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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From Vision to Policy, Making New Urbanism Work

July 26, 2018

This is our sixth 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, Susan Henderson (principal and director of design at Placemakers), Hazel Borys (principal and managing director at Placemakers), and Marina Khoury (architect and a partner at Duany Plater-Zyberk & Company) discuss the challenges of engaging with client communities for the successful implementation of New Urbanist innovations such as form-based zoning codes.

Questions discussed in this podcast include:

 

  • How do you go about engaging with communities around a vision, so that when you get to the stage of implementing policy, you’re confident that you’ve got the vision right?
  • Are we doing visioning well when it comes to New Urbanist ideas, and getting the communities we work in on board with those ideas?
  • How do you get a more representative cross-section of the community engaged in the planning process?
  • How is public engagement different in affluent communities versus those facing more socioeconomic challenges?
  • What are the cues, when you walk in the door, that tell you whether a place is going to be receptive to change?
  • How do you deal with local staff that have limited capacity or interest in working with you?
  • How do you overcome an internal roadblock, when your proposal gets to that one person in the bureaucracy who can derail it?
  • How do you start the conversation with elected officials who aren’t receptive to your ideas?
  • How do you deal with things that are outside the scope of what you can solve?
  • Zoning has come in for a lot of criticism lately from multiple corners of society. How can zoning be a tool for constructive change?
  • Why is the change from a use-based code to a form-based code such a dramatic shift?
  • What are the highest priority changes you urge client communities to implement?
  • Do you prefer to do full citywide code rewrites, or improve a city’s zoning code through more incremental steps?
  • How do you deal with the backlash to a policy that has been too successful and resulted in changes that spur community opposition?
  • How would you respond to the critique that you can’t legislate quality development or architecture?
  • How is capacity building part of what you do, beyond a normal consultant relationship?
  • What do you do to share the lessons you’ve learned?
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Suburban Poverty Meets Sprawl Retrofit

July 19, 2018

This is our fourth 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, June Williamson (associate professor of architecture at the City College of New York), Dan Reed (urban planner and writer) and Galina Tachieva (managing partner at DPZ), discuss the clashes and overlaps between sprawl retrofit and suburban poverty.

Questions discussed in this podcast include:

  • What's the latest research on sprawl retrofit?
  • What are some successful examples of sprawl retrofit?
  • Can retrofit happen using a basic, repeatable template, or do local leaders need to be equipped to decide what's best for their community?
  • In smaller communities without deep pockets, where is the capital going to come from to make these sorts of changes?
  • Where should we invest the money and time to do retrofit, and where does it make more sense to "re-green," i.e. return failing suburban developments back to nature? How do we, culturally, make these decisions when they impact real towns and real (often low-income) people?
  • How do communities handle the increasing pressure on their suburban areas to maintain a certain lifestyle while many of the residents who live in these places simply can't afford the immense costs of suburban infrastructure?
  • In communities dominated by failing suburban developments and utterly lacking investment, is there any strategy to save them?
  • Many lower income Americans who reach a level of financial comfort want to make their homes in the suburbs. Should people (like New Urbanists) who feel they see the writing on the wall in terms of the declining future of suburbs tell these folks to give up on their dream of owning a home in the suburbs?
  • What mental models and assumptions are enabling and underlying the decisions that have gone into the suburban development pattern?
  • What will America look like 20 years from now if suburban retrofit succeeds? What percent of America can actually be retrofitted?
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What does it mean to build a vibrant community?

July 12, 2018

Quint Studer is the founder of Pensacola, Florida's Studer Community Institute, a nonprofit organization focused on improving the community's quality of life and moving Escambia and Santa Rosa Counties forward. He is a businessman, visionary, entrepreneur and Strong Towns member. His new book is Building A Vibrant Community: How Citizen-Powered Change Is Reshaping America.

In this engaging conversation, Chuck Marohn and Quint Studer discuss:

  • What does it mean to be a vibrant community?
  • How do leaders help communities get unstuck from a negative trajectory?
  • Should we stop wasting time trying to appeal to and listen to the naysayers in our towns?
  • How do you balance the need to take small, incremental steps with community desires to execute big visions and address big problems?
  • How can we learn from other communities' successes without trying to copy exactly what they've done in our town?
  • Why is downtown the best place to begin your community's revitalization efforts?
  • What is the role of local government in guiding the future of a successful town?
  • How important are wealthy community benefactors today?
  • How can revitalization efforts benefit all residents, especially those in poorer neighborhoods?
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Ask Strong Towns #4 (June 2018)

July 5, 2018

Every 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.

The live Ask Strong Towns webcast is open to all Strong Towns members, but afterward, we share the audio on our podcast.

Below you'll find that audio, with a conversation led by Strong Towns staff members, Chuck Marohn and Kea Wilson. In this episode, Chuck and Kea discuss several audience-submitted questions on topics ranging from from parking minimums to density to how young people can help build Strong Towns

Here are the questions discussed in this episode:

  • What are some of the arguments you’ve heard over the years “for” parking minimums (i.e. leaving it the way we’ve always done it), rather than moving towards a parking maximum model? If I'm going in front of elected officials to lobby for a change, what arguments should I anticipate and how should I answer them?
  • If a city has large green- or gray-field lots, what can it do to promote fine-grained development in these places, especially in climates where developers are hungry to build the biggest project they can?
  • When talking to policymakers, how can you shift the conversation away from the overly simple "all density is good density" and towards adding value through a broader set of solutions, like mixed use development, multi-story buildings, limited parking, infill development, etc.?
  • I go to college a few hours from my home, and my home is immediately outside of the principal city in my region. What can I do during my college years to stay involved in a city I don't live in at all during the year, but that I intend to move into after my career?
  • What do you think of special “District” initiatives, the "Cultural Innovation District" in New Orleans?
  • As a young(ish) engineer who subscribes to Strong Towns ideas and wants to make a difference in his home town, would you recommend that I pursue a planning degree in addition to my civil engineering degree, especially if I have a chance to work in city government?
  • People in our small town tend to be very engaged and hold strong opinions. Big community issues can turn nasty, especially now with social media. Any suggestions on how to engage civil discourse without personal attacks?
  • Our town is embarking on a large development project in the core of downtown financed via a Tax Increment Financing. The short version of the explanation we got from our Town Council is that the tax revenue generated from the new project will be set aside to fund the project. Doesn't TIF = debt? What questions would help enlighten our taxpayers?
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The Week Ahead: From Technical Writer to Grocery Store Owner to Community Builder

July 2, 2018

On this episode, Rachel introduces her colleague, Jacob Moses, who is Strong Towns' new Community Builder. Jacob discusses his unique background in technical writing and grocery store management, and how he ended up at Strong Towns.

Mentioned in this podcast

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Autonomous Vehicles: Separating the Hype from Reality

June 28, 2018

This is our fourth 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, Jeffrey Tumlin, Principal and Director of Strategy at Nelson Nygaard, and Corey Ershow, Transportation Policy Manager at Lyft, discuss the hype around autonomous vehicles and what the AV future might actually look like.

Questions discussed in this podcast include:

  • How will autonomous vehicles fit into our existing taxi and ride-hailing network?
  • How far are we in the technological progression toward autonomous vehicles?
  • Autonomous vehicles seem to work okay on a closed course, but what about in a complex urban space?
  • If we don't criminalize "jaywalking," how can humans and autonomous vehicles interact in a way that allows both to move freely and safely in an urban environment?
  • Will autonomous vehicles take over our cities and marginalize pedestrians, or might the opposite happen as a result of automation?
  • Will autonomous vehicles encourage longer suburban commuting?
  • What are governments doing right, in anticipation of autonomous vehicles?
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The Week Ahead: Get to know our new summer intern

June 25, 2018

This week, Rachel's guest is Connor Nielsen, our summer intern who is working with both Strong Towns and our friends at the geoanalytics firm, Urban3, to share data-related stories throughout the next few months. Connor talks about what led him to this internship and what he hopes to work on this summer.

MENTIONED IN THIS EPISODE

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