Home > Featured > Reflections from CNU 31 in Charlotte
People are gathered around picnic tables in a parking lot surrounded by artistically decorated shipping containers with tall buildings in the background.

In this post, CNU Wisconsin member Darrin Wasniewski reflects on his experience at CNU 31. Darrin also shared the photo.

The 2023 Strong Towns Gathering and CNU 31 were recently held in Charlotte, NC. I’m grateful to have attended both and it was my first for each. Charlotte, as a host city, was an interesting choice. First inhabited by the Catawba Tribe, it later became home to European settlers, as North Carolina was one of the original thirteen British colonies. I share this because Uptown (the city’s central business district) does not feel old or historic, although some elements remain.

My initial observations were that Charlotte, at least where I stayed, was very car centric. The conference hotel was nestled amongst some of the big names in U.S. banking and walking was continually interrupted by cars filing in and out of parking garages. Sidewalks in Uptown were wide and pedestrian friendly, but they were flanked by multilane, one-way streets, and many blank garage walls. A trip one of the city’s neighborhoods provided an opportunity to experience a less buttoned-up side. Transit options include both bus and light rail. I had the chance to walk Charlotte’s Rail Trail, a paved multi-use path that runs alongside the Blue Line light rail, on morning explorations. The path seemed well used by people walking and rolling and the trip was enhanced by various public art installations.

One of the things that I love most about conferences is meeting new people, and CNU 31 did not disappoint. I enjoyed connecting with people I’ve only interacted with virtually over the past few years, as well as content creators that I follow regularly. But a standout for me this trip was meeting Justin Laidlaw of Buddy Ruski. Justin is a journalist by training and turned his craft to multimedia production. He noticed that items affecting policy and planning in his hometown of Durham, NC, were not getting local print coverage, so he started a regular newsletter to highlight upcoming items or decisions made. An avid bicycle commuter, Justin knew first-hand how decisions made at council relating to transportation and land use impact the lives of people who walk or roll. In our conversation, Justin shared with me that he had no knowledge of planning or urban design before beginning the newsletter, so there was a learning curve. I most appreciated hearing how someone recognized the need and used their talents to in service of sound policy and planning.

Before attending, I was beginning to understand the importance of advocating for missing middle housing throughout Wisconsin. Spending a week in Charlotte strengthened my position tenfold. The sessions attended and conversations outside affirmed that addressing the missing middle not only helps to meet housing needs in communities, but also allows it to happen at a neighborhood scale, by locals—building local wealth in the process. A crucial part of advocacating for missing middle housing is fostering local, small developer ecosystems, which also include financers, accountants, attorneys, city staff and elected officials. Like any entrepreneur, small developers need a robust support system surrounding them to be successful. These ecosystems are as applicable in large metros as they are in our many rural communities.

I left Charlotte with pages of notes and new skills, I learned how to map out a 5-minute and 10-minute Ped Shed. I look forward to CNU 32 in Cincinnati.