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!

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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?
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Programming Update

September 5, 2018

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

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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.

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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:

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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.

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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.

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How Relevant is Localism in an Age of Urgency?

August 16, 2018

This is our seventh 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, recorded in front of a smaller-than-usual crowd (it turns out that’s what happens when you’re competing with Jan Gehl), Chuck and his three guests discuss the question, “How Relevant is Localism in an Age of Urgency?” The guests for this conversation were Scott Doyon and Ben Brown, both of Placemakers, and Susana Dancy, partner with Rockwood Development in Chapel Hill, NC, and Chair of the Board of Directors of the Incremental Development Alliance.

“We are constantly told how the world is become a flaming dumpster fire,” says Chuck, introducing the day’s topic, “and that amid all these disasters, the only rational response is to do something really big. In fact, if we’re not doing that, we’re really not serious about things.” But is this “Go big or go home?” mindset the right one?

The paradox of our era is that large-scale action to tackle national and global problems can feel simultaneously more imperative and less achievable than it did in the past. Doyon suggests that localism is what’s left to us, because any attempt to unite many people behind an ambitious, huge project will end up riddled with distractions and divisions. The community solidarity that we once might have called on to “do great things together,” in the words of Thomas Friedman, has broken down.

One reason is that our communities are less homogenous than they used to be, and we have to adjust to having people at the table who don’t think like us and haven’t had the same experiences we have had. Another factor is a shift that has occurred in how we think about citizenship. Says Dancy, “We’ve trained our public that they are consumers of community, as opposed to members, or builders, of community.” This gets to why there is often intense local opposition to any sort of change at all in a place’s built form or zoning code or community culture: “Because this is what they bought.” Community, says Doyon, used to be a survival mechanism. Now, it’s a “purchased amenity.”

In that context, how do you build momentum to address even local problems, let alone national or global problems that manifest themselves locally in place after place after place? Our panelists’ answers suggest that local relationship building is crucial—there is no way around working at that level. Then, once you have local success stories and models under your belt, you gain the ability to scale up and replicate what you’ve achieved.

The Incremental Development Alliance is reaching the point in its growth where it can work directly with cities on changing regulations that are in the way of small-scale infill development. The credibility required to do this starts within communities, not with a national organization. In Columbus, Georgia, for example, a local property owner went person by person through the city council to persuade them of the value of adding on-street parking as part of a traffic calming exercise.

“That happened because of that trust that existed within that community,” says Dancy, but once it had happened, it became a model. Dancy was able to go back to Chapel Hill, where she lives, and say, to people with whom she had local credibility, “They’re doing it in Georgia. Can we do it here?”

Localism may be a necessary response to the paralysis of national and global institutions and levers of change. But that doesn’t mean that we should reject the goal of having a large, scalable impact on the world through our actions, says Brown. Instead, localism needs to be a means to produce solutions that can be replicated and that are informed by an awareness of global problems. “See if you can find the biggest little thing you can do,” he advises. It must be small enough to succeed, but big enough to have an influence. In an age of polarization and tribalism, “The only way you can get big done is to demonstrate how the little works. Then scale up.”

Listen to the podcast for these and many more thoughts on the value, urgency, and limitations of localism in an age of big, desperate problems.

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Ask Strong Towns #5

August 9, 2018

Today's Strong Towns Podcast is the audio from a recent Ask Strong Towns webcast conversation featuring President and Founder Chuck Marohn and Communications Director Kea Wilson.

Once a month, we host Ask Strong Towns to give you a chance to ask your burning questions about our vision for change, and how the Strong Towns approach might apply in your unique place—and give us a chance to share our answer with the world, so it might help other Strong Citizens.

Here are the questions discussed on this episode:

1. Long ago, Rockford, Illinois decided to not allow highway I-90 through the middle of downtown. The result was 8 miles of stroad headed to that highway, lined with big-box stores. Was Rockford really better off by not letting the highway into town?

2. If you have a town committee whose members look upon new ideas as something to dismiss or ignore or as a threat, and you want to introduce new ideas such as those of Strong Towns, how do you disrupt the status quo and get people to be open-minded?

3. You talk a lot about running local government using business principles—how cities need to actually take in more money than they spend. Why did we decide to calculate property taxes using the value of a property, instead of the cost incurred by that property?

4. Macon-Bibb County has had the highest pedestrian death rate in Georgia for 6 of the last 7 years. A review board was created to address the problem, but its focus has been entirely on blaming the victim—teaching people walking how not to get run over. We have two interstates and numerous stroads, and lots of financial challenges. How do I educate our leaders about the role of street design in pedestrian safety?

5. How do I convince my town’s director of public works and town engineer to plant street trees between the sidewalk and the street, rather than only on private property?

6. What cities are leaders in urban forestry?

7. I would like to increase the tourist industry in my town of about 100,000. It’s not an industry that’s well respected where I am. Do you have any insights into how to communicate the benefits of adding another industry to the economic base of this area?

8. I hear two views on how to address a housing shortage in Denver: 1) Add density, where you need it, but incrementally and with fewer zoning restrictions, vs. 2) Add density, but only in the form of large developments, so your city can make deals and require below-market-rate housing. What would you say to Person 2 to bring them closer to Person 1’s position?

9. How does Chuck feel about Duany Plater-Zyberk’s Smart Code and other form-based codes? Is form-based coding consistent with a Strong Towns approach?

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E-Scooters and Who Takes Up Space in Cities

August 2, 2018

A long-time volunteer and contributor to Strong Towns, Andrew Burleson is a software engineer and project manager in San Francisco, California. He currently serves on the Board of Strong Towns. Andrew has been a key advocate for the transition of the group from an engineering-centric blog to a broader movement-building organization.

Today, Andrew joins Chuck Marohn on the podcast to discuss the 2018 trend sweeping many of America's major and somewhat-less-major cities: electric scooters.

Andrew tells Chuck about his experience with the rollout of a fleet of rentable, dockless, drop-off-anywhere scooters in San Francisco—before the city instituted a moratorium on the fledgling transportation revolution—and his conversion from skeptic ("It's not for me. I'm a grown-up; I bicycle. Scooters are a kid's thing.") to fan ("The low learning curve really is real. Just about anyone can do it.").

San Francisco is in an unusual place among North American cities: it has "hit the parking ceiling." The city has a highly compact, walkable development pattern, but mobility issues for its residents center around limited space: space on packed trains, and space on the city's streets. Virtually "every inch of San Francisco that's not a building is a parking space," says Burleson.

And yet, a dramatic expansion of the city and region's rapid transit offerings, to create a truly universal alternative to driving, is not in the cards. The Bay Area lacks the resources or the political will to build out subway lines that have been proposed over the years. What it can do is think differently about how urban space is allocated, and maybe teach other cities a lesson or two in the process.

Cars take up a tremendous amount of space. Cars parked, or looking for parking, or waiting to drop someone off, are a major cause of urban congestion. The result, in a city like SF, is that the fastest way to get across town, for those able-bodied enough to do it, has long been bicycling. Bicycles can "fit through the gaps" while cars sit at congested intersections.

Scooters, were they to become widespread, could dramatically expand a constituency that now consists mostly of cyclists: those interested in reconsidering how much space on our public streets should be dedicated to car drivers versus other users.

Listen to the whole thing to hear Chuck and Andrew discuss these issues as well as:

  • Are scooters a form of "clutter" in the cities where they've been rolled out?
  • What cultural norms govern the way we perceive scooters versus parked cars, and will those evolve?
  • Are people comfortable with the hierarchy of urban street space now, or is there tension?
  • How profitable is the e-scooter industry?
  • Why are cities seeking to ban or restrict the proliferation of e-scooters?
  • What is the future of scooters in our cities, given the current regulatory backlash?
  • How could scooters affect other aspects of our development pattern, including the political acceptability of Missing Middle housing?
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