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Katherine Perez: Latino New Urbanism

 Katherine Perez is pioneering Latino New Urbanism, an emerging approach to development that responds to Latinos’ lifestyle patterns and cultural preferences for walkable, mixed-use communities.

Perez is a professional planner and executive director of the Transportation and Land Use Collaborative of Southern California (TLUC), parent organization of the Latino New Urbanism Project. She has been an advocate for Latino New Urbanism since 2003. In this interview with the Active Living Network, Perez explores the movement’s origins, examples of change and why we should promote a healthier vision of the American Dream.

Latino New Urbanism (LNU) responds to the growing Latino market

“I had been given a 112-page thesis written by Michael Mendez, an MIT student. Mike did the analysis to show the relationship between Latino culture and New Urbanism. I knew this relationship existed—he just justified it for me. I wondered, ‘Why isn’t this happening?’ Latinos are a big part of the market, and, in some areas, they are the main market. I thought, I have to organize around this idea. I put together a steering committee, organized a conference, set up the Latino New Urbanism Project website—and it has grown from there.”

Scrapping the “one size fits all” concept in urban development

“I don’t accept one-size-fits-all development. Urban communities are made up of lots of minorities, but I focus on Latinos because I am Latina and know that group the best. My effort is to have development recognize demographic shifts and changes in circulation and lifestyle patterns. LNU is the program we’ve created to respond to these issues.

For example, Latinos embed their seniors—they don’t put them in assisted living centers. But there is no housing being built in response to these changing needs. Sometimes people say, ‘Oh, LNU means that it has Spanish tile roof, adobe walls and a fountain in front.’ And I say, ‘Well, that’s only one segment.’ LNU is more about responding to changing, evolving needs.”

Fighting sprawl and preserving Latino settlement traditions

“There is this thing called Latino sprawl—suburban and exurban areas where Latinos are able to find housing they can afford. These places require people to have a car they can barely afford, spread people out and pull people away from each other. The shorter amount of time you’ve been here in the states, the more inclined you are to use transit; the more inclined you are to live in a dense setting. So what we are trying to say is, if you are new to this country, don’t lose those habits and traditions because they are important for your own health and livelihood. But the way we have designed our new affordable housing communities sends absolutely the opposite message.”

The built environment contributes to deteriorating Latino health

“We [Latinos] are getting fatter, we’re getting sicker and we are dying earlier. Children that are overweight have unhealthy behaviors and habits that get ingrained—they are in environments that don’t lend themselves to walking, and there’s not a lot of parental supervision to grab a football and run out in the park. The kids stay at home and they watch TV and play video games. It’s a systemic thing.

I want people to look at urban patterns as they relate to health. For example, many Latinos are forced into suburbs that don’t have the amenities to promote physical activities. In urban areas, it is often too unsafe to walk or there are not enough parks. I want to begin a process of engagement [around the notion] that what’s built on the ground leads to unhealthy communities.”

Creating a healthier version of the American dream

I think the healthy communities group needs to understand that the problem of the Latino community right now is that a fair number of them have given into the notion of what it means to have the ‘American dream.’ Telling Latinos, ‘That’s not your only choice and that’s not affordable to everybody,’ is a hard sell. The Active Living group needs to get together with planners, cities, and developers and say, ‘How do we create alternatives that are more desirable than a single family house in a cul-de-sac with a three-car garage?’”

Two cities incorporate Latino needs in redevelopment

“Santa Ana and National City, [California]—these cities have embraced the Latino dynamic in their communities, but they’ve embraced it in a way that responds to the market. For example, the city of Santa Ana re-did their downtown and it is 80 percent ethnic retail—boutiques, panaderias [bakeries], markets, Ritmo Latino, a Latin music store chain. It also has a Starbucks and a Jamba Juice. They’ve got enough beyond ethnic retail to allow different market segments to enjoy it and feel welcome. Also, it doesn’t say to the Latino community, ‘Starbucks is not for you.’ As people are here [in the U.S.] longer, they begin to change their taste about where they like to shop, where they like to relax and enjoy themselves.

National City is a city that is updating its downtown-specific plan, and updating it in a way that addresses the Latino population and also looks at changing housing needs. It is a predominately Latino community, so [National City leaders] are looking at how that manifests in what is built in particular, how it is built, where it is built. I’m fascinated by how these cities have reconstituted their attitudes about housing and retail to address the changing demographics.”

Local officials and educators are the real leaders of LNU

“The leaders of this movement are really local officials and educators. They may or may not be aware of LNU but are looking for development alternatives for their community.

I think Henry Cisneros, the former mayor of the City of San Antonio and the former secretary of HUD [Housing and Urban Development] under the Clinton administration, has also been very helpful. He is now a developer and has created a development group called American City Vista. Henry has transformed people’s attitudes—particularly investors—about building in minority cities. He’s been very much participating in our conferences from day one, so he’s helped frame these things.”

LNU Project pushes the development community to think differently

“What we are trying to do is force the questions to leaders, policymakers, elected officials, planners, developers and architects. It is up to each local community to take up the responsibility of teaching its residents about these issues. We are a resource for them and we have relationships around the country that we can bring to them, but I can’t go into the city of Santa Ana and say to residents, ‘Okay, you guys need to start doing…’ That doesn’t mean anything. If you have the church leaders, principals and the mayor saying this, it’s much more meaningful.”

The Latino New Urbanism Project includes presentations, training for elected officials, case studies, a publications program and an annual conference. To find out more about the Latino New Urbanism project and upcoming activities, visit

Katherine Perez on Latino New Urbanism, examples of change and why we should promote a healthier vision of the American Dream
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