Strong Towns Podcast Greatest Hits #1: America Answers (February 12, 2015)

January 14, 2019

In fall 2014, Strong Towns founder Chuck Marohn participated in the America Answers forum put on by the Washington Post, sharing a stage with, among others, then-Vice President Biden and then-Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx.

In this reflection recorded after the fact, Chuck analyzes clips of three forum participants’ remarks on the subject of infrastructure spending: Andrew Card, who served as White House Chief of Staff under George W. Bush and Transportation Secretary under George H.W. Bush; Ed Rendell, the Governor of Pennsylvania from 2003 to 2011; and Vice President Joe Biden. Their respective framings of America’s infrastructure crisis inspire Chuck to ponder a disappointing reality of recent American politics: neither the political left nor the right seems to talk about infrastructure coherently.

Chuck’s diagnosis is more specific, and might upset some of the partisans in the crowd. Thinkers on the right, he says in this 2015 recording, tend to offer all the right solutions to all the wrong problems. Those on the left, on the other hand, do a better job of identifying the truly pressing problems facing society, but then offer counterproductive solutions.

Whether you agree or disagree with this assertion, or think it still holds true in 2019, there’s a lot to dig into in this excellent podcast episode.

Vice President Biden frames infrastructure in context of the broader problem of income inequality. And he’s right, says Chuck. Our auto-centric transportation system, which we can’t afford to maintain, creates an enormous cost for individuals and households. “It’s a huge ante that you have to spend to be in the game”—to have access to the jobs and opportunity that cities provide. Unless, of course, you can spend a fortune for a home in a desirably-located location.

Where Biden and Rendell go wrong is in advocating, almost indiscriminately, for throwing money at infrastructure problems without reforming the systems by which we prioritize our investments. “It all comes back to the oldest story of this country: build, build, build, build,” says Biden. That’s how you grow a middle class. That’s how you produce prosperity. Unless, of course, the stuff you’re building is actually saddling you with future obligations you can’t hope to repay.

Andrew Card goes wrong in his understanding of what kind of investments are productive, says Chuck. “Texas has an advantage” over the Northeast in solving infrastructure problems, Card claims, because “they have a lot of land” on which to build cheaply. But this is better understood not as an advantage but as the biggest obstacle facing a place like Texas: “How do we connect all these far-flung places?”

Where Card has a crucial insight is where it comes to solutions to our infrastructure woes: they must involve feedback mechanisms. When the users of infrastructure pay for its maintenance, we end up building things that make sense in the long run. When those who pay and make funding decisions don’t have skin in the game, we end up with things like the TIGER grant program, which has a history of funding bizarre, unnecessary, crazy projects. Let’s talk about user finance, says Card. Instead of the gas tax, how about taxing vehicle miles traveled, or the weight of vehicles (corresponding to wear and tear on roads)? How about incentives for trucks to drive at night to relieve daytime congestion? How do we get more real value out of the system we have?

“What we’re trying to do at Strong Towns,” says Chuck, “is push back against this approach of throwing our weight and our might at these problems over and over again, like some kind of punch-drunk sailor.” To have a more rational conversation on American infrastructure, we desperately need to grapple with the difference between mere spending and truly productive investment.

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2019 Update

January 9, 2019

Chuck provides a brief update on where we're at with the Strong Towns Podcast and what to expect in the coming weeks.

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We’ll Make The World a Better Place By (Insert Your Planning Fad Here)

December 10, 2018

Our last new podcast episode of this year finds Strong Towns founder and president Chuck Marohn busily baking cookies ('tis the season), and musing on a series of questions posed to him by a Detroit-based journal.

The questions get at the heart of some of the hot-button issues in urban planning: the legacy of systemic racism in our cities, the role that urban planning might play in combatting and correcting for this legacy, and how 21st-century fads (the "creative class", new transportation technologies, et cetera) play into the discussion.

Chuck questions the notion that contemporary planners-with-a-capital-P are well-positioned to correct for the mistakes of the past, particularly with regard to racial segregation and disparities in our cities. One reason: we haven't really reckoned honestly with that legacy.

It's easy to caricature redlining and other past policies—"Wow, that's just horrifically racist! We today would see that as beyond the pale." And yet, Chuck argues, we do things today that produce more or less similar results. Segregation is still pervasive, and so are disparities in economic outcomes. At the level of top-down policy, especially federal policy, unfair outcomes have a way of embedding and perpetuating themselves. And it's not because most individuals are mean-spirited racists of a sort we can simply dismiss as incomprehensible to our modern, enlightened selves.

There are tougher questions we need to ask ourselves about who gets the power to shape cities. Those with advantages—with preferential access to the levers of the system—are going to use those advantages for the benefit of themselves and those they care about. "How," Chuck asks, "do we empower communities that are disempowered today so that they have that capacity as well? So that they can lift themselves up, the ones they love up, and the people around them up?"

Until we reckon with that question, our cities will too often be fragile places AND places where the least powerful suffer the most.

Listen to this podcast episode for more on this topic, as well as Chuck's take on: 

  • The importance of the "creative class" in cities, and what planners sometimes get wrong about the concept.
  • Why both the political left and right invoke images of the post-World War II era as a model to aspire to today.
  • Why the economy ought to be more like a person walking and less like a person on a bike. (Hat tip to Tomas Sedlacek.)
  • Why scooters are great, but scooters aren't the answer to carbon emissions or car dependence.
  • Why the same is true for (insert transportation technology here).
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Ask Strong Towns: November 2018

December 3, 2018

Today on the Strong Towns Podcast, we're bringing you the audio from the latest edition of our live, bimonthly ask-us-anything webcast, Ask Strong Towns.

On November 16th, 2018, we invited Strong Towns members to ask their questions—any questions at all—of our founder and president, Chuck Marohn, and our communications director, Kea Wilson.

Questions answered this time include:

• My city of Bothell (suburb of Seattle) and the cities all around us charge impact fees on new construction that cover the costs of traffic, schools, parks, and fire. The city of Seattle does not impose impact fees, relying on other taxes to cover all these needs for the city. What’s the Strong Towns approach to impact fees? Are they a good way to pay for civilization, or a bad idea?

• In light of 2018's devastating hurricane and fire season, how would Strong Towns approach the rebuilding process? I'm afraid we're about to spend billions of dollars merely replacing losses with fortified structures, rather than rethinking our development pattern to increase resiliency.

• I think miles of water line per customer would be a good measure of sprawl and infrastructure maintenance needs. Is this data easily retrieved for different cities and towns? Is there a standard to compare to?

• We are losing valuable historic housing due to shoddy flips by investors. How dow we protect our dense and affordable housing from speculation? These homes are traps for unwary young buyers who like the initial look, but the shoddy workmanship dooms them to unnecessary expense and stress. I fear many will lose these homes, as their costs to fix non-cosmetic errors may be prohibitive. It reminds me of the period before the sub-prime crisis. I looked at a historic home recently that was marked up over 5 times what they paid for their initial investment. It was a potential buyer's nightmare. The realtor stated that poor flips are a regular occurrence.

• I live in the historic district of my town near the old main downtown street. At some point they decided to make that street part of US-1, so it's wider and cars go faster, and businesses have failed consistently ever since. When citizens raise concerns, the city blames the state and claims they have to abide by state requirements about things like lane width. What's the best way to restore the street to be people-centered?

• Given the state of the retail industry, the go-to building typology of residential over commercial space ends up not being financially viable, even in traditionally designed areas. This is certainly the case in Annapolis, where the only retail that is doing well is food (restaurants), but that only scales so far. What suggestions do you have to deal with this?

• What are some first steps for smaller cities to lay the groundwork and begin revitalizing their historic downtowns?

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Ask Strong Towns Celebrity Edition: Q&A With Jeff Speck

November 26, 2018

Listen to the audio from our November 2018 live webcast Q&A with renowned urban planner, walkability expert, and author of Walkable City Rules, Jeff Speck.

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You are awesome!

November 16, 2018

This is the final day of our fall 2018 member drive. Today, we're sitting by the phone waiting for you to call. Seriously. If you've been waiting — been putting this off all week — we're here to help you get past the finish line.

Here's the number: 844-218-1681.

Ask for me. Ask for Kea. Ask for Daniel or Jacob or Bo or Michelle. We're all sitting here waiting for you to call. We'll chat a little and then get you signed up to be a member of Strong Towns. It's really that easy.

Or, just sign up on your own. That's easy too. Just click here to join a movement that is pushing for urgent change in our culture of growth and development.

Today's the day. Before you head out for your pre-holiday weekend, take a quick minute to make a huge difference.

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Giving You The Language You Need to Change the Conversation

November 14, 2018

Strong Towns founder and president Chuck Marohn is in Boerne, TX today to give the Neighborhoods First talk: one of our signature presentations. It's all about how to shift from a strategy of a few large, high-risk investments to many small, incremental ones.

The support of our members is helping us get this message in front of more people every year. And it's paying off. Not least of all in Chuck's hometown of Brainerd, Minnesota. In this podcast episode, Chuck talks about an ongoing controversy involving the public schools in his town, and how he is beginning to hear Strong Towns language and ideas reflected in the way community members and public officials are framing the issues.

This hasn't happened because Chuck is coaching people what to say. This has happened because of the power of our ideas and repeated exposure to them. We give you the tools and the language you need to change the terms of debate in your own cities and towns. Your membership will help us give those tools to an ever greater number of people and places.

Join the Strong Towns movement today and help us keep growing.

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What do you do when you need to change everything?

November 13, 2018

Our cities are struggling financially. But culturally, we lack a common understanding to explain why this is, let alone decide what to do about it.

Many people want to believe we’re simply not paying enough taxes. Others believe that our tax rates are too high. We might have too little regulation, or not enough. Some say we need an active government, and some, more of a free market.… But at Strong Towns, we don’t see things in such binary ways.

Plenty of Americans wish we would listen to the experts and hand things over to the people who claim they know what needs to be done. Others believe we have too many experts, and that they know a lot less than they think they do.… 

We’re more nuanced here at Strong Towns; a little expertise combined with a lot of humility can be a powerful force for good.

A Cultural Consensus That Lacks Real Understanding

What we at Strong Towns have seen so clearly is that our cities struggle not from the lack of a cultural consensus, but because of one.

We’ve structured our economy around the principles of the Suburban Experiment, an approach to growth that provides lots of short-term rewards at the expense of our long-term strength and resiliency. Our cultural consensus on infrastructure spending is built on false statistics and short-term planning, but it lacks a common understanding about the root causes of financial failure and financial success.

Strong Cities, Towns and Neighborhoods

If America is going to be a strong country, it must first have strong cities, towns and neighborhoods.

We can't manufacture prosperity with infrastructure spending or federal dollars; it has to be built from the bottom up.

We understand that cities become strong and resilient when they grow incrementally, when they shun the easy path of simplistic solutions and instead do the hard work of making modest investments over a broad area over a long period of time.

We know that local governments must focus on their financial productivity and that doing this math is not optional if we want to create prosperous places.

And at Strong Towns, we know that the cities that obsess about the struggles of their own residents — cities that make a commitment to observe where people struggle day-to-day within the community, and then focus on continuously doing the next smallest thing to reduce that struggle — these cities are not only going to help people; they are going to be making the highest returning investments they can possibly make. They are going to become Strong Towns.

These are radical insights. They run counter to our current consensus about growth, development and infrastructure. Yet, when we share these radical notions with others — when we have a chance to expose people to the Strong Towns message and our vision of the future — something amazing happens.

A Powerful, Radical Message That we can All Agree on

A strong America made up of strong cities, towns and neighborhoods. That’s the vision.

We have a powerful message and we have built our organization around a movement to spread it. We’re attacking the complex problem of struggling cities by changing the current cultural consensus. We do this in three simple ways:

  1. We create content.

  2. We distribute that content as broadly as possible.

  3. We nudge people to take action.

And it’s working. Don't miss out. Be part of what we're building together. Memberships start at just $5 per month. Join the movement.

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Ten Years, Getting Stronger

November 12, 2018

A decade ago, I sat down and wrote a series of blog posts, inaugurating a space that would eventually grow into the worldwide phenomenon known as Strong Towns. Much has happened in the intervening years—so much since I was that lone voice in the wilderness—but one thing has remained constant: it’s our audience that turns these ideas into a movement.

This week is our fall member drive. We’re sitting at just under 2,500 members, an astounding number by historical comparison, but relatively small compared to the 1.3 million unique people we’ve reached over the past year. It’s always a small handful of people that change the world. Today, let yourself become one of them.

Join the movement! Sign up to be a member of Strong Towns.

In past years, I’ve made the case that your membership will allow us to support this movement in critical ways. I had an idea of what that would look like, but my vision was untested. I was asking you to take a small gamble on us. Thousands of you did.

Today, it’s not a gamble anymore. While we are still a small group operating on a shoestring budget, we have an approach that is working. We create important content you won’t find anywhere else, thoughts that need to be out there impacting the conversations taking place within our communities. We use all our inventiveness and creativity to push these ideas out, distributing the Strong Towns message to audiences far and wide. And through it all, we nudge people to take real action, wherever they live.

We’ve watched those people be successful. Our members are doing amazing things to build stronger, more resilient cities. Strong Towns is a winning strategy.

So this year, I’m not asking you to take a gamble. I’m merely asking you to step up and become a member of the fastest-growing urbanist movement out there. I’m asking you to join nearly 2,500 others who are giving us the resources we need to take this movement to the next level. I’m inviting you to be part of a revolution in how we build our cities, towns and neighborhoods and bring enduring stability and prosperity to these places.

Don’t leave it to someone else. Make this the day you become a member of Strong Towns. Trust me: you’re going to want to be part of everything that comes next.

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Carmel is Not a Strong Town

November 5, 2018

In our last podcast, I spoke with Aaron Renn, the Urbanophile, about the city of Carmel, Indiana. It was an opportunity to learn more about Carmel's controversial experiment in large-scale, debt-driven suburban retrofit, and an opportunity to hear, though the voice of an authentic supporter, about what Carmel is doing. It is different than other North American suburbs, and while Strong Towns has not delved deeply into what is happening there, we’ve been prompted to do so many times.

Some podcast listeners were upset that the podcast with Aaron wasn’t more of a debate, with me aggressively challenging the points being made. Others were thankful for the opportunity to have Carmel’s case made unmolested. Having heard the pro-Carmel narrative, this week we’re following up and offering a different perspective.

Aaron called Carmel the anti-Strong Town, and there are some fundamental reasons why that is true. We ask the questions: How will you know that you’re wrong? When will you know?

What Carmel has done is to—by Aaron’s own admission—build all the happy, pleasant, comfortable amenities today to attract people counting on future growth to cover the cost. In a sense, it’s a go for broke mentality. It’s impossible today to know if this will work. Furthermore, it’s disconcertingly self-affirming for people to convince themselves that they can today enjoy all of the fruits of a community’s future labor.

What Carmel has done, in a very modern American way, is invert the time-tested process of making sacrifices today for a better tomorrow. A fiscally prudent approach to the same vision of tomorrow might involve Carmel's raising taxes on its residents, in order to make investments in things those residents want, based on a vision that these investments will ultimately pay off. What Carmel’s leadership has done instead is delivered on the amenities today, without requiring anything in terms of real sacrifice for a community that is currently wealthy. Carmel residents of today have no real skin in the game, at least not into proportion to the benefit they enjoy. Carmel residents of tomorrow, on the other hand, inherit a huge risk when that debt has to be repaid.

That’s standard operating procedure for America’s suburbs; it’s just that Carmel has taken it to the next level. And then some. The incentives here are backwards.

This ties into the concept of something being “built out,” that the things we are working on have a finished state that will ultimately be reached. The concept of “build out” is the ultimate hubris, the somehow our vision today is the correct one for all time. That we use our vision of the built-out condition to justify wild expenditures and massive debt so we can live with the benefits, without experiencing the difficulty of getting there, only makes the concept more suspect.

In a place going for broke, where is the rigorous return-on-investment analysis? Where are the spreadsheets and special meetings going back and analyzing the assumptions of past investments, comparing those to the reality that has emerged, and using that rigor to inform future investments? Where is the estimate of the amount of growth and tax base needed to make the investments being made today successful?

These don’t exist, and their absence is not a confirmation of competence. This is especially true in a city that has gone to great lengths to make expensive investments that intentionally signal, "This is a high-quality place run by highly competent people." Where we do have data, it is the blinking-red-light variety, where money is being shifted from one account to another to cover emergency shortfalls, debt is being rolled over without being retired, all with assurances that things are under control. In the absence of rigor on return-on-investment, those assurances ring hollow.

If we were to have confidence in Carmel, there would be signals that things under the hood—stuff that only the insiders can know—are operating well. Some of those include:

1.     Debt being retired, not merely rolled over.

2.     Return-on-investment analysis, especially backward-looking introspection. What were the assumptions we had and did they hold?

3.     Hyper-transparency and challenging of assumptions, a systematic commitment to listing the assumptions of these large gambles, and ongoing scrutiny of their validity.

4.     Leadership turnover with continuity of policy and vision.

5.     Beyond the big and flashy, evidence of rigor about attention to detail.

None of these things are apparent. Carmel feels like a place where a Robert Moses acolyte combined with a Wall Street hedge fund manager and an AICP planner who took a crash course in New Urbanism to build a city. Despite the outward signs of success today—which are easy to generate, but much more difficult to sustain—this is a place that seems fragile at its core.

History tells us that when wealthy people come together to build fragile things, the public is ultimately called upon to bail them out when the predictable tragedy strikes. While it’s never clear what truck will collapse the fragile bridge, a combination of leverage, rosy projections, and a go-for-broke mentality suggests that someday, things won't look so optimistic in Carmel, and that bailout request will happen.

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