Community Development Field

Meeting the Mission: A Fresh Set of Eyes

The National Housing Institute (publisher of Shelterforce) describes itself as “dedicated to fostering decent affordable housing and a vibrant community for everyone.”  This fall, I charged 46 freshmen, sophomores, juniors, and […]

The National Housing Institute (publisher of Shelterforce) describes itself as “dedicated to fostering decent affordable housing and a vibrant community for everyone.”  This fall, I charged 46 freshmen, sophomores, juniors, and seniors at the University of Wisconsin–Milwaukee (UWM) about the three steps they would apply as senior planner of an American community to meet that mission.

This group of undergraduate students rose to the challenge, recommending actions from creating local boards for community engagement to improving the aesthetic around urban interstate corridors.
URBPLAN 140, or Issues in Contemporary Urban Planning, serves dually as the introductory course to the Urban Planning Certificate program and as a Social Science General Education Requirement at UWM.  Students enroll in the course for a variety of reasons, yet many speak annually of their desire to pursue city planning or urban revitalization as a profession.  Some have taken an urban planning course before, while others have never heard of the field.  I wanted to share the cumulative responses with the Shelterforce community.  In several instances, students had parallel suggestions reflected in the additional tallies after each recommendation.

While I have made it fairly evident in my Shelterforce writing that I am impassioned about repurposing existing buildings, I have largely withheld this fervor in lectures.  Yet a recurring theme emerged in student recommendations: to foster decent affordable housing and vibrant communities for everyone, we must renovate and retrofit our existing buildings.  Retrofitting should focus on energy efficiency and, when for residential use, buildings should be designed for mixed-income occupants.

I’ll let the rest of their recommendations do the talking.

Top Recommendations

  •  Renovate and retrofit existing homes and businesses (+7)
  • Institute [low-rise] mixed-income communities with multi-use buildings (+6)
  • Infill with new affordable developments (+5)
  • Improve existing parks & open space (+5)
  • Create further incentives (e.g. extending the life of NSP, tax abatements) for owners and developers to purchase, rehab, and maintain affordable homes (+4)
  • Build and maintain additional bike lanes, paths, and sidewalks (+4)
  • Solve racial and economic disparities through multi-county regional transit (+3)
  • Work with nonprofit organizations/community centers, not just government, to improve, educate, and develop the community (+3)
  • Establish community gardens (+3)
  • Create and designate a Board or appropriate entities in each community to encourage engagement and address the pressing issue of affordable housing (+3)
  • Enhance existing infrastructure (roadways and sewers) and reconnect street grids (+3)
  • Create open space linkages in and between communities (+3)
  • Construct and maintain high-quality public transportation systems (i.e. bus, streetcar) (+2)
  • Use neighborhood development to promote growth by instilling community pride and encouraging self-sustainability (+2)
  • Ensure businesses are within walking distance of housing (+2)
  • Improve the country’s waterways and waterfronts; complement with shoreline housing and open space (+2)
  • Design a public input system that funnels all suggestions for improvement and educates the community about what municipalities are doing(+2)


Other Socioeconomic Considerations

  • Ensure each neighborhood connects to another, and that each serves a specific function in the broader community (+1)
  • Modify rent assistance programs to be more accessible and inclusive, or cap rents across the board (+1)
  • Organize neighborhood cleanups (+1)
  • Establish social programs that enhance community identity
  • Stop needless foreclosure (foreclosure prevention)
  • Mix the demographics of neighborhoods to increase property value and reduce crime
  • Require training programs for prospective residents of affordable housing on expectations
  • Disperse benefits to low-income families such as discounted transportation fees, etc.
  • Utilize university culture to connect and enhance communities
  • Utilize the arts scene to mix the strata of society and enhance pride of place

Other Infrastructure Considerations

  • Utilize the “Complete Streets” concept to improve communities (+1)
  • Install public wi-fi

Other Development Considerations

  • Convert large units to multi-family residential buildings to increase density and promote family living (+1)
  • Make energy- and resource- efficient housing through rooftop gardens, rain barrels, compost bins, etc. (increasing affordability) (+1)
  • Implement effective zoning and land-use controls to achieve affordable housing (+1)
  • Designate and develop one to two large parks (100 acres or more) in each community
  • Develop and improve the aesthetic around interstate corridors
  • Focus on compact development to reduce costs and make sale prices more attainable
  • Drastically reduce living space to allow for lower construction expenses, higher energy efficiency, lower property taxes, and lower maintenance and repair costs

Other Aesthetic Considerations

  • Use urban design and landscape architecture to make communities aesthetically pleasing (+1)
  • Infill with high-quality, designed open space
  • Employ simple principles of maintenance to reflect the care our communities deserve
  • Host local design competitions to spur community input on decisions
  • Enact better-suited efforts with regard to sustainability, i.e. renewable energy

Other Economic Considerations

  • Funnel a greater amount of capital to inner city communities (+1)
  • Analyze/research a particular geography before allocating dollars to solve affordable housing and community issues (+1)
  • Ensure cost effectiveness with renovation or demolition of blighted properties
  • Create a private fund designated for community improvement
  • Spur community benefit districts (CBDs) to keep funds in the community

I want to thank students at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, and our teaching assistants, for rising to the challenge.


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