With CNU’s mission unfulfilled, Mallory Baches takes co-leadership reins
Public Square editor Robert Steuteville interviewed CNU's incoming President, Mallory Baches, on her aspirations and expectations for the organization.
What in your background best prepares you for this position?
As a practitioner of the New Urbanism, the principles of the Charter have been the foundation of my practice across this country and abroad, since I began working as a young professional almost 25 years ago. But over the course of my career, I have worked with several nonprofits, served on nonprofit boards, and worked at CNU itself. And so, I feel a real comfort with the organization and its mission.
What other nonprofits have you been involved in?
I was one of the founders and eventually the President of Riverview Charter School in Beaufort, South Carolina, where I lived in the new urbanist community of Habersham for 16 years. The school is a 501(c)3, and that was a great learning experience. It involved implementing a mission and strategic plan in an industry that was new to me, and I had to learn how to integrate the wide range of federal and state policies that impacted our organization. As a start-up, it involved a good deal of fundraising and partnership building.
After that, I joined and later became President of the Association for Community Design (ACD), started by community design centers from across the country. There are a lot of architects associated with that group, and so it felt similar to CNU, and yet it introduced me to a body work that highlighted the importance of community-led design, and respect for the social structures that underpin the built environment. Most recently, I have been on the board of the PLACE Initiative, another start-up organization with a lot of passion and a clear alignment with CNU. Their tools respond to the equity and climate crises that we face across the country.
CNU is moving to a shared leadership model. What do you think of that, and what can urbanists expect from that?
This is an extraordinary opportunity for both Margaret and I to tap into the skills and talents that we brought to the organization previously but do so in a much more powerful and engaged way. I’ve had a long-time relationship with the new urbanist movement and individual practitioners and partner organizations. Margaret has an extensive background in nonprofit leadership and management, and she has an opportunity to elevate those experiences for the betterment of the organization. It also helps that we are great friends. The transition is something that is new for CNU, and so neither one of us goes into it in any lighthearted way, and yet we have an incredible working relationship already built in. We have a lot of confidence in taking on these individual roles and doing so in a way that may best serve CNU.
This kind of collaboration exemplifies new urbanist work. We are an organization of practitioners that, when confronted with a challenge, come together across disciplines and areas of expertise in a charrette to solve a problem or seek solutions. On a certain level, it is a very symbolic choice by the board, to take that successful model and apply it to the leadership of this organization. But it is also a move that responds to what we see in the broader public, which is that there is no silver bullet to the challenges we face. A collaborative response, a broad and intentional response, is what is needed—whether that involves community, design, or organizational leadership. CNU demands leadership that will serve as an international voice on the role of urbanism in improving people’s lives, and leadership that will run a successful organization providing direct impact to communities and to our membership—that requires work on multiple fronts.
How do you see the leadership role divided up between you two?
The directive from the Board is that I will take a very outward-facing role. I will be responsible for responding to the mandates within the Strategic Plan, and setting the strategy within the organization to fulfill them. And Margaret’s role will be more internal facing, focused on directing the programs and the operations of the organization. That means she will continue to direct the Congress, as she has done an incredible job overseeing that event in the past few years. She will also be able to focus on developing and implementing programmatic work that the organization must undertake to deliver on the strategic plan. At the same time, I will be working on developing partnerships, fundraising, and network building, to support that programmatic work and to elevate it to the national standing that CNU holds. We think of the leadership as intertwined. We will be talking to each other constantly to make it all work from the inside out and outside in.
What do you see as CNU’s top priorities both in the immediate future, and the long term?
The immediate priority is to continue the progress Rick Cole made in rebuilding the organization. Rick took over when CNU was still making a transition out of the pandemic. He has stabilized the organization and has been able to elevate it internally, with stronger systems and a more diverse staff, and a more holistic approach to programs and initiatives. He has also been able to elevate the role of CNU on the national stage and connect the organization with areas where major current progress is being made, from transportation and infrastructure funding, to equity in community development. He has done a great job of visiting the places where New Urbanism is being implemented and integrating that work back into the organization’s priorities and collaborations. That’s an outstanding foundation, and one that Margaret and I are going to be able to build on.
The Chapters are doing important work organizing at the regional and local level. Rick has done a great job of reconnecting the national organization with the Chapters and finding ways to strengthen those relationships. I intend to pick up where Rick left off in connecting the movement and with the broader national landscape. The strategic plan reinforces that walkable, livable communities inclusive of all members of society are a central solution to the impacts that the changing climate will have on the economy, the environment, social life, and culture. In the longer term, we have work to do in determining how best to advocate for and develop tools, educational resources, and technical assistance to facilitate the ways that communities must change to respond to the compounding crises.
In a recent conversation with Stefanos Polyzoides, founder of CNU, who has had an incredible legacy of design and impact, it struck me that he has maintained such a sense of urgency—despite the fact that New Urbanism has achieved so much. We will all be gathering for CNU 31 in June. That’s 30 previous times that we have gathered as a movement to affect change. In hearing Stefanos’s urgency, I was reminded that we cannot forget that this movement established a set of principles that we are all still working towards. The broader context, and our understanding of the implications, has evolved, but those principles have not yet been fully realized. Within the context of a planet that is in crisis, with pervasive economic disparity and racial inequality, and with sprawl continuing apace, the challenge is still as urgent as it was in Alexandria (in 1993, at the first Congress). And we can’t forget that.
As a movement, we have done a great deal of good, but the work continues. That’s how I want to set the tone. It’s not a failure to look back, but an appreciation that with our past successes, we can and we absolutely must continue to build.
What are you looking forward to most?
I am looking forward to coming back home. Back to an organization that I value the people and the work of so strongly. But I as I engage with existing partners, I also look forward to finding new partners to share this work. The platform of President gives me an opportunity to make those connections. I am indebted to all of the work that has gone into CNU, both as a movement and as an organization, leading up to this opportunity—and yet I am excited to find the new avenues and new relationships that this organization can make to help fulfill its mission.