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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Upzoned #5: Opportunity Zones, But For Whom?

October 29, 2018

.... But where's that familiar intro music?! If you're looking for the regular Strong Towns Podcast, never fear—it'll be back next week.

Today we're cross-posting a recent episode of Upzoned, a podcast we launched in September featuring Strong Towns's own Kea Wilson, Chuck Marohn, and occasional guests. Each week, they pick one recent news story that's part of the Strong Towns conversation, and they discuss it in depth. We wanted to make sure you haven't missed Upzoned—there's a new episode every Friday if you like what you're hearing!

If you’re plugged into the urbanist blogosphere, you’ve probably heard something about the new federal Opportunity Zones by now. And you might even think they sound pretty good. After all, anything that incentivizes investment in underserved areas sounds like a pretty good deal—and by eliminating capital gains taxes on new development in some of the poorest regions of your state, there’s no doubt that the money will come pouring in.

But Upzoned hosts Kea and Chuck aren’t so sure. Is a big bucket of money really what these neighborhoods need? Will outside developers really build the kind of locally responsive, fine-grained stuff that would make these towns strong and lift up the people who are already there? What would a better Opportunity Zones program look like—or is using a federal program to develop a neighborhood like steering an ocean liner with a canoe paddle?

And then in the Downzone, Chuck and Kea talk about their recent reads. Hear Chuck’s final thoughts on Mariana Mazzucato’s The Value of Everything, and get the behind-the-scenes scoop on Kea’s recent interview with author William Knoedelseder on his new bookFins: Harley Earl, The Rise of General Motors and the Glory Days of Detroit.

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Carmel’s Billion-Dollar Bet

October 22, 2018

Can you build a better kind of city, one that will hold its value through the ages, through sheer brute force and debt—lots of debt?

This is the bet on which that the Indianapolis suburb of Carmel, Indiana has gone all-in. In this week's episode of the Strong Towns Podcast, Chuck Marohn talks about Carmel with Aaron Renn, better known to the internet as The Urbanophile. Renn is a Senior Fellow at the Manhattan Institute for Policy Research, where he focuses on urban, economic development, and infrastructure policy, and a Contributing Editor at its quarterly magazine City Journal. He blogs as the Urbanophile at his own site.

Renn is a native of Indiana and has a longstanding interest in Carmel, and take a somewhat more rosy view of it than Chuck does. He characterizes Carmel as both a very typical and very atypical Midwestern "big square suburb"—a 6 mile by 6 mile square, to be exact, a legacy of Indiana's rural township system. It is typical in that it is known for family-friendly living, nice homes, good schools with winning sports teams.

Carmel, however, is atypical in that for the last two decades or so, it has taken on over $1 billion in municipal debt—roughly $10,000 per Carmel resident—in pursuit of a high-quality built environment: arguably a New Urbanist alternative to traditional suburbia. Carmel has built roundabouts galore to handle traffic without requiring massive stroads. It has poured money into upgrading rural roads to complete street parkways, and taken full control of its own water infrastructure from Indianapolis. Perhaps most controversially, the City of Carmel has acted as a sort of master developer for a built-from-scratch downtown and civic commons, which includes such big-ticket items as a $175 million, acoustically perfect concert hall.

Carmel's gamble, Renn says, is a response to the Growth Ponzi Scheme that Strong Towns diagnoses, in which suburbs lose their allure after a generation, wealthy residents skip town for the next suburb out, and those older suburbs find themselves unable to pay for infrastructure maintenance and services. But rather than adopt the Strong Towns approach of incremental development, Carmel has gone the opposite direction. Renn summarizes the Carmel mindset:

"We are actually going to invest into producing actual high-quality, urban amenities, infrastructure, etc. while we are in our growth phase, so that when we are complete, we have an essentially unreplicable environment that will retain its allure in a way that these earlier generations [of suburbia] didn't."

Carmel's bid is to permanently be a premier suburb of Indianapolis, and to offer the amenities that can attract a surgeon, a high-powered attorney, or an executive at a company like Eli Lilly. It is to be a place that can compete with the lifestyle offered by upscale enclaves in coastal cities.

Marohn responds to this with a wariness about debt and a question about who or what puts the brakes on human hubris. Carmel is implementing today's best practices du jour at a full-throttle pace, but, Marohn asks, what about the planners who looked at 1920s Detroit and said, "Cities have been bad places for a long time. There've been tenements and congestion... We've got this figured out. We need to put highways through here, and tear down buildings to open things up." Weren't they, in undertaking—aggressively—the first generation of the suburban experiment, also saying, "We know how to design a higher-quality living environment. We just have to do it"? Strong Towns is rooted, in large part, in a deep skepticism that any individual is capable of knowing what will be resilient 20, or 40, or 100 years from now."

Renn is not as concerned about Carmel's ability to sustain its debt levels, arguing that in many cases the city has simply foregrounded things that would be hidden, unfunded liabilities in other places. But he does agree with Chuck that a valid criticism of Carmel, above and beyond the question of debt, is its inorganic nature. The city is not the product of thousands of natural experiments as developers see what works and do more of it, but rather of a tightly controlled vision of what the community will be at its finished, built-out state.

Can Carmel realize that vision? Or will it go off the rails, due to changing local politics, a decreasing appetite for big municipal debt, or unforeseen economic or cultural factors?

"That place has not given itself any alternative path, if this proves not to be the right one," says Marohn. There's a lot to like about Carmel's urban design choices, especially vis-a-vis other suburbs in the Indianapolis region, but Marohn says he cannot help but feel that the city is headed for a binary outcome: either really good, or really disastrous.

Listen to the episode for a lot more insights about one of America's more ambitious experiments in local government and planning. What do you think of Carmel? Let us know in the comments.

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