February 22, 2021
As leaders in Washington, DC look to stimulate the American economy, one course of action with bipartisan support—as per usual—is to pour money into infrastructure. Yet as Strong Towns readers know, infrastructure spending often leads cities down the road of insolvency rather than prosperity, and not all infrastructure spending is alike.
In a recent two-part policy brief, Joseph W. Kane and Shalini Vajjhala of The Brookings Institution’s Metropolitan Policy Program wrote that “to truly improve the country’s infrastructure and help the most vulnerable households, federal leaders cannot simply throw more money at shiny new projects. Instead, they must invest with purpose and undo the harms of our legacy infrastructure systems.” They continued: “Above all, leaders should prioritize people over projects in our infrastructure plans. In practice, that means defining, measuring, and addressing our infrastructure challenges based on the needs of users of new and existing systems.”
One of the authors of that brief, Joseph Kane, is the guest on this week’s episode of the Strong Towns podcast. Kane is a senior research associate and associate follow at the Metropolitan Policy Program. An economist and urban planner, his work focuses on wide array of built environment issues, including transportation and water infrastructure.
In this jam-packed episode, Strong Towns president Chuck Marohn talks with Kane about the role infrastructure spending could play as part of the recovery agenda. Kane and Marohn discuss why “building back better” (President Biden’s phrase) doesn’t have to mean “build back new;” it could mean build back different, build less, and maybe even take down what we’ve already built. They also talk about whether an infrastructure bill in the trillions of dollars can address the nuances of what’s actually needed at the local level, whether Americans are more comfortable with catastrophic failures than the small ones that might teach valuable lessons along the way toward economic resilience, and about Kane and Vajjhala’s four strategies that can help undo the harms of “legacy infrastructure systems.”
Additional Show Notes:
February 15, 2021
Since January 2017, at least once a month (and often more frequently than that), Strong Towns president Chuck Marohn has co-hosted a radio show on 91.7 KAXE, Northern Community Radio, along with his friend Aaron Brown—an author, reporter, and educator—and Heidi Holtan, the station’s News and Public Affairs Director. Since the debut of Dig Deep, topics have varied widely: the 2020 election, Minnesota politics, the killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis, climate change, rural life, health care, universal basic income, the history and future of labor unions in Minnesota, and the cohosts’ latest books, among many others. The show’s aim? To “model some good behavior in our world—a place where a liberal can talk to a conservative and a conservative can talk to a liberal and be not only civil, but actually listen.” (Chuck represents the more conservative viewpoint, and Aaron the more progressive viewpoint.)
In the most recent episode of Dig Deep, Chuck and Aaron discussed what democracy looks like in 2021 and beyond. The conversation is short—less than 20 minutes—but lively. The two friends talk about whether the United States is becoming more democratic, whether our institutions work better the more democratic they become, and how all levels of government can become not just more representative of the people but more responsive to their actual needs. We wanted to share the episode with our audience by re-broadcasting (along with a short introduction by Chuck) on the Strong Towns podcast.
While the Strong Towns organization is fiercely non-partisan, the Strong Towns movement is comprised of people from across the political spectrum. Left, right, and everywhere in between, people are coming together to build stronger and more financially resilient cities. No matter where you are on that spectrum, and no matter how you would answer that question—“What does democracy look like now?”—one thing we can agree on: friends talking (and listening) well across their differences must be a part of it.
February 8, 2021
The ongoing pandemic has raised big questions about the future of North American cities. For example, we’ve heard for almost a year now that COVID-19 will be the end of cities and the triumph of the suburbs. After all, why would people who could work anywhere choose to live in dense, plague-riddled cities? We’ve published our share of responses to this line of thinking—including articles by Joe Cortight of City Observatory, Joe Minicozzi of Urban3, and others—but the gloomy predictions keep coming.
For years, one person we at Strong Towns have turned to again and again for wisdom on the present and future of cities is Richard Florida. Florida is a researcher and professor at the University of Toronto, the author of numerous books—including the modern classic, The Rise of the Creative Class—and the co-founder of CityLab.
Strong Towns president Chuck Marohn invited Florida back to the Strong Towns podcast to talk about the choices facing cities now and after the pandemic. They discuss Florida’s insight that where talent goes, innovation and economic development are sure to follow...and what that looks like in an era of remote work. “Remote work,” Florida says, “gives the knowledge worker a larger portfolio of choices [of where to live].” What cities are best positioned to attract that talent now? They also talk about the future of superstar cities like New York and London, why some cities (Toronto and Minneapolis are examples) are stuck in two worlds, and how the pandemic has widened the socioeconomic gaps between the “privileged third” and everyone else.
This conversation is available both as a podcast and on video.
Additional Show Notes:
February 1, 2021
In last week’s episode of the Strong Towns podcast, Chuck Marohn, the founder and president of Strong Towns, talked with the economist Alison Schrager about uncertainty and risk. In this week’s episode, Chuck provides some additional thoughts on risk—and, in particular, the risks towns and cities are taking with their financial futures.
Not only are communities making bad bets by going all-in on the Suburban Experiment, they assume the government (state and federal) or the market will be there to bail them out if the worse—functional, or actual, insolvency—happens. But, as Chuck demonstrates, that’s an awfully big assumption.
For one thing, the federal government and the market are taking huge risks themselves. We can’t count on the market to bail us out; the market today is almost absurdly irrational. And the federal government is a tenuous partner at best. No one has studied just much money the feds can actually afford to borrow. How much debt runway do we have? No one knows, but we’re hurtling down it with abandon.
For another thing, because our communities are being built according to the same one-size-fits-all suburban development pattern, they’re likely to fail in the same way. We’re 100% correlated, Chuck says. In that scenario, which cities will get rescued? What will differentiate your town from the one up the road?
Drawing on the work of Tomas Sedlacek, Nassim Nicholas Taleb, and others, Chuck talks about all the assumptions the government, market, and local communities are all making about one another. Then he talks about how the truly strong towns can take their financial futures into their own hands.
Additional Show Notes
January 25, 2021
Is there a meaningful difference between risk and uncertainty? On the face of it, we might not think so; in casual usage, we could employ the words interchangeably. But some economists see an important distinction between the two. Early in the American experience of the pandemic, economist Allison Schrager wrote an op-ed for The Wall Street Journal called “Risk, Uncertainty and Coronavirus” (paywall). “The novel coronavirus appears at first to be a problem of risk management,” she wrote. “It is a dangerous disease that threatens the lives of our neighbors and loved ones. Our response—increased social distancing, shutting down businesses—is aimed at reducing that risk. But the problem isn’t risk so much as uncertainty.”
She goes on to explain that not long after the 1918 flu pandemic, another economist, Frank Knight, made a distinction between risk and uncertainty. Schrager picks up there:
The future is unknowable, but risk is measurable. It can be estimated using data, provided similar situations have happened before. Uncertainty, on the other hand, deals with outcomes we can’t predict or never saw coming.
Risk can be managed. Uncertainty makes it impossible to weigh costs and benefits, such as whether reducing the spread of a virus is worth the cost of an economic shutdown that could last several months. The most responsible course of action is to assume the worst and take the most risk-averse position. Managing uncertainty is expensive: In markets, it means holding cash; in society, it means shutting down.
Strong Towns president Chuck Marohn says he’s gone back to Schrager’s Wall Street Journal piece, as well as her other writing, numerous times throughout the pandemic. That’s why it’s a special pleasure to welcome her on this week’s episode of the Strong Towns podcast.
Allison Schrager is a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute, author of the book An Economist Walks into a Brothel: And Other Places to Understand Risk, and cofounder of LifeCycle Finance Partners, LLC, a risk management firm. In this episode, Marohn and Schrager talk about that difference between risk and uncertainty, the tension between efficiency and adaptability, and whether people are geographically sorting during the pandemic based on risk preference. They discuss why meatpackers in Iowa were more prescient about the coronavirus than global finance experts in New York. And they discuss how local communities should be thinking about their own fragility. “The only insurance against uncertainty,” says Schrager, “is resilience.”
January 18, 2021
Most American transit systems were fragile before the pandemic—struggling for revenue, dependent for survival on federal money, inadequate fares, debt, and, in some cases, donations from local businesses. The pandemic has exacerbated these problems and turned existing transit models on their heads.
In late December, Gabrielle Gurley, a deputy editor at The American Prospect, wrote an article about how transit systems have responded to the pandemic. “Most operators have mastered the virus precautions, requiring masks, social distancing, and deep-cleaning and disinfecting,” she wrote. “Some have coped better than others, though, in rethinking how to serve passengers who are no longer living in 9-to-5 worlds, and accepting the new realities about how to retain and secure funding at a time when Republican elected officials have blocked any federal response since last spring.” A survey last fall found the majority of transit agencies plan to cut service to close funding gaps.
Gurley is our guest on this week’s episode of the Strong Towns podcast. She talks with host Chuck Marohn, founder and president of Strong Towns, about the convulsive effects 2020 had on American transit systems, how the transit experience has changed, and why the politics of transit funding is so challenging. They also discuss the cuts many agencies have planned (or have already implemented), how transit funding reflects what we value as a society, and how the pandemic will change spending priorities from expansion to taking care of basics. As Gurley says, “As nice as it would be to have a spiffy, high-speed train going from DC to New York in two hours…maybe we fix the [leaky] tunnel first.”
Additional Show Notes
January 11, 2021
Last week’s episode of the Strong Towns podcast featured the first half of the conversation between Chuck Marohn, founder and president of Strong Towns, and Matt Yglesias, the bestselling author of One Billion Americans: The Case for Thinking Bigger. Yglesias is the host of The Weeds podcast and cofounder of Vox Media. He recently launched the blog and newsletter Slow Boring.
In Part 1, Yglesias made the case for tripling the U.S. population, discussing how it would make America stronger at the community level and as a whole. Now in Part 2, Marohn and Yglesias talk about why the concept might be especially good for small towns and depopulated Rust Belt cities, how Yglesias addresses concerns about gentrification, and what needs to change about our economics and development pattern in order for “one billion Americans“ to be a prosperity-generating change rather than a prosperity-killing one. They also discuss Yglesias’s recent article on fixing the mass transit crisis.
Additional Show Notes:
January 4, 2021
Does the United States have too few people? It’s a provocative question—but one perhaps not asked often enough. And journalist Matthew Yglesias has an even more provocative answer.
In his new bestselling book, One Billion Americans: The Case for Thinking Bigger, Yglesias makes the case for tripling the American population. The U.S. is not “full,” he writes in the book’s introduction. “Many of its iconic cities—including not just famous cases of collapse like Detroit but also Philadelphia and Chicago and dozens of smaller cities like Rochester and Erie—actually have fewer residents than they had decades ago. And virtually all of our thriving cities easily have room to grow and accommodate more people.” As things stand now, he says, the United States is “staring down the barrel of inevitable relative decline.” The economies of China and India are growing quickly and threaten America’s position as the world’s leading power. And there are compelling domestic reasons for growing the population too.
Matthew Yglesias is the special guest on this week’s episode of the Strong Towns podcast. (It’s our first podcast of 2021, and the first of a two-part interview.) Yglesias is the host of The Weeds podcast and cofounder of Vox Media, and he recently launched the new blog and newsletter Slow Boring. In this episode, he talks with Strong Towns founder and president Chuck Marohn about why population growth would make the U.S. stronger—not just at the international level but as a “community of communities.” They also discuss why the idea of one billion Americans is actually a centrist one, why it doesn’t have to be an environmental disaster, and how it can get done.
Part 2 of the interview will run next week. But we think by the end of this episode you’ll see why Chuck named One Billion Americans one of the best books he read in 2020.
Additional Show Notes:
December 14, 2020
In 1986, the Italian journalist Carlo Petrini organized a protest of the opening of a McDonald’s restaurant near the Spanish Steps in Rome. Holding bowls of penne pasta, the protestors chanted, “We don’t want fast food, we want slow food.”
By one standard, the protest was unsuccessful: the McDonald’s opened as planned. (It was apparently such a big deal that teenagers “nearly stormed the restaurant, stopping traffic and causing havoc in the streets.”) Yet not all was lost, because out of that demonstration was birthed Slow Food, an international movement that now has 150,000 members worldwide. Slow Food helps save endangered foods and food traditions, promotes local food and drink, and re-educates industrialized eaters on how to enjoy real food again. We’re so far removed from where our food comes from that we literally have to re-learn how to taste.
Slow Food has also gone on to inspire other Slow movements, including Slow Money and Slow Cities. While these movements differ in subject, scope, and strategy, what they have in common is their opposition to what the sociologist George Ritzer described as McDonaldization, or “the process by which the principles of the fast-food restaurant are coming to dominate more and more sectors of American society.” Ritzer identified four core values of McDonaldization:
- Calculability (a focus on countable results)
- and Control, which runs through all the others.
Food, money, and cities aren’t, of course, the only areas of life to have ceded ground to the “cult of speed.” According to Strong Towns content manager John Pattison, the North American church has proven just as susceptible as the rest of culture to the promises of McDonaldization. That’s why for the better part of a decade, John and his friend Chris Smith have been exploring and promoting the concept of “Slow Church.” A Slow Church is a faith community deeply rooted in the pace and place of its neighborhood, a church working with neighbors to weave a fabric of care in their particular place. Together, John and Chris wrote the book Slow Church: Cultivating Community in the Patient Way of Jesus.
In this week’s episode of the Strong Towns podcast—the final episode of 2020—Strong Towns president Chuck Marohn invited John to talk about Slow Church and how the Slow Church and Strong Towns conversations overlap. They discuss what it means to be a “slow church,” the importance of proximity, why human beings are “called to community,” and what a polarized country can learn from the stunning diversity among Jesus’ apostles. They also talk about how churches are working in their neighborhoods, "grocery aisle accountability," and how—led by churches—John’s town has made eating together part of the community fabric.
Additional Show Notes:
December 7, 2020
It happens all the time: there are certain things entrepreneurs and commercial property owners know they need in their business district to really thrive—a relentless approach to maintenance, a high level of cleanliness, increased public safety, splashes of beauty, physical improvements, etc.—yet their town or city can’t afford to provide them.
How to fill those gaps? For an increasing number of places, the answer is to form a business improvement district. Business improvement districts are designed to help close the gaps in communities without the tax base to provide the services and improvements essential for economic development.
Today’s guest on the Strong Towns podcast is an expert on business improvement districts. Chris Bernardo is president and CEO of Commercial District Services, a Jersey City-based firm that manages business improvement districts in New York and Bernardo's native New Jersey. In this episode, Bernardo and Strong Towns president Chuck Marohn talk about why many cities don’t have the resources to keep a place looking good and working well, how that hurts businesses, and why business improvement districts are a powerful and flexible solution. They contrast how cities usually approach maintenance with how Disney theme parks approach maintenance. And they talk about why the business improvement district is a pragmatic and practical model more cities should be utilizing.
Additional Show Notes