The Strong Towns Podcast
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

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

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