The Strong Towns Podcast
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

Beth Osborne: America’s Roads are “Dangerous by Design”

Beth Osborne: America’s Roads are “Dangerous by Design”

March 22, 2021

The numbers are staggering, saddening, maddening.

From 2010-2019, 53,435 people were killed by drivers while walking. That’s up 45% from the previous decade. In 2019, the last year for which we have complete data, 6,237 people were struck and killed...the equivalent of more than 17 per day. The years from 2016-2019 were the four deadliest years in nearly three decades. And early numbers indicate that 2020—a year in which driving was down 13% due to the pandemic—actually saw an increased death rate.

What’s going on? With so much money and lip service (“Safety is our top priority”) paid to safety, why do these numbers so consistently go the wrong direction?

For more than a decade, our friends at Transportation for America have been analyzing the data and drawing attention to the epidemic of pedestrian deaths. Their latest report, Dangerous by Design 2021, describes the ten-year increase in deaths as “a failure of our government at nearly all levels.” And they urge policymakers to reconsider or abandon an approach that simply isn’t working:

Many states and localities have spent the last ten years focusing on enforcement, running ineffectual education campaigns, or blaming the victims of these crashes, while often ignoring the role of roadway design in these deaths. Meanwhile the death count has continued to climb year after year. States and localities cannot simply deploy the same playbook and expect this trend to change—they need a fundamentally different approach to the problem. They need to acknowledge that their approach to building and operating streets and roads is contributing to these deaths.

We are pleased to welcome Beth Osborne, the Director of Transportation for America, to this week’s episode of The Strong Towns Podcast. Before joining Transportation for America, Osborne served as a Deputy Assistant Secretary and Acting Assistant Secretary at the U.S. Department of Transportation. She also worked in multiple congressional offices, served as the policy director for Smart Growth America, and as the legislative director for environmental policy at the Southern Governors’ Association.

In this episode, Strong Towns president Chuck Marohn talks with Osborne about the Dangerous by Design 2021 report, about how engineers and policymakers know what it takes to #SlowTheCars and reduce deaths, and about why they yet fail to act on it. They discuss the need to make behaving safely the easiest thing to do, and the mixed message we send drivers about pedestrian safety. And they discuss the good news/bad news about bipartisanship around this issue, whether to be optimistic about a Mayor Pete D.O.T., and what local leaders can do right now to make their own streets safer.

Additional Show Notes:

Grace Olmstead: The Legacy—and the Future—of the Places We Leave Behind

Grace Olmstead: The Legacy—and the Future—of the Places We Leave Behind

March 15, 2021

Grace Olmstead grew up in a tiny Idaho farming community her family has called home for generations. But, as so many young people do, Olmstead decided to leave her rural town. She attended college on the other side of the country and now lives outside Washington, D.C., where she’s a journalist who focuses on farming, localism, and family. Olmstead’s writing has been published in The American Conservative, The Washington Post, The Wall Street Journal, and Christianity Today, among many other publications. She’s also one of our favorite writers here at Strong Towns.

Olmstead has a new book coming out tomorrow: Uprooted: Recovering the Legacy of the Places We’ve Left Behind. It’s an important (and beautifully written) work about the places we come from and counting the costs of leaving them behind. Combining memoir and journalism, Olmstead explores her family’s deep roots in Emmett, Idaho, what it means to be transplanted elsewhere, and the pressures and opportunities facing many small towns like the one she grew up in.

This week, Grace Olmstead returns to the Strong Towns Podcast to talk with Strong Towns president Chuck Marohn. They discuss the new book and why we need to tell complicated rural stories. They talk about two archetypes of the American West—“Boomers” and “Stickers”—and about how the most successful western communities were built not on rugged individualism but on extreme neighborliness. Olmstead and Marohn also discuss how farming communities have come to resemble other kinds of extractive communities—and whether new approaches to farming, such as agritourism, can coexist alongside conventional agriculture.

Additional Show Notes

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Cullum Clark: Creating Cities of Opportunity

Cullum Clark: Creating Cities of Opportunity

March 8, 2021

A growing body of research—including research by Raj Chetty’s Equality of Opportunity Project (now called Opportunity Insights)—is making it plain: where a person lives has a huge influence on their ability to build prosperity, climb the economic ladder, and pursue the American Dream.

Yet why do some cities and neighborhoods do better at this than others? What lessons can be learned and then translated into local policies and practices elsewhere, so that more Americans have access to economic opportunity?

To help answer these questions, The George W. Bush Institute is producing a series of reports called the Blueprint for Opportunity. The first of those reports, “Cities and Opportunity in 21st Century America,” was released in November. It looked at 61 metropolitan areas—home to 80 million Americans—that are standouts when it comes to economic mobility. These cities are notable because they have been “unusually successful in fostering relatively high college completion, job-market access, new business creation, and housing affordability. They also tend to score high for social capital—the dense fabric of social connection and civic engagement that makes a community tick.”

The report also makes clear that “cities of opportunity” aren’t limited to the superstar coastal metros like Washington, D.C., Boston, or San Francisco. Far from it: exciting (and instructive) things are happening in mid-sized, middle-income, middle-America cities like Des Moines, Lincoln, Boise, among many others. “[Creating] a high-opportunity city doesn’t require the vast wealth of America’s top technology or finance capitals,” the report concludes. “Every city or town has unexplored avenues to promote opportunity, one neighborhood at a time.”

On this week’s episode of the Strong Towns podcast, we’re excited to have as our guest the author of that report, J.H. Cullum Clark, the Director of the Bush Institute-SMU Economic Growth Initiative. He holds a Ph.D. in Economics at Southern Methodist University, and is on the faculty of SMU’s Department of Economics. Before joining the Bush Institute, he worked for 25 years in the investment industry.

In this episode, Strong Towns president Chuck Marohn talks with Clark about how a person’s neighborhood powerfully influences their trajectory in life, the characteristics many cities of opportunity have in common, and how drawing lessons from these places can help create more cities of opportunity. They compare and contrast cities from the Bay Area, Texas, and northern Great Plains. They discuss why cities with authentic character and local flair are doing better economically than those without. And they talk about whether it’s time to admit that centralized, top-down homeownership programs—often touted as the path to the American dream—simply aren’t working for the country’s most vulnerable populations.

Additional Show Notes:

Rep. Jake Auchincloss & Rep. Mike Gallagher: How Congress Can Support Local Leaders and Get the Economy Going (Video)

Rep. Jake Auchincloss & Rep. Mike Gallagher: How Congress Can Support Local Leaders and Get the Economy Going (Video)

March 1, 2021

Strong Towns advocates believe the way to grow stronger and more financially resilient towns and cities—and, by extension, a stronger, more resilient country—is from the bottom up.

A bottom-up approach is one that meets the actual needs of residents. It taps into the energy and creativity that already exists in our communities. It is sensitive and responsive to feedback. (“This is working. That isn’t. Let’s hit the gas here, and pump the brakes there.”) It relies on small, incremental investments (little bets) instead of large, transformative projects. And it is obsessed with running the numbers, as Strong Towns founder and president Chuck Marohn wrote when describing the Strong Towns approach: “If we’re not doing the math, if we’re not asking the hard financial questions with each step we take, we’re doing a disservice to our fellow residents and the future generations who will inherit our choices.”

While much of this bottom-up work is happening at the local level, there is an important role for the federal government. This week we’re excited to welcome to the Strong Towns podcast two U.S. representatives to talk about just that. Both are longtime Strong Towns readers, and they are thinking deeply about how Congress can strengthen towns and cities and get the economy moving again.

Rep. Jake Auchincloss is a Democrat representing Massachusetts’s 4th congressional district. After graduating from Harvard College, Auchincloss joined the Marines. He commanded infantry in Afghanistan and special operations in Panama, and he's now a major in the reserves. After returning home, he served on the City Council in Newton, Massachusetts. Auchincloss was elected to Congress in 2020 and serves on The House Committee on Transportation & Infrastructure.

Rep. Mike Gallagher is a Republican representing Wisconsin’s 8th congressional district. Gallagher is a Marine veteran, serving for seven years on active duty and earning the rank of Captain. After earning his bachelor’s degree from Princeton University, Gallagher went on to earn a master’s degree in Security Studies from Georgetown University, a second in Strategic Intelligence from National Intelligence University, and his PhD in International Relations from Georgetown. Prior to getting elected to Congress in 2016, he worked in the private sector at a global energy and supply chain management company in Green Bay. Rep. Gallagher serves on the House Armed Services Committee and, with Rep. Auchincloss, on the Transportation & Infrastructure Committee.

In this episode of the podcast—which we’re also releasing below on video and in transcript—Chuck Marohn talks with the congressmen about the challenges facing communities in their home districts and around the country. They discuss the push in Washington for a big infrastructure bill, whether a tension exists between infrastructure spending as economic stimulus and infrastructure spending as smart long-term investment, and the growing consensus to address the nation’s mountain of backlogged maintenance projects. They also talk about how the federal government can support smaller projects that may be less sexy but actually have a high ROI, why mayors and city councils must be empowered to make the decisions right for their communities, and much, much more.

Additional Show Notes

Joseph Kane: Prioritizing People (Not Projects) In Infrastructure Spending

Joseph Kane: Prioritizing People (Not Projects) In Infrastructure Spending

February 22, 2021

As leaders in Washington, DC look to stimulate the American economy, one course of action with bipartisan support—as per usual—is to pour money into infrastructure. Yet as Strong Towns readers know, infrastructure spending often leads cities down the road of insolvency rather than prosperity, and not all infrastructure spending is alike.

In a recent two-part policy brief, Joseph W. Kane and Shalini Vajjhala of The Brookings Institution’s Metropolitan Policy Program wrote that “to truly improve the country’s infrastructure and help the most vulnerable households, federal leaders cannot simply throw more money at shiny new projects. Instead, they must invest with purpose and undo the harms of our legacy infrastructure systems.” They continued: “Above all, leaders should prioritize people over projects in our infrastructure plans. In practice, that means defining, measuring, and addressing our infrastructure challenges based on the needs of users of new and existing systems.”

One of the authors of that brief, Joseph Kane, is the guest on this week’s episode of the Strong Towns podcast. Kane is a senior research associate and associate follow at the Metropolitan Policy Program. An economist and urban planner, his work focuses on wide array of built environment issues, including transportation and water infrastructure.

In this jam-packed episode, Strong Towns president Chuck Marohn talks with Kane about the role infrastructure spending could play as part of the recovery agenda. Kane and Marohn discuss why “building back better” (President Biden’s phrase) doesn’t have to mean “build back new;” it could mean build back different, build less, and maybe even take down what we’ve already built. They also talk about whether an infrastructure bill in the trillions of dollars can address the nuances of what’s actually needed at the local level, whether Americans are more comfortable with catastrophic failures than the small ones that might teach valuable lessons along the way toward economic resilience, and about Kane and Vajjhala’s four strategies that can help undo the harms of “legacy infrastructure systems.”

Additional Show Notes:

Dig Deep: What Does Democracy Look Like Now?

Dig Deep: What Does Democracy Look Like Now?

February 15, 2021

Since January 2017, at least once a month (and often more frequently than that), Strong Towns president Chuck Marohn has co-hosted a radio show on 91.7 KAXE, Northern Community Radio, along with his friend Aaron Brown—an author, reporter, and educator—and Heidi Holtan, the station’s News and Public Affairs Director. Since the debut of Dig Deep, topics have varied widely: the 2020 election, Minnesota politics, the killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis, climate change, rural life, health care, universal basic income, the history and future of labor unions in Minnesota, and the cohosts’ latest books, among many others. The show’s aim? To “model some good behavior in our world—a place where a liberal can talk to a conservative and a conservative can talk to a liberal and be not only civil, but actually listen.” (Chuck represents the more conservative viewpoint, and Aaron the more progressive viewpoint.)

In the most recent episode of Dig Deep, Chuck and Aaron discussed what democracy looks like in 2021 and beyond. The conversation is short—less than 20 minutes—but lively. The two friends talk about whether the United States is becoming more democratic, whether our institutions work better the more democratic they become, and how all levels of government can become not just more representative of the people but more responsive to their actual needs. We wanted to share the episode with our audience by re-broadcasting (along with a short introduction by Chuck) on the Strong Towns podcast.

While the Strong Towns organization is fiercely non-partisan, the Strong Towns movement is comprised of people from across the political spectrum. Left, right, and everywhere in between, people are coming together to build stronger and more financially resilient cities. No matter where you are on that spectrum, and no matter how you would answer that question—“What does democracy look like now?”—one thing we can agree on: friends talking (and listening) well across their differences must be a part of it.

Richard Florida: Remote Work and “The Rise of the Rest”

Richard Florida: Remote Work and “The Rise of the Rest”

February 8, 2021

The ongoing pandemic has raised big questions about the future of North American cities. For example, we’ve heard for almost a year now that COVID-19 will be the end of cities and the triumph of the suburbs. After all, why would people who could work anywhere choose to live in dense, plague-riddled cities? We’ve published our share of responses to this line of thinking—including articles by Joe Cortight of City Observatory, Joe Minicozzi of Urban3, and others—but the gloomy predictions keep coming.

For years, one person we at Strong Towns have turned to again and again for wisdom on the present and future of cities is Richard Florida. Florida is a researcher and professor at the University of Toronto, the author of numerous books—including the modern classic, The Rise of the Creative Class—and the co-founder of CityLab.

Strong Towns president Chuck Marohn invited Florida back to the Strong Towns podcast to talk about the choices facing cities now and after the pandemic. They discuss Florida’s insight that where talent goes, innovation and economic development are sure to follow...and what that looks like in an era of remote work. “Remote work,” Florida says, “gives the knowledge worker a larger portfolio of choices [of where to live].” What cities are best positioned to attract that talent now? They also talk about the future of superstar cities like New York and London, why some cities (Toronto and Minneapolis are examples) are stuck in two worlds, and how the pandemic has widened the socioeconomic gaps between the “privileged third” and everyone else.

This conversation is available both as a podcast and on video.

Additional Show Notes:

Bad Bets

Bad Bets

February 1, 2021

In last week’s episode of the Strong Towns podcast, Chuck Marohn, the founder and president of Strong Towns, talked with the economist Alison Schrager about uncertainty and risk. In this week’s episode, Chuck provides some additional thoughts on risk—and, in particular, the risks towns and cities are taking with their financial futures.

Not only are communities making bad bets by going all-in on the Suburban Experiment, they assume the government (state and federal) or the market will be there to bail them out if the worse—functional,  or actual, insolvency—happens. But, as Chuck demonstrates, that’s an awfully big assumption.

For one thing, the federal government and the market are taking huge risks themselves. We can’t count on the market to bail us out; the market today is almost absurdly irrational. And the federal government is a tenuous partner at best. No one has studied just much money the feds can actually afford to borrow. How much debt runway do we have? No one knows, but we’re hurtling down it with abandon.

For another thing, because our communities are being built according to the same one-size-fits-all suburban development pattern, they’re likely to fail in the same way. We’re 100% correlated, Chuck says. In that scenario, which cities will get rescued? What will differentiate your town from the one up the road?

Drawing on the work of Tomas Sedlacek, Nassim Nicholas Taleb, and others, Chuck talks about all the assumptions the government, market, and local communities are all making about one another. Then he talks about how the truly strong towns can take their financial futures into their own hands.

Additional Show Notes

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