The Strong Towns Podcast
Fighting an Urban Highway Expansion in Shreveport

Fighting an Urban Highway Expansion in Shreveport

July 26, 2021

For more than four years, Strong Towns has been telling the story of the so-called I-49 Connector project in Shreveport, Louisiana. We say “so-called” because while this project may seek to connect two sections of I-49, it will do so by rending the Allendale neighborhood, a vibrant, predominantly black neighborhood that is the gateway to downtown Shreveport.

It will also cost an extraordinary amount of money—an estimated $700 million—for less than four miles of road. Some state and city officials have been pushing for the project for years, but a growing grassroots movement of neighborhood leaders are fighting back. According to a local ABC affiliate, after decades of studies and meetings and discussion, a decision on the project is expected in late 2021 or early 2022.

In this episode of The Strong Towns Podcast, we’re sharing the audio from a webcast we did last week. Strong Towns President Chuck Marohn and Program Director Rachel Quednau interview four exceptional leaders working to stop the urban highway expansion, strengthen the Allendale neighborhood, and prevent officials from pursuing a financially ruinous megaproject.

Neighborhood podcast host Roosevelt Bryant, city councilwoman LeVette Fuller, local nonprofit director Kim Mitchell, and Shreveport-based engineer Tim Wright share their insights on the complex nature of highway projects and politics, and discuss a few of the things that make Allendale such a special place. They talk about why a city is only as strong as its weakest neighborhood, how the proposed I-49 project has been lowering the quality of life in Allendale since long before the first bulldozer arrived, and why we can’t simply rely on a philosophical change about urban highways in Washington to save their neighborhood.

They also describe how Allendale residents are coming together not just to oppose the highway but to start food co-ops, protect parks, and nurture homegrown incremental development. As LeVetter Fuller put it, the elevated highway project will turn into “drive-over country”: a neighborhood that has the same capacity for charm as the places—Bentonville, Hot Springs, etc.—project boosters are trying to speed drivers to.

Johnny Sanphillippo: The Trajectory of Suburbia

Johnny Sanphillippo: The Trajectory of Suburbia

July 19, 2021

You've read Granola Shotgun. You've seen Johnny Sanphillippo on our website (including in an article just released today). You've heard him on the Strong Towns Podcast multiple times, and those interviews have each been hits with our listeners. So, we've invited him back again to chat with Strong Towns President Chuck Marohn.

For those who don't know yet, Johnny is a blogger and small-scale developer working with property in and around Madison, Wisconsin. His adventures (and sometimes misadventures) in the suburbs of Madison, along with traveling, interviewing others, and photographing places around the country, have all afforded him some interesting insights into the North American development pattern.

On this episode of the Strong Towns Podcast, he shares his perspectives on “occupying” the suburbs on its own terms, the future of our relationship with the automobile, dealing with complex problems (especially when those problems become a crisis), "dystopian" views, intergenerational cooperation, and more.

Additional Show Notes:

Pete Davis: The Case for Commitment in an Age of “Infinite Browsing”

Pete Davis: The Case for Commitment in an Age of “Infinite Browsing”

July 12, 2021

We hear it all the time: “Keep your options open.” It’s the philosophy that shapes much of our approach to education, career, and relationships. It also shapes where we choose to live and, critically, how we live there.

Pete Davis calls this infinite browsing mode, and he says it is the defining characteristic of our time. Davis compares it to a long hallway with countless doors, each of which leads to new possibilities. Having options can be fun and even liberating. But there are also downsides of hopping from room to room, of living life in the hallway.

And the thing is, says Davis, the people we most admire—for example, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Mister Rogers, Dorothy Day, or the unsung local advocate going about the work of making the neighborhood better—are the folks who ignored the advice to keep their options open. Rather, they are, in a word, dedicated.

A few years ago, Pete Davis helped bring Strong Towns president Chuck Marohn to speak at Harvard. We’re thrilled now to welcome Davis in return as our guest this week on the Strong Towns Podcast. Davis is a writer and civic advocate from Falls Church, Virginia. He’s the co-founder of the Democracy Policy Network, a state policy organization focused on raising up ideas that deepen democracy. Davis’s 2018 Harvard Law School graduation speech, ”A Counterculture of Commitment,” has been viewed more than 30 million times. And he’s now expanded that into a new book: Dedicated: The Case for Commitment in an Age of Infinite Browsing.

In this episode, Marohn and Davis discuss where the maximize-your-options mindset comes from and why it is and isn’t a generational thing. They also talk about how the “counterculture of commitment” manifests itself in various spheres—including our education system, economy, and local communities—and why we should celebrate maintainers at least as much as innovators. They also tell stories about some of their own favorite “long-haul heroes.”

Additional Show Notes:

Here’s How Cities Undermine Their Own Competitiveness

Here’s How Cities Undermine Their Own Competitiveness

July 6, 2021

The traditional development pattern of towns and cities evolved with humans, the same way ant hills evolved with the ant and bee hives evolved with the bee. Yet around the time of the Great Depression, North Americans began jettisoning millennia of accumulated wisdom about city-building in favor of a suburban development pattern that was scaled for cars rather than people, built to a finished state and all at once, resistant to feedback and adaptation, and ultimately unable to pay for itself. At Strong Towns we call this massive and relatively sudden shift the “Suburban Experiment”—and we’re all the guinea pigs.

Several generations into this experiment, the data is in: the suburban development pattern doesn’t work: North American cities exchanged long-term stability for near-term growth, but now the bills are coming due. An entire continent of cities are slipping toward insolvency.

Last month, Strong Towns president Chuck Marohn was the guest on Saving Elephants, a podcast geared toward conservative Millennials. Chuck and host Josh Lewis had a great conversation on a range of topics, and we received permission to re-run the episode here.

In this episode, Chuck and Josh talk about the ways in which cities undermine their own competitiveness, why the big box store model is competitive at the national level but extractive at the local level, and how cities pursue megaprojects backwards. They also discuss the role of local conservatives and why the Strong Towns message is “trans-partisan.” You’ll also want to hear Chuck’s answer to this question from Josh: “How screwed are we, as younger Americans?”

Additional Show Notes

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."

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