The Strong Towns Podcast
Expertise Is Not Absolute

Expertise Is Not Absolute

June 21, 2021

How far should we go in trusting experts? That's the question that Strong Towns President Chuck Marohn tackles this week on the Strong Towns Podcast. By taking a trip through the past to the present, Chuck looks at various events in recent history—from 9/11 and the Iraq War to the origins of the COVID-19 pandemic—to see what they can teach us about blindly trusting in "absolute" expertise.

It's a question that plays a central role in Chuck's new book, Confessions of a Recovering Engineer, which is available for preorder and will be coming out on September 8. In the book, Chuck systematically disassembles all of the things that engineers have gotten wrong over the years, and all the faulty, costly, dangerous standards they have embedded into the profession, as a result. In spite of these issues and in spite of the need for reform, the word of engineers is treated as nearly infallible. They are, after all, the experts.

That's not to say that there is no place for experts in society. If you're going to build a bridge, then of course you want engineers. However, what Chuck explores in this episode is the type of expert we need: not those who see their knowledge as so absolute as to be unquestionable, but rather, experts who are aware of the limitations of their own knowledge.

Additional Show Notes

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Jason Slaughter: The Goal Isn’t to Build a Cycling City

Jason Slaughter: The Goal Isn’t to Build a Cycling City

June 7, 2021

Jason Slaughter is the creator of Not Just Bikes, a fast-growing YouTube channel about urban planning and urban life. Based in Amsterdam, he often makes videos about why city living in The Netherlands is so good...including the bikes, but not just the bikes. Yet Slaughter grew up in London, Ontario, and many of his most-watched videos feature trenchant analyses of the North American suburban development pattern. He’s also creating a popular series (with five installments so far) on core Strong Towns themes.

We’re excited to welcome Jason Slaughter as this week’s guest on the Strong Towns Podcast. In this episode, Slaughter tells Strong Towns president Chuck Marohn the story of how a half-mile, death-defying walk along a Houston stroad changed everything for him. They talk about why Amsterdam’s renown for its bikeability and bike culture wasn’t an inevitability, and what other cities—from Brussels to Brainerd—can learn from Amsterdam’s example. They also discuss Amsterdam’s safe streets movement, why Slaughter has been surprised by his channel’s growing (and shifting) popularity, and why building a biking city shouldn’t be the goal.

This is Member Week at Strong Towns. If you think this message is important and want to see it reach more people, support the movement. Become a member of Strong Towns. Help us grow the movement by becoming a member today.

Additional Show Notes

Listen to the Briefing About the Strong Towns Lawsuit

Listen to the Briefing About the Strong Towns Lawsuit

June 1, 2021

Last week, we announced that Strong Towns has filed a lawsuit against the Minnesota Board of Engineering Licensure in federal district court. For more information about the case, its background, and anything that we're doing in relation to it, check out the landing page we've made where you can read the full complaint and get some additional context on our reform efforts.

On Thursday, we held a briefing to chat about the lawsuit with our supporters. As guest speakers, the briefing features a member of the legal team, William Mohrman, along with Strong Towns board member John Reuter and Strong Towns member and Mayor Pro Tem of Costa Mesa, California, Andrea Marr—an engineer who has faced similar issues in the past with her local board. Strong Towns Founder and President Charles Marohn was also there to present some of the details of the case and answer questions from attendees.

We believe that you should have access to all the details about Strong Towns' efforts to protect the right to call for essential reforms within the engineering profession. If you weren't able to make it to the briefing, you can still listen to everything we discussed via this week's episode of the Strong Towns Podcast, in which we've included the full recording from our discussion on Thursday.

Additional Show Notes:

Strong Towns Has Filed a Lawsuit Against the Minnesota Board of Engineering Licensure in Federal District Court

Strong Towns Has Filed a Lawsuit Against the Minnesota Board of Engineering Licensure in Federal District Court

May 24, 2021

A small group of professional engineers are using the licensing process to stifle calls for reform and retaliate against Strong Towns for its advocacy.

The Strong Towns organization advocates for reforming the way we build our cities, especially the approach that many professional engineers take with transportation and infrastructure systems. Our critiques of engineers include our video “Conversation with an Engineer,” our many statements on the way engineering organizations advocate for state and federal funding, and our assertion that engineers are often grossly negligent in their street designs when it comes to their treatment of people walking and biking. 

This September, Wiley & Sons will publish Confessions of a Recovering Engineer: A Strong Towns Approach to Transportation, a book written by Charles Marohn that is deeply critical of the standard approach to transportation used by many American engineers. 

While there are a growing number of engineers that support the kind of reforms Strong Towns advocates for, there are some who do not want this message to be heard. These entrenched engineers often attack reformers — sometimes in very personal ways — to create a high cost for anyone who dares speak out about current practices.

Now, for the second time, a professional engineer has filed a complaint with the state licensing board alleging that the writing, speaking, and advocacy for reform of Charles Marohn—the founder and president of Strong Towns—constitutes a violation of Minnesota law.

The first time this happened, the licensing board dismissed the complaint. This time, board members are actively participating in the attempt to slander Marohn and the Strong Towns movement.

To halt this injustice and protect the right of licensed engineers to speak freely in public forums, Strong Towns has filed a complaint in federal district court against the Minnesota Board of Architecture, Engineering, Land Surveying, Landscape Architecture, Geoscience, and Interior Design (commonly called the Board of Licensure) and the individual members of the Board that are participating in this action.

The complaint holds that the Board of Licensure, and these individual members, have violated Marohn’s First Amendment right to free speech and that their enforcement action is an unlawful retaliation against Marohn and Strong Towns for their protected speech.

A copy of the complaint is available at www.strongtowns.org/SupportReform.

“I am saddened that Strong Towns has been forced to take this action,” said Marohn from his office in Brainerd, Minnesota. “I believe that engineers need to be licensed, but engineers also need to be able to speak their conscience without having their license and their livelihood threatened. The Board’s actions are an injustice to all Minnesotans and, if left unchallenged, will have a chilling effect on speech within the engineering profession.”

Ann Sussman and Justin Hollander: Architecture and the Unconscious Mind

Ann Sussman and Justin Hollander: Architecture and the Unconscious Mind

May 3, 2021

How much conscious thought goes into our reactions to a place? It might be less than you think. The more we come to understand the human brain, the more we see how much the unconscious mind, and our need to socialize in particular, influences us. And by extension, it influences our architecture. Our capacity for recognizing human faces, for example, has subtly shaped many traditional styles of buildings. (You might even be picturing it now: the windows as "eyes," the door as a "mouth.")

This is an aspect of neuropsychology that other industries readily acknowledge. Your brain is drawn to, and can process, a face far faster than writing and other symbols. Advertisers use this to their advantage to get people's attention and make them feel comfortable...so why don't modern architects heed this aspect of human nature? And as architecture moves further away from its stylistic roots, what are the consequences for us, on a psychological level?

This week on the Strong Towns Podcast, Strong Towns president Charles Marohn is joined by Justin Hollander, professor of Urban Environment Policy and Planning at Tufts University, and returning guest Ann Sussman, a registered architect, researcher, and college instructor. Hollander and Sussman have worked together on several books that look at architecture through the lens of human biology and neuroscience: Cognitive Architecture: Designing for How We Respond to the Built Environment and, more recently, Urban Experience and Design: Contemporary Perspectives on Improving the Public Realm.

They discuss what makes human beings and the dwellings we build so remarkable, and why the evolutionary perspective must be considered if we want to make our places better for us—on both the conscious and the subconscious level.

Additional Show Notes:

Alex Alsup: Keeping People in Their Homes in Detroit

Alex Alsup: Keeping People in Their Homes in Detroit

April 26, 2021

When it comes to housing, Detroit's struggles could be seen as a portent of things to come for other parts of America. Over the past fifteen years, one in three properties in the city have entered into tax foreclosure auctions, with speculators "milking" foreclosed homes for however much money they can get in the short-term, all while letting the property deteriorate. Meanwhile, residents of the home (either the owners themselves or renters) face the possibility of eviction.

The ultimate cost for the city in dealing with these poorly maintained homes—not to mention losing population, homeownership, and tax generation potential—comes out to more than if property taxes had simply not been collected from the homeowners. "If the economics are what you want, you cannot say that there is not a far better economic equation to keep people in their homes and collect zero dollars in property taxes for them," says Alex Alsup, director of the Detroit-based Rocket Community Fund, "Preserve those properties, preserve that tax base. It's clearly a far better option."

This week on the Strong Towns Podcast, Alsup talks with Strong Towns president Chuck Marohn about Detroit's past and present in regard to housing. Alsup is the director of housing stability at the Rocket Community Fund, an organization that is working to keep people in their homes in Detroit by helping them to navigate issues like completing exemption applications, or, in the case of tenants, assuming ownership if foreclosure proceeds on the property they're occupying. It's work that other communities in the country should be paying attention to. After all, as former Detroit mayor Coleman Young put it, "Detroit today has always been your town tomorrow."

Dr. Samuel Hughes: A Proposal for Strong Suburbs

Dr. Samuel Hughes: A Proposal for Strong Suburbs

April 19, 2021

Here at Strong Towns we often talk about cities and towns in North America, but what about our friends across the pond? While cities in the UK may not be facing exactly the same kind of infrastructure crisis as ours, they were similarly impacted by new development patterns after WWII. Namely, the UK implemented planning systems (not wholly unlike zoning in the US) that have, decades down the line, now led to a housing crisis.

"The thing that people sometimes say about our [system] is that we've only half of a planning system," says Dr. Samuel Hughes of Policy Exchange, the UK's leading think tank, "We've ended up with the part that's about restriction." These systems have made it very difficult for existing suburban areas to intensify, but at the same time, green belts imposed around cities constrict their ability to expand. The result is a major housing shortage, with the cost of living in places like London increasingly becoming out of reach for many people.

Dr. Samuel Hughes, a senior fellow at Policy Exchange and research fellow at the University of Oxford, has (along with colleague Ben Southwood) put together a report for how the UK could tackle this situation. Its title? “Strong Suburbs: Enabling streets to control their own development.” As you might guess, Strong Towns had an impact on their approach, which proposes that residents of a street should be empowered to govern its intensification. Even without coercing people to participate, Policy Exchange has found is that their approach could change streets from a low-density to a middle-density character within a period of only 10-20 years. In other words, the number of available homes could increase severalfold.

On this episode of The Strong Towns Podcast, Dr. Hughes speaks with Strong Towns president Chuck Marohn about this potential solution to the UK's housing shortage. They discuss the details of Policy Exchange’s proposal, and how the Strong Towns conversation aligned with their approach while developing it.

Michael Odiari: Putting a Check on Deadly Traffic Stops

Michael Odiari: Putting a Check on Deadly Traffic Stops

April 12, 2021

Please note: This episode of The Strong Towns Podcast was recorded and scheduled for publication last week, prior to the recent shooting of Duante Wright.

 

“Have you ever had a stare at death?” Michael Odiari has. So have many others who have been pulled over for would-be routine traffic violations. What should be standard procedure too frequently turns into a deadly interaction between police officers and motorists—the latter group being disproportionately composed of African-American males. “It’s scary to be a Black man in America,” Odiari says, having himself looked down the barrel of an officer’s weapon at the age of 17, when he was pulled over for a missing front license plate.

And it’s not only drivers who are at risk: routine traffic stops are the leading cause of death for police officers, as well. The process of pulling over on a busy roadway and having to engage in a tense interaction, so full of uncertainties on both sides, is dangerous for everyone involved. The fact of the matter is, routine traffic stops don’t actually make anyone safer.

Michael Odiari wants to change this dynamic. Odiari is the founder and chief innovation officer of Check, an app that seeks to make traffic stops safer and simpler. In its current form, Check allows a driver to record their interactions with law enforcement, notify an emergency contact, and pull up a digital ID so that the driver does not have to reach for a physical version in their pockets or glove compartment. 

But for Odiari, Check is not just an app, it’s a movement. In this episode of The Strong Towns Podcast, Odiari shares his vision for Check’s future with Strong Towns president Chuck Marohn. They discuss the dangers surrounding routine traffic stops and what Check has done to begin addressing the grievances of motorists, law enforcement, and city officials. In time, Check aims to create a technology that allows traffic stops (and paying traffic tickets) to become completely virtual, so that peoples’ lives and welfare no longer have to be endangered over simple violations.

Additional Show Notes:

Strongest Town Webcast: Lockport, IL vs. Oxford, MS (Audio Version)

Strongest Town Webcast: Lockport, IL vs. Oxford, MS (Audio Version)

April 5, 2021

Strong Towns president Chuck Marohn has a conversation with representatives from our two Strongest Town finalists: Mayor Steve Streit of Lockport, and Mayor Robyn Tannehill of Oxford.

 

To vote in the matchup, go here: https://www.strongtowns.org/journal/2021/4/5/strongest-town-championship-round

To catch up on the contest, and to see the full rules and schedule, go here: https://www.strongtowns.org/strongesttown

Eric Jacobsen: How Car Culture is Making Us Lonelier

Eric Jacobsen: How Car Culture is Making Us Lonelier

March 29, 2021

“Choosing screens over people.” It’s a phrase we hear often these days in relation to smartphones and other digital devices. But, as Eric O. Jacobsen describes in his new book, Three Pieces of Glass: Why We Feel Lonely in a World Mediated by Screens, we started choosing screens—or, more precisely, windshields—decades before the smartphone.

Prior to the rise of car culture, we could expect to regularly interact with friends, neighbors, and strangers as we made our way through cities developed with walkability and multimodal transportation in mind. Especially since World War II, we still encounter those folks...but many of those encounters are “mediated by the automobile windshield.” Not only did car culture change how we build cities, it changed how (and how often) we encounter other people: “When we encounter someone [as a driver],” writes Jacobsen, “we don’t encounter another human being with whom we might connect. We as a driver meeting another driver encounter a competitor—a competitor for lane space and parking spaces.”

Eric Jacobsen returns to The Strong Towns Podcast to talk about his new book, car culture, and the impact screens are having on our cities and communities. Jacobsen is senior pastor of First Presbyterian Church in Tacoma, Washington. He’s also the co-host (with our friend Sara Joy Proppe) of The Embedded Church, a podcast about churches in walkable neighborhoods. A member of the Congress for the New Urbanism, Jacobsen is also the author of the books The Space Between Us and Sidewalks in the Kingdom, as well as numerous articles that explore the connections between the Christian faith, local community, and the built environment.

In this episode, Jacobsen talks with Strong Towns president Chuck Marohn about how car culture has “exploded” our sense of space, fragmented communities, and weakened public and civic interactions. They discuss why conscious, rational thought and great ideas don’t shape daily decision-making as much as we’d like to imagine. They also talk about what Jane Jacobs can teach us about complexity and humility, why our sense of self can’t be understood apart from the context of community, and why starting a car is a “secular liturgy.”

Additional Show Notes

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