© Jessica Milligan Photography

Twenty years after the Congress for the New Urbanism’s founding, Duany Plater-Zyberk + Co.’s Charlotte, N.C.–based partner, Thomas E. Low, AIA, believes water should exist at the center of community planning and design. For Low, water, once the domain of infrastructure, can—and should—guide building anew and conserving the local ecology. As a certified planner and a member of the American Society of Landscape Architects, he also would like to see ecology evolve on multiple fronts. Sustainability, after all, is everyone’s business.

I guess I’m a generalist—I find that I can do a better job that way. And, of course, LEED certification came along, as did some great opportunities to weave ecological issues into the placemaking initiatives. I’ve become really interested in landscape urbanism as a result. CNU’s principles are reference points. Walkability and compactness, connectivity, access to daily needs, mixed-use, broad choice of housing—these have gone from being an avant-garde proposition to becoming more mainstream. The big challenge for CNU is implementation in tough times. The economy impacted everyone, including me. Our work has really dropped off in North America. But we have created the tools and now it’s a matter of putting them out there—calibrating the right tools for the right places.

Both Miami and Denver have adopted form-based code and, so, we’re changing the DNA for how cities can be planned and developed: less expensive, smarter growth. But engineering is very expensive, and it’s also an area for improvement. To address this I launched the initiative “Light Imprint”—a framework for integrating ecology with community design. It’s also about being intrinsically green—and in doing so, we can typically save around a third of the infrastructure costs.

There are two big challenges ahead: No. 1 is getting the word out about Light Imprint as a viable methodology for helping the significant number of civic leaders and landscape urbanists in their ecological-based design practice to become better at place-based design. The other side is to encourage New Urbanists to better understand stormwater management and infrastructure (which they had passed along to the engineers for years), and to be more proactive.

I think the current planning and design work we’re doing is spectacular—and our projects are positively affected by things like natural drainage. Once people have a better understanding of the connection between community form and ecological concerns, it will be easier to jump-start the conversation on infrastructure as a design asset, rather than treating it as an afterthought.