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  THE TOWN PAPER
VOL. 4, NO. 3 -- FALL 2002
 

Laurie Volk Brings the New Urbanism Option to the Table

Laurie Volk says she is a "fervent believer" in the new urbanism. It is, she says, "what absolutely must be done to create a sense of place."

Laurie Volk is also a nationally recognized market researcher and expert on the new urbanism and -- along with her partner, Todd Zimmerman -- Volk is at the helm of the respected and sought-after marketing strategy firm, Zimmerman/Volk Associates, based in Clinton, N.J.

To be successful, new urbanist developers must know how deep a new urbanist market is in a given place before they move on the project, she says. "Our reputation is based on our ability to determine the most appropriate market position for new urbanist communities."

Since founding her company in 1988, her clients have included municipalities, developers, builders and others who may be considering or who are actively pursuing creation of a new urbanist community -- whether in previously undeveloped land or in suburban/urban redevelopment and infill projects.

Working with cities is Volk's strongest interest, and when she works with these clients on urban and infill projects she begins with two recommendations. First, keep the households that are already there. Meet the changing needs of specific population segments - for example, the aging population - for housing. Second, attract new households, including people moving in and those in new household formations. New households emerge from divorces, result when an adult child leaves home, and come out of other things as well. Based on her research, when it comes to urban neighborhoods, Volk tells clients to "forget about full nesters." Instead, focus on much more likely markets: young singles, couples and retirees.

According to Volk, it is time for new urbanist principles to be incorporated in a significant way in the national development and redevelopment markets. She believes people ought to have the choice of living in sustainable, new urbanist communities. Cities need the information to assist the kind of downtown redevelopment that will attract financing and repopulate urban centers, and that is what Zimerman/Volk supplies to them.

However, while the new homes housing market is booming, Volk says that only a very small percentage of new housing developments are new urbanist. Similarly, not all infill and redevelopment projects in existing communities incorporate the new urbanist principles. By applying Zimmerman/Volks unique, specially-developed and highly-detailed analysis of demographic, market and lifestyle trends in her analysis, Volk is able to help her clients undertake new urbanist projects that will succeed in bringing new residents and a sustainable economy to an area.

Volk strives in her work to put the new urbanist option on the table by helping her clients understand the market for new urbanist neighborhoods. She helps lower the financial risk to her clients who undertake new urbanist developments by helping them target the proper household types and giving them detailed information about where such development has succeeded in the past and the reasons it did so.

In one presentation, Volk said, "There is a widespread misunderstanding that [the types of] new houses in most markets [are responsive] to consumer desires." Volk says it is time householders had choices that better meet their needs.

Volk maintains that in housing and other development, it is difficult to get builders and developers to try "new" things. "Publicly-traded homebuilders are the most conservative, product-oriented of suppliers."

She describes a wrong-headed sort of "If it ain't broke, don't fix it," mentality among many builders and developers. "One public builder commissioned no fewer than six focus groups to look at the potential for detached garages and got uniformly positive results," said Volk. And yet, at the time of her statement, she said the company still had not offered detached garages, instead opting to stick with what was "currently succeeding in the marketplace."

Volk runs the market studies arm of Zimmerman/Volk. In her studies she uses "Claritas Prizm" - a lifestyle segmentation and analysis system developed by the large, national research firm, Claritas, Inc. - which she has adapted to meet the special needs of her clients. With changing trends and population, Volk is constantly updating her methodology.

"Our methodology is very flexible," she explains. "We've worked for a number of cities to determine the depth and breadth of the downtown housing [market]. We have target market methodology; we use geodemographics to categorize households and group them according to like preferences."

She said their information comes from a range of sources - from demographic data to surveys. They break households down to 62 groups. "We get a great picture of everything from the number of households headed by single parents, to the number of households who buy ground coffee beans versus the number who buy whole," Volk explains with a mischievous sort of smile.

"We are interested in learning who is moving in [to cities], in [identifying] areas people could be drawn from, which groups are likely to move." With research like hers, Volk says, municipalities stand a much better chance of winning financing for a downtown project."

Volk particularly enjoys her work with urban municipalities.

"I love what I do," she says.

She fell in love with cities the very first time her parents took her from their New Jersey farm to New York City. "I was 6 years old and we went to Radio City Music Hall for my birthday," she recalls. "I looked around and I said, 'This is the greatest place I have ever seen.'"

Prior to launching Zimmerman/Volk, Laurie Volk learned to see with a finely focused gaze and to hear with a finely tuned ear by working for many years as a New York reporter for both the London Times and the London Sunday Times. She also worked as a freelance reporter. As an adult, Volk lived at one time or other in "nearly every neighborhood in Manhattan."

"I've never lived in a suburb," she says. "It's just not for me."

Although usually greatly outnumbered by men in her professional life (developers and builders tend to be men, for example), Volk says she never hesitates to let her colleagues in on her views.

"I cannot keep my mouth shut," she says serenely smiling once again. "I don't care if they throw me out."

With the contributions she makes, Volk, "the absolute, fervent believer in the new urbanism" never needs to worry about being thrown out.

For more information about Zimmerman/Volk Associates, visit its website: www.zva.cc. Telephone them in Clinton, N.J. at: 908.735.6336.