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People are naturally suspicious of change, so they need a story or explanation of why walkable neighborhoods and centers will make their communities and lives better. Communities need both private life and public life, and mixed-use neighborhoods provide both. “Drive-only” development patterns offer privacy and seclusion, but little street life and sense of community. The latter approach may have made sense in the 1950s when people were looking to escape from industrial cities, but not today when growing numbers of people are seeking the authenticity of complete communities.
The narratives of New Urbanism often reference history, such as: Walkable neighborhoods were used for millennia, but in the middle of the 20th Century zoning codes made them illegal. Top-down investments were made in suburban roads. Cities lost population. In the last two decades, traditional neighborhoods have made a huge comeback—prompting officials to revisit their codes and street standards. The history may be implicit or explicit. Either way, it is usually best to keep it short. Yet it may help answer basic questions, such as "Why does my neighborhood look the way it does?" and "Why should we change policies that were established 30 or 40 years ago?"
The listener may need a gateway to the discussion, and that’s where the term "Missing Middle" is effective. Missing Middle offers a way to talk about providing walkable urban housing without increasing the height and perceived density of a city, suburb, or town. "I think missing middle housing has really caught on because it's a way for people to talk about how to keep their neighborhoods and make them better," says Karen Parolek, principle of Opticos Design, the firm that coined the phrase.
Without overwhelming the audience in detail, give a sense that solid theory, observation, and/or research back up what you are saying. That goal could be accomplished by telling the listener what they intuitively know, but haven’t thought about thoroughly. They know that walkable neighborhoods are often desirable, unique in character, and have stood the test of time. You can fill in the blanks for the audience as to why this is true.
For some audiences, particularly elected and other public officials, highlighting economic benefits is helpful. When you do the math, the advantages of mixed-use urbanism are obvious, says Joe Minicozzi, who uses economic data to visualize the impact of policy on community design. The advantages to people in terms of health, safety, and welfare are also paramount. For example, an $11.5 million redo of a main street in Lancaster, California, generated $282 million in economic activity and cut injury crashes in half.
Brilliant communicators of the New Urbanism know how to get beyond rational arguments to the emotions that motivate people. Former mayor Joe Riley, who held office in Charleston, South Carolina, for 40 years, could lay claim to being the most successful urbanist politician in modern US history. While Riley pays attention to the smallest urban details, his message focuses on opportunity and on letting everyone know that he cares about them. He's a master storyteller who makes the audience feel how the built environment helps or hurts specific individuals.
For Mayor Riley or the rest of us, communicating the New Urbanism can’t be reduced to a formula—it is as personal as the speaker and the audience. Walkable neighborhoods have been around long before anyone living today was born, and they will be here long after we are gone. We can help people to understand how this form matters by reaching out with language that is clear and focused on what is important to the audience.