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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The Roots of the Opioid Epidemic: A Conversation With Sam Quinones

October 15, 2018

Strong Towns President and Founder Chuck Marohn is an avid reader, and every year, at the end of the year, Chuck publishes a short list of his favorite books of the year. The 2017 year-end list included a book called Dreamland by LA-based journalist Sam Quinones, about the rise of the American opioid epidemic.

Recently, Chuck spotted Sam on social media describing himself as a fan of Strong Towns, and thought, “Can this be the same guy?” It was, and so for this week’s Strong Towns Podcast, we bring you a conversation between Chuck Marohn and Sam Quinones about the opioid crisis, and how it might relate to changes in the way we live in our cities and towns.

A common theme between Strong Towns’s advocacy and Quinones’s work is the danger of seductive, simplistic solutions to complex problems. For us at Strong Towns, the complex problem is that of building a place that will have long-term, resilient value and prosperity. And the overly simple, purported miracle cures are everywhere—depending on who you talk to, it might be a freeway or a phony manufactured downtown or a convention center or self-driving cars or any number of other things. Growth itself as the solution to a city’s growing pains is another such miracle cure that, in practice, actually compounds our problems.

In Quinones’s area of research, the complex problem is chronic pain. And the seductive, simple solution is, “Just pop another pill.”

The opioid epidemic started in an innocent way, with narcotic painkillers prescribed to patients—including Chuck’s father—who really did benefit from them. Quinones says narcotics can be part of a healthy, holistic approach to pain management. But that this approach has given way, in a trend that started accelerating in the 1990s, to a societal obsession with pills.

Quinones runs through the fascinating history of how we got to where we are today—a society in which the crime rate is as low as it’s been in decades, but the overdose death rate is at a record high. The history runs from a 1990s revolution in pharmaceutical marketing (a new generation of drug reps “didn’t know what they were selling, but they all knew how to sell it”), to the rise of “pill mills” in the mid-2000s, to the proliferation of heroin throughout places that had never had a heroin problem, where pain pill addicts were easy marks for dealers.

How is all this related to our development pattern, Chuck wonders. Or is it? Quinones says he does think it’s connected to the isolation brought on by the way we build our cities. Increasingly in modern America, you buy a big house, you drive everywhere, and you don’t know your neighbors. People could more easily be slipping into addiction and not have anyone checking up on them—or a neighbor or other community member to go to and say, “Hey, I’m in trouble here.” The opioid epidemic, more than any prior one, has been driven by shame. Even in Quinones’s research, few people were willing to open up to him about their own families’ experiences with addiction.

And yet, there’s a bright side. Because it’s local institutions that have to deal with the fallout of the opioid crisis, local solutions are beginning to proliferate. Quinones says an inspiring number and variety of groups are involved on the ground in constructive responses to addiction: the PTA, the Chamber of Commerce, the Kiwanis Club, drug counselors, law enforcement, and many more. The response crosses political and ideological boundaries, and is actually bringing communities together in ways that may help us learn to solve other problems, too.

“This epidemic is really one of the great forces for change in America today. It’s a catastrophe, it’s a lacerating torment for thousands and thousands of families, but it’s pushing us beyond those silos, beyond those walls that we’ve constructed, to begin to learn again how to work together. And it’s happening mostly at the local level.”

Sam Quinones shares his contact information at the end of the podcast. His website is http://www.samquinones.com/. He has had the chance, since writing Dreamland, to speak with people and communities impacted by addiction, including “towns where no author ever goes. It’s a beautiful thing,” says Quinones. “You meet a lot of truly wonderful people.”

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Democratizing Local Public Finance by Bringing Back Small-Scale Investors

October 8, 2018

The way we finance our cities has a huge impact on what gets built, when, and where. So if you’re inclined to think the municipal bond market is the most boring subject we could tackle on the Strong Towns Podcast, think again—because we have a truly eye-opening discussion for you today, on a topic with profound implications for anyone who cares about city building.

Chuck talks with Jase Wilson, the founder and CEO of Neighborly, a startup which seeks to democratize public finance by making it possible for regular individuals to invest in municipal bonds—which fund projects from transportation infrastructure to sewers to broadband to parks to schools—and thereby directly contribute to funding community needs in places they are personally invested in.

In doing this, Wilson says, he is really trying to return public finance to its roots. The municipal bond market, which is massive to the tune of $3.8 trillion outstanding, is more absurd and dysfunctional than most people realize. Historically, cities would sell bonds in the form of physical certificates, and you could invest directly. If your town wanted to build a new school, you could buy the bonds and become an investor in that project, in the same way you can buy a share of stock in an individual corporation. In fact, many early American towns grew on the basis of this kind of investment.

Today, however, 80 cents of every dollar borrowed by a US community for a public project goes through one of 10 banks in New York. The process is byzantine and generally prevents individual buyers from directly investing in a community they care about—you have to go through a brokerage house. There are a huge number of middlemen in the system, and it’s often not clear who’s paying them. While innovations in private finance have dramatically reduced transaction costs and made investing more accessible to the average Joe (through e-trading, for example), these innovations haven’t reached the muni bond market.

Chuck observes that this results in perverse incentives for local infrastructure projects. Big banks work at big scales. Funding packages are individually put together, and often cities face a dramatic “up-sell” during that process—so you might be told that a park is too modest a project, but why don’t you also build a new high school, and also consider expanding your sewer system, and so forth… bundling projects and inflating the cost until the bond offering becomes attractive to a large institutional investor. This is one way that municipal governments face intense pressure to go into deeper debt than is prudent.

The market also rewards the tried-and-true over the new, Wilson points out. Innovative projects are less likely to obtain funding, because a small number of risk-averse players are responsible for structuring these deals.

“The finance is not going to say, do the $300 million new thing,” he explains. “It’s going to say do the $1.5 billion thing that we’ve done a few other times and that we can get behind, and that, critically, keeps central the mechanisms of control…. We think that public finance invisibly guides the nature and the scale of the things that we do in our communities in a lot of ways that are not good for either the communities or the investors.”

Neighborly seeks to disrupt this status quo by empowering individual investors to fund municipal projects. You can look at available investments by geography, or by type of project, and you can get in the game at a scale that makes sense. Should it take off, this kind of crowdfunding has the potential to revolutionize local public finance in a good way: by facilitating incremental, innovative, and right-sized projects for cities’ real, observed needs. And both Chuck and Jase are supremely excited.

Check out the full episode to hear their excitement and more insights about what ails municipal finance.

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Beyond the Buzzword: Innovation and How it Can Help Local Government Create Meaningful Change

October 7, 2018

This bonus episode of the Strong Towns Podcast is cross-posted from our other podcast It's the Little Things.

Want to better your community but don’t know where to start? Enter It’s the Little Things: a 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 features Strong Towns Community Builder Jacob Moses in conversation with various guests who have taken action in their own places and in their own ways.

No matter your current role in your city—concerned citizen, elected official, city staff—you’ve likely had this thought about your local government organizations: they’re slow to create meaningful change.

You’re not wrong. Councils postpone important agenda items; city job openings remain vacant for months; and, golly, that sidewalk you were promised sure has taken a while, huh?

Why is that?

Bureaucracy—that term you hear everyone use to explain the pace of local government organizations—contributes, of course. But more so, it’s the inability to create, foster, and test out ideas from everybody in the organization.

It’s, as my guest describes it, lack of innovation.

In this episode, I chat with Nick Kittle. He’s the former Chief Innovation Officer in government, Government Performance and Innovation Coach at Cartegraph, and author of the recently released book Sustainovation: Building Sustainable Innovation in Government, One Wildly Creative Idea at a Time.

Having worked in government innovation for almost 10 years, Nick knows innovation can be a buzzword that’s easier said than done. However, as you’ll learn in this episode, innovation is not another buzzword; instead, it’s an attainable workplace culture that, when embraced, can create meaningful change in our cities, towns, and neighborhoods.

(And, yes, make your local government organizations a little less slow.)

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Peak Delusion of the Long Emergency

October 1, 2018

Last week, Strong Towns president Chuck Marohn spoke at the International Conference of City Managers in Baltimore. He described the reaction in the room as a mixture of “Yes, that describes my situation,” and “That might describe other places, but under my leadership, things here are under control.”

In other words: a very standard reaction from a group of professionals.

The Strong Towns message can be really difficult for professionals, people whose job it is to manage the day-to-day operations of cities and make recommendations to public officials. The Upton Sinclair quote comes to mind:

It is difficult to get a man to understand something when his salary depends upon his not understanding it.

This is human nature. One gentleman stood up during the ICMA Q&A and explained how his city directly charges road maintenance costs to impacted property owners, so they don’t have the problem Chuck described. Is that all roads? No, just new ones. Does that include collector and arterial roads? No, just local ones. Well, okay then…. Problem solved, I guess????

In this episode of the Strong Towns Podcast, Chuck describes a point of “peak delusion” where professionals all kind of see how the status-quo development approach isn’t working, and increasingly see that it isn’t viable over even the short term—yet persist in the faith that continuing on the current path will somehow resolve things. Their mantra: we just have to do more (of what hasn’t been working).

And it’s not hard for those who want to avoid difficult thoughts to find affirmation. Our friends at the Market Urbanism Report like to point out that municipal bankruptcies are quite rare (since the Great Depression, when we entered the Suburban Experiment) and all the data, agencies and trends suggest they will remain rare.

Yet, there are signs that change may be coming. Companies are buying back their own stocks at a record pace, yet senior executives are dumping their stock at even greater rates. Companies like McDonald’s, with seriously declining revenues, rising levels of debt and narrowing profit margins, are able to experience large share value increases, mostly due to buybacks.

Interest rates are rising, as are budget deficits (in a booming economy, no less) to the point where the United States will soon spend more on interest than on the military.

A company like Tesla, which loses billions of dollars annually while making only 80,000 cars per year, is now worth more than BMW, a leader in high-end automobile production that not only manufactured 2 million cars last year, but made 8.7 billion euros in profit doing so. BMW is full of smart people who continually do innovative things, yet somehow they are going to be out-innovated by a company led by a serial Tweeter building cars out of tents, yet still losing money. It’s kind of a crazy world.

Yet, this is what Jim Kunstler predicted in his book The Long Emergency: a period of gimmicks and swindles designed to give the illusion that everything is fine, that it will all keep functioning like normal–or better–as far into the future as any of us can imagine.

That’s a narrative Strong Towns advocates know to be false. That’s why we need to stay calm amid the craziness, keep working at making our places stronger, and be there when things go bad and we’re most needed.

Get more of this conversation on this week’s podcast.

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Downshifting into a Meaningful Life: A Conversation With Ruben Anderson

September 24, 2018

In July, fresh out of a particularly useless focus-group session of the type with which all planners and local government types are familiar, Strong Towns Founder and President Chuck Marohn wrote an article entitled “Most Public Engagement is Worthless.” It touched a nerve with many readers, and it prompted longtime friend of Strong Towns Ruben Anderson to write his own response post taking Chuck’s argument even further: “Most Public Engagement is Worse than Worthless.”

Chuck and Ruben have a friendship that for years has been characterized by this tendency to intellectually rhyme with each other. And in today’s episode of the Strong Towns Podcast, Chuck sits down with Ruben for a peripatetic, provocative conversation about the good life, the nature of human rationality, and how we use it—or fool ourselves into thinking we’re using it—to create the good life for ourselves.

Ruben was an early reader of Strong Towns and a source of early affirmation for Chuck Marohn’s vision, when it was encountering substantial local pushback in and around Chuck’s hometown of Brainerd, Minnesota. “I’ve spent a lot of my professional life being the guy in the room that everybody hates,” Ruben says. In his own career, he has pivoted from a degree in industrial design and a career designing supposedly environmentally-friendly consumer products to the more uncomfortable realization that a gentler form of consumption was not going to reduce ecological damage. He now consults on behavioral change in pursuit of sustainability.

Ruben and Chuck talk about the human tendency to want to apply a sort of systematic, reductionist, scientific rationality to problems that fundamentally defy that approach. Much as Newtonian physics describes many phenomena well, but breaks down at very small or very large scales, so too does rational problem solving via spreadsheets and pro-con tables. “So much of the harm that we do,” says Ruben, comes from not appreciating this mismatch between approach and desired outcome. “If what you’re doing doesn’t work, it doesn’t matter if you do it bigger, or faster, or harder: it’s not going to work. What you have to do is something different, not bigger.”

Too often lost amid the dominant narrative of our culture, which says that we are rational problem-solvers who tackle grand problems, is the art and science of “muddling through”—the subject of a famous essay by Charles Lindblom. Chuck posits that if we committed ourselves to this process—making modest experiments rather than trying to solve grand problems by anticipating every variable—we might actually make better decisions than we do when we grasp for efficiency and optimization.

Ruben also describes how, in his own life, he has “downshifted” away from the pursuit of efficiency. He is an avid gardener and raises animals, and says it’s not uncommon at the Anderson table to eat a meal where everything on the table was produced right there at home. That intimacy with the food we eat and the land we live off of, something that used to be a near-universal human experience—a century ago, the majority of the food eaten even in New York City came from within seven miles—has become one that is alien to most of us.

Chuck wonders what this perspective might hold for a person in New York or San Francisco or Vancouver today. How does it relate to the argument that dense cities with elaborate supply chains—you can’t easily grow all your own food in a Manhattan apartment—make the most efficient use of scarce resources and have the least ecological impact per capita? Is the efficiency we perceive in these systems worth it? Or does it comes at the cost of a fragility that might be invisible to us until things go wrong, much as the 2008 housing crisis exposed the fragility of the suburban development model?

Says Ruben, being part of an unsustainable system is like falling from an airplane at 30,000 feet. You know you’re falling, and you know what the eventual outcome will be. But “what happens in the comments section is people begin demanding to know when you’re going to hit the ground. Tell me the day I should pull my investment out of the stock market.”

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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.

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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.

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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.

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