Is Strong Towns the same as Sprawl Repair?

September 17, 2018

If Strong Towns is not Sprawl Repair, then what is it?

This question was posed to use on Twitter. Strong Towns Founder and President, Chuck Marohn, answers it in this monologue podcast.

Sprawl Repair, sometimes also called Suburban Retrofit, is a concept that Marohn describes as “brilliant, but silly.” The brilliant part is a recognition that it takes real genius to adapt these incredibly difficult sites. Taking suburban homes, big box stores, and office parks – places that are not designed to be renovated – and renovating them for a productive takes tons of creativity.

The Sprawl Repair Manual by Galina Tachieva and Retrofitting Suburbia by Ellen Dunham-Jones and June Williamson are examples of the brilliant.

These concepts are brilliant, yes, but also silly, because while they may work in a handful of places where the desire and the economics come together, these strategies don’t scale to the broad swath of America that is financially insolvent, to the millions of homes that are in neighborhoods designed to decline.

Silly is the belief — widely held among some advocates — that sprawl repair / suburban retrofit represents a real solution, that they can be something more than a boutique approach for niche places. Marohn contends that they are brilliant at being that unique solution, but they are not up to the bigger challenges of fixing our broken development pattern, which is the problem Strong Towns is trying to solve.

This podcast delves into that problem – what really is sprawl and what are the underlying forces at work – then proposes a unique set of Strong Towns approaches, some of which include Sprawl Repair, but some which go far beyond it.

00:0000:00

Upzoned Episode 1: Dams and Reservoirs Won’t Save Us

September 14, 2018

Introducing Upzoned: a new podcast from Strong Towns!

Strong Towns is dedicated to providing in-depth, thoughtful analysis on everything about the way our world is built—and that can take a little time. But sometimes, a hot new story will cross our desks that we need to talk about right away. That's where Upzoned comes in. Join Kea Wilson, Chuck Marohn, and occasional surprise guests to talk in depth about just one big story from the week in the Strong Towns conversation, right when you want it: now.

In the first episode of Upzoned, Kea and Chuck used this article from the Texas Observer as a springboard to talk about the challenges of meeting basic water needs in Texas and other super-dry desert climates.

Why aren't Texans building giant dams and reservoirs anymore? Will centrifuging our own pee like astronauts and building cisterns in the backyard really be enough to meet water needs n the deserts of Arizona and Nevada? Or will they need to take a note from earthship communities in Northern New Mexico who make it work on 8-10 inches of rainfall a year?

Kea and Chuck discuss these issues and more in this week's Upzoned.

P.S. It just so happens that the article prompting this discussion comes from the Texas Observer. Hungry for more discussion of how to build strong towns in Texas, and the inspiring things that forward-thinking leaders there are already doing? Come to Strong Towns's North Texas Regional Gathering, October 3-5, 2018 in Plano! More information and tickets here.

00:0000:00

It’s The Little Things Episode 1: Running For City Council

September 12, 2018

Want to better your community but don’t know where to start? Enter It’s the Little Things: a brand new, weekly Strong Towns podcast that gives you the wisdom and encouragement you need to take the small yet powerful actions that can make your city or town stronger.

It’s the Little Things will feature Strong Towns Community Builder Jacob Moses in conversation with various guests who have taken action in their own places and in their own ways.

In the inaugural episode, Jacob sits down with former six-year Denton, Texas city councilperson Kevin Roden. It’s your chase to learn the essential information you need to run for city council—including how to run a successful campaign and get people behind your ideas—from a veteran who knows.

If you care about your community, you’ve likely had this thought: “If I were on the city council, I would change this ordinance or advocate for that policy to better my community.” Perhaps you were motivated by a change you saw around you in the built environment, and you thought, “wait a minute; who made that decision? And how can I influence future decisions like it?”

If you’re like most people, you had these thoughts but you didn’t go out and actually run. Elected office is not for everyone, Roden says, but it’s another step a committed citizen can take in service to his or her community. If you are a policy wonk or have “a bit of a gut” for the messiness of politics, it might be the right step for you.

Local office is unique because it’s all about meeting your constituents where they are, says Roden. Learn about the places he went on the campaign trail, how to find and stay in touch with the minority of people who will actually vote locally, and how to speak to the concerns of different groups while keeping your message authentic and consistent.

Jacob and Kevin also talk about the hard work after you get elected of bringing people around to your point of view. There’s no substitute for travel and lived experience, Roden says, to understand what makes places work. Going on a walk with someone, for example, to show them how your city’s infrastructure makes it difficult and dangerous to cross the street is better than arguing with them about it on the dais.

For these and many more insights, check out It’s The Little Things: our new podcast by our Community Builder, Jacob Moses.

00:0000:00

Where To Next For CNU? A Conversation With Lynn Richards

September 10, 2018

This episode is our tenth and final dispatch from the Congress for the New Urbanism (CNU), which took place in Savannah, Georgia in May. Chuck Marohn attended CNU and hosted a series of in-depth podcast conversations about some of the most pressing topics for cities today, with leaders, thinkers, and activists in a whole range of fields. We’ve been bringing those podcasts to your ears throughout the summer.

In this episode, Chuck hosts what is now an annual tradition: a conversation with Lynn Richards, the President and CEO of the Congress for the New Urbanism.

 Marohn and Richards discuss the record-breaking attendance at this year's CNU: 1,611 participants from dozens of countries. Along with the growth of the movement has come an increasing big-tent diversity, which is welcome in many ways. Notable additions this year in Savannah included religious leaders and speakers who spotlighted social justice and equity issues, in addition to CNU's traditional bread and butter of urban design and architecture experts.

Who is New Urbanism for — is it just a movement of architects, planners, and engineers, the professionals Marohn lovingly calls "APEs"? Or is it something much broader, with relevance to anyone who cares about how we live together in the places we make?

Another shift at CNU has been a much more explicit focus on making sure the host committee and city get something really concrete and valuable out of the effort they put into hosting the annual conference. Hosting CNU should provide a push to good people doing good work, says Richards—spotlighting their efforts, legitimizing them locally, and ultimately leaving the host city itself better poised to implement great urbanism than before the conference came.

At the end of the day, the two ponder, what is CNU? What is its mission, and how should it set priorities as an organization?

At Strong Towns, our focus is necessarily as specific as the issues we seek to confront are massive and multifaceted. We have made deliberate decisions about what is within the scope of our work, and what isn't, and where will can best amplify our efforts into actual results that far exceed the effort we put in. If you want to lead an effective organization, do you have the clarity to "say no to 80% of things that come in the door?"

Marohn and Richards also discuss the future of CNU, and what the next big step in its evolution as an organization might look like. To this, Richards says frankly, "I don't know." CNU began in 1993 with the goal of removing impediments to traditional urbanism throughout North America. A quarter-century later, the organization is much broader, and its ideas are much more mainstream within the planning, architecture, and development professions. So where to now?

"Is our goal to build an America of neighborhoods? Is it a walkable world?" And so forth: is it something else entirely? That goal, if articulated, will not prevent CNU from addressing big problems such as climate change or the unsustainability of suburbia, but it will usefully inform how it addresses those big problems.

We've enjoyed sharing conversations from this year's CNU on the Strong Towns Podcast, and we hope you've enjoyed listening to them. See you next year in Louisville!

00:0000:00

A Conversation With the Urban3 Team at CNU

September 6, 2018

This is our ninth dispatch from the Congress for the New Urbanism (CNU), which took place in Savannah, Georgia in May. Chuck Marohn attended CNU and hosted a series of in-depth podcast conversations about some of the most pressing topics for cities today, with leaders, thinkers, and activists in a whole range of fields. Now we're bringing those podcasts to your ears throughout the summer.

In this episode, Chuck has a chat with three good friends: Joe Minicozzi, Cate Ryba, and Josh McCarty from the geoanalytics firm Urban3, based in Asheville, North Carolina. Chuck and Joe's "bromance" (their words) goes back years, and Strong Towns and Urban3 have been frequent collaborators in sharing data-backed insights about where your town (yes, yours!) is really deriving its wealth from, and where it's losing money.

Among the questions discussed (but not always answered) in this entertaining, freewheeling discussion:

  • What happened when a wealthy town on Cape Cod had a $250 million backlog for upgrades to its sewer system?
  • The range of reactions—from positive to negative to disbelief—that Chuck and Joe get when they present their findings to cities across the country.
  • The "diamond mine" effect experienced by cities like Asheville, which are sitting on traditional downtowns built by their ancestors. These places are often tremendously fiscally productive, but what happens when a city doesn't nurture that productivity, but instead views the downtown as a source of wealth to be extracted to pay for a money-losing development pattern elsewhere?
  • What do civic officials and Melanesian cargo cults have in common?
  • What is the mental block that keeps us from embracing more productive forms of development, even when they're right under our noses? Savannah, Georgia has a historic district that is the envy of urban planners the world over—and a jarring transition when you leave that historic district and venture into the rest of the city. "We collectively agree that this is awesome," says Chuck of the beloved core of Savannah, with its leafy squares. And we have the analysis of groups like Urban3 to tell us that not only is it beautiful, the development pattern of Savannah's original core is a tremendous wealth-generating engine. So why aren't we doing more of it, even literally in Savannah?
  • What lessons do behaviorists have to teach city planners? Temporal discounting—placing more value on avoiding short-term discomfort than preventing long-term suffering—is the reason it's hard to get people to quit smoking. Is it also the reason it's hard to get cities to give up insolvent development patterns? Do we already, proverbially, have cancer by the time we realize what we've built is bankrupting us?
  • The responsibility of professionals like those at Urban3 to help elected officials work through and understand complex issues, instead of assuming that what's obvious to those immersed in the numbers daily will be obvious to them.
  • Can we truly make meaningful change in how our cities do things in the absence of a crisis to force our hand?
  • What mind-blowing data visualization projects is the Urban3 team cooking up next?
  • Will Joe Minicozzi ever stop cursing during staff meetings?
  • Who will publish a book first: Chuck or Joe?
00:0000:00

Programming Update

September 5, 2018

A brief update from Chuck Marohn on the podcast feed, future program changes and the North Texas Regional Gathering.

00:0000:00

The Emptying Out of Rural Kansas: An Interview With Corie Brown

August 30, 2018

In this week’s Strong Towns Podcast, Chuck Marohn interviews Corie Brown, the co-founder of Zester Media. Brown writes about food and the food system, and is a former staff writer for the Los Angeles TimesNewsweekPremiere Magazine, and BusinessWeek.

Earlier this year, Brown wrote a story for The New Food Economy entitled “Rural Kansas is dying. I drove 1,800 miles to find out why.” Brown is from Kansas originally, and was aware of the state’s long, steady depopulation, but was struck by a report that rural Kansas had become a food desert: an area in which residents do not have adequate access to affordable and healthy food. 

“How can this breadbasket be a food desert?” she asks: Kansas, after all, is a state that devotes an overwhelming percentage of its land to agriculture. And yet much of the state is dotted with towns that have lost one-third, half, or more of their population in the last generation. It’s to the point that basic amenities like fresh groceries can be hard to come by. “There are no people here. Not enough to justify a delivery truck.” 

The apparent paradox, Brown says, reflects the fact that Kansas has always had a commodity-based agricultural economy, not a subsistence one. The origins of Kansas’s settlement are not in family farms serving an immediate household and community, but in export agriculture, originally promoted by the federal government through grants of free land under the 19th century Homestead Acts. The carving up of the semi-arid Great Plains for intensive agriculture led to a slow-rolling environmental disaster that culminated in the Dust Bowl of the 1930s.

The problem with commodity agriculture is that small farmers cannot compete with industrial-scale operations by making a higher-quality product. Says Brown, “A thousand-acre farmer in Ellis County, Kansas, is very specifically, directly competing with the government of China. Or the government of Brazil.” And the price that farmer can sell their wheat for is the price that the global commodity wheat market will bear. The result has been a relentless pressure to mechanize agriculture and improve efficiency, using less and less labor over time. Modern technology allows one farmer to manage a vast number of acres. The cost, however, is depopulation: fewer classmates for your children at school, and less access to culture and amenities.

Thirty years ago, Brown, reflects, she was at a wedding in Downs, and it was a “quintessential small Kansas town”—there were people on the street, stocked shelves in the stores, a local newspaper. It was small, but active. “When I came back, it had lost a third of its population in 30 years. A lot of the store windows were blank.” Those business owners who were still around had moved their businesses out of store fronts and into their homes.

Compounding rural Kansas’s suffering, says Brown, is that the state has a culture of bootstrapping—Kansas attracted people with nothing to lose. In a great game of musical chairs, “they all believe they won’t be the one left without a chair,” and pride can prevent people from acknowledging that they need help. Resistance is still strong in Kansas’s shrinking towns to the idea of dependence on government subsidies and assistance, or to the notion that the $1 billion a year that Kansas farmers already receive in federal farm aid even constitutes a subsidy. People work long, hard hours—“They’ve never worked harder”—and farmers who help feed the world don’t even grow vegetable gardens at home anymore, because they don’t have time.

Marohn muses on the commonalities between this situation and inner city poverty: the food desert aspect, the long work for little income just to stay afloat, the isolation and lack of opportunity, and often the inability to leave if you wanted to—how can you sell your house in a place in the process of being abandoned? Who would buy it? And yet, most rural Kansans, both Marohn and Brown agree, would not see themselves as having anything in common with the urban poor. And while wealthier urban residents often look at the urban poor with empathy, they may not have the same degree of empathy for those left behind in depopulating small towns.

Playing into this is Kansas’s own rural-urban political divide, in which the residents of the Kansas City suburbs who make up a large share of the state’s population are less attuned to rural priorities and needs, and may see rural Kansas’s politics as holding the state back. There are also the politics of immigration to consider. The only rural areas in Kansas to be gaining population are in the state’s southwest, where the meatpacking and food processing industries produce a lot of demand for low-wage labor, much of it provided by immigrants. 

What can Kansas do? There are no easy answers. Marohn asks Brown about the possibility of getting out of the commodity-wheat game and into something like organic produce. But this not only requires learning to do something new, but entails high up-front costs in equipment and infrastructure, and proximity to a major market for such produce. “It’s not that they’re unwilling to task a risk,” Brown says of Kansas farmers who might go organic; it’s that they can’t afford to take that risk.

Given the lack of an economic raison d’etre for many of these small towns, perhaps the question that remains is whether they should continue to exist. Do we try to pour in outside resources, Marohn wonders, to save places that can’t be saved? Or do we do the economic-development equivalent of hospice care for a dying town—make the quality of life a little better for those who are still there?

Brown says that in areas where the towns are too small to provide services, the people living there need to regionalize their local economies. Where five towns are no longer viable, one larger town might be: it might have the critical mass to provide a school, a pharmacy, and other basic amenities. But there’s a huge amount of work and cooperation and sacrifice involved in doing this.

“In a lot of these towns where people have left,” says Brown, “the people that remain mow the lawns of the abandoned houses and maintain the look, because they have pride in their town and they don’t want people to know.” This pride of place can be a uniquely human strength, but in the end, it may also be a uniquely human failing.

00:0000:00

The Week Ahead, August 29, 2017

August 29, 2018

Chuck and Rachel discuss Chuck's recent event in Tulsa, OK and recent article, "Autism, PTSD and the City." They also announce an upcoming slackchat about incremental development and talk about the flooding in the Texas area.

Mentioned in this podcast:

00:0000:00

Thoughts on Incremental Development

August 24, 2018

Does Strong Towns have a right to point out the problems with our current development pattern if we don't also have a clear solution? In this solo podcast, Chuck Marohn reflects on the state of the Strong Towns movement, its critics and its interactions with other movements like Market Urbanism and Complete Streets.

00:0000:00

Young People and CNU

August 23, 2018

This is our eighth dispatch from the Congress for the New Urbanism (CNU), which took place in Savannah, Georgia in May. Chuck Marohn attended CNU and hosted a series of in-depth podcast conversations about some of the most pressing topics for cities today, with leaders, thinkers, and activists in a whole range of fields. Now we're bringing those podcasts to your ears throughout the summer.

In this episode, Chuck interviews four attendees of CNU who are under 30 about their motivations for being a part of the gathering, their aspirations for their communities and for their own work, and the challenges of making a difference and being taken seriously as ambitious younger people in their respective fields. The guests for this conversation are:

  • Dan Baisden, the Executive Director of Main Street Van Wert in Van Wert, Ohio. (Baisden has since taken a city planning position in nearby Fort Wayne, Indiana.)
  • Sophie Hicks, an architecture student at St. Clair College in Windsor, Ontario.
  • Andrew Rodriguez, a city councilman in Walnut, CA.
  • Mason Wallace, a small-scale developer in Charlotte, NC. 

Plenty of luminaries in architecture, planning, and related fields attend CNU, and there's a certain star-struck attitude that would be easy for a younger attendee beginning their career to adopt. Chuck turns that mindset on its head for the panelists, asking each of them, "Suppose I'm star-struck to meet you here. What's fresh, exciting thing you're working on that you think it's important to share with the world?"

For Baisden, this thing is Rust Belt revitalization—reimagining and repurposing places that have the excess infrastructure and capacity to take in new residents and new ideas. For Wallace, it's spreading the message of incremental change in a booming city where that approach has not been the norm. Hicks is passionate about community engagement: changing the public's perception of an area like her hometown of Windsor and what might be possible there. Rodriguez has worked to correct mistaken ideas about renters and apartment housing in his Los Angeles suburb, in order to help the city chart a more sustainable future.

When Chuck was 25, he tells the panelists, he struggled to have people take him seriously in professional settings. "You don't have grey hair," he'd be told. How do you deal with the challenge of working professionally with people a generation or two older than you?

The answer, says Rodriguez, is to work extra hard to make sure he knows what he's talking about. If you're clearly well-informed and thoughtful, people will respect that. Engaging with people on a very personal level is also important for bridging generational and other divides, says Baisden—in dealing with members of the public who are of a different generation, frame your work in terms of stories they can relate to.

Moving up in your field means being willing to be thrown into doing things that are beyond your pay grade, but not beyond your competence. You build upon what you know bit by bit, says Wallace. Over time, you form a coherent personal idea of what can and can't be done, and the ability to communicate it to others and sell them on your vision.

One thing uniting this group of young urbanists is their recognition of the importance of place. All four are deeply interested in giving back to the places that made them who they are. The conversation turns to millennial activism and how it's often misunderstood—this generation works hard to change the world, but in different ways than their predecessors may have. 

Is it natural for each generation to be frustrated by the one preceding them, and baffled by the one that follows them? Chuck poses the question. Belying the stereotype that millennials tweet about events but don't vote or get involved, Baisden says he works with many volunteers and most of them are in their 20s and 30s. Millennials are entering adulthood with a different set of challenges—student loan debt and a housing affordability crisis—but also with a set of strengths. Those who have come of age with social media are natural storytellers and brand experts, flexible and accustomed to teamwork.

How do we get this generation involved in dramatic, even revolutionary change in the way things are done in our cities and towns? How will the millennial generation push the future of the suburbs in different directions than their parents did? Listen to the podcast for these and more thoughts on the generational divide at CNU.

00:0000:00