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New Urbanism May Offer Some Answers For Region's Future

By Cecilia Peters, posted May 27, 2011

Wilmington’s political and business leaders are looking for ways to revitalize the local economy, and they believe they have found some potential solutions in the so-called New Urbanism movement and the concept of place-making.

The city recently hosted visits by two leaders of the New Urbanism movement, Richard Florida, author of  “The Rise of the Creative Class,” and John Norquist, CEO and president of the Congress for New Urbanism.

Florida spoke here in January and Norquist, a former Wisconsin state lawmaker and former mayor of Milwaukee, visited the city last week at the invitation of the Cape Fear Economic Development Council. Norquist toured the area and gave two addresses at the Hotel Tarrymore.

“Earlier this year Creative Class guru Richard Florida came to Wilmington and outlined a vision for how our region can attract the investment and workers needed to compete in the 21st century,” said Buddy Milliken, director of the CFEDC. “John Norquist's visit will build upon Florida's insights and help us identify concrete steps to achieving a sustainable regional economy.”

Wilmington has attractions that appeal to investors, but in the current economic climate, local economic leaders believe Florida and Norquist’s visits are vital to unifying regional residents in supporting healthy economic investments.

ilmington has been taking steps to harbor a community that welcomes these investors.

One step was made by the police force. A safe environment is necessary for sustainable economic investment, and the department has made significant efforts to police certain areas of the Central Business District, which extends from Third Street to the river and Castle Street to the Red Cross Building.

Violent crime in that area has dropped by 65% in just the past year, according to Barry Coburn, a planner and crime analyst with the Wilmington Police Department. He said the department has assigned specific units to smaller patrol areas where problems had been occurring frequently. “It’s been in place three or four months,” said Coburn.

Besides a safe environment, investors want a place that provides a unique experience. “People are looking for an interesting placeto be, you don’t have to be an intellectual or a college kid to know that,” said Norquist in a phone interview before his visit.

This is essentially the idea behind place-making: making the place you live more dynamic, accessible, and interesting. Sallie Smyth of Cape Fear Future, an organization that focuses on  work force and community development, describes it as making the place you live more “culturally diverse”.

Norquist said Wilmington has many of the elements a city needs to be attractive to new investors. “I’ve been to Wilmington and it has a great historic legacy and a downtown with some buildings that weren’t damaged much in the Civil War.”
He also had advice for the city, “Don’t paint the streets. All those arrows clutter the streets. You end up saving a lot of money by not painting them.” By not having them, Norquist pointed out that the downtown district can keep its historic appeal and avoid unnecessary projects.

With resources such as the river, ocean, and historic downtown district, the Cape Fear region already has more to offer than many other regions across the country, and Norquist emphasized this in his lectures. “His advice was simple: evaluate your assets, optimize your resources, and make the best of what you got under a budget that is realistic,” summarized Milliken.

The power of a united community is essential in making these goals possible. The community extends to counties that share the resources that make Wilmington unique.  Residents in Burgaw and even as far as Myrtle Beach came to listen to Norquist’s advice about building in the current economy.

Norquist said the recession is making it clear that the practices of urban sprawl, where housing is spread out far from a city’s core, is no longer tenable. To reduce the impact of the recession, communities should apply aspects of New Urbanism, which include walking-friendly neighborhoods, a centralized downtown, and attractive activities for people in that area to enjoy.

Many community leaders here support this view and are trying to make the necessary changes. Mayor Bill Saffo is one of them.

“At that end of the day, that’s what is going to enhance our economy,” the mayor said.

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