go away, while the benefits of passion and a close connection to the customer emerge,” reports Peter Katz, former CNU executive director and the head planner for Sarasota County, Florida.

As evidence of the health advantages of walkable urban neighborhoods — a major topic of the upcoming Congress in Atlanta, with its subtitle "New Urbanism: Rx for Healthy Places" — HBR cites new research from Preventive Medicine that concludes people living in more urban communities benefit because they tend to walk more. Studies from 2003 in the the American Journal of Public Health and the American Journal of Health Promotion are cited for linking sprawl to rising obesity rates. A sidebar to the article details some of the deleterious environmental and public-health impacts of cul-de-sac pattern development.

The HBR’s ultimate point, though, is profitability. Locating businesses in central cities makes the cities more vibrant and their regions more competitive, attracts stronger talent and enhances employee satisfaction – while cutting both direct business costs and taxes required to offset negative effects of sprawl.

"In many ways, New Urbanism and the trends it captures are part of broader recent changes businesses already accept: the shift to an experience economy, consumers’ and employees’ demands for greater corporate social responsibility, an emphasis on work/life balance, and the importance of interaction between companies and their customers," concludes Wieckowski. "The demographic aspect is simply the newest part of an ongoing conversation. Companies that recognize the larger trend, however, and seize the opportunities that it presents will contribute to its social impact—and may gain a competitive advantage in the process."