Happy New Year to all of our readers. We have not published a News Digest since the middle of December and so the challenge this week was sifting through this huge stack of stuff. I think you will find the mix here worth your time.

I realize the nation is in a cold spell and so I am not likely to get much in the way of sympathy by talking about how cold it is here. Take some solace, as I am, in the fact that it is roughly six weeks until pitchers and AL MVP's report to Spring Training.

Enjoy this week's news:

  • My political views tend to be to the right (and that is balanced here at Strong Towns by others that lean to the left). I offer that comment as a prelude to my amusement (in lieu of frustration) with the Republicans and their philosophical contradictions on infrastructure spending. Limited government. More roads means more freedom. Reduced budgets. More spending on infrastructure means more jobs. This article is a thoughtful discussion of some of the inherent contradictions in my party's approach to infrastructure.
  • Engineers are brilliant at what they do, but the lack of a competent brake (the planning profession) on their throttle has left us with a country overrun with infrastructure. We build our world primarily with their values: bigger, wider, deeper, straighter, more. These are fine values for engineers to have, but they need to be balanced with other values of society. One of the strongest hammers engineers have in their arsenal of hammers is "safety". This article presents a thoughtful discussion on one of the problems with the engineer line of reasoning on safety.

Keeping in mind Garrison Keillor’s quip about Lake Wobegon being a place where “all the children are above average”, by definition 50% of all roads will have crash rates above the average. This will be true no matter how many road improvements we make. We could reduce crash rates across the board by 90% and half of road segments will still be more dangerous than average.

What this does is build in a bias for road improvements to address safety issues. This particular EIS did not even attempt to compare crash rates against a target level for this type of facility or any other type of metric of what should be expected apart from comparison to the average. For any road with a crash rate above the average (which is by definition half of them), “improving safety” is an all purpose rationale for highway investment. It’s a bogeyman that can be used to scare us into projects.

  • While my "favorite" local project has been delayed for environmental paperwork, it is refreshing to see that my fellow citizens commenting on the article agree with the common-sense notion that spending $7+ million on a mile of local street is fiscally crazy. They also seem to grasp that while "we get ours" with this project, we are also funding this insanity in other places across the country. And that is not a fair tradeoff. 
  • We have advocated, for ROI reasons, consideration of game-changing "mega-projects" instead of the myriad of expensive, community-destroying local projects. My home state of Minnesota released its statewide rail plan this week and it included a mini version of a mega-project: rail connection between Minneapolis and Chicago. It is certain, however, that in the four years it took China to build a truly mega-project, we'll still be spending money trying to decide what to do.
  • The NY Times delved into the classic utilitarian argument inherent in events like flooding in the Red River Valley. Do we create a diversion that floods thousands of "low-value" acreage in order to lower the threat to the high-value properties? Is that fair? Is that American? Is that common sense? Would it matter if we simply use this newfound capacity to build more threatened properties and adopt more practices that enhance the runoff problem? No easy answers, but the article is well done and thoughts are worthy of the brain capacity.
  • There are 36 states - including mine here in Minnesota - that have budget shortfalls for their current budget even though we are only half a year into it. Some of these are catastrophically huge. While a Strong Towns approach is not going to solve such gaping financial holes in the near-term, we need to rethink our approach to growth and development if we want to restore some structural stability to our system, let alone ponder prosperity again.
  • I listened to a podcast from NPR this week that talked about the most demanded jobs in the coming decades. The lament of the discussion was that they were all low-wage, service jobs primarily in the health care sector. You know, the kind of things we expect robots to do someday (make beds, prepare meals, etc...). Then I read this article from US News and World Report naming Urban Planning as one of the best careers in 2010. Check out this description of the related "stresses" planners must endure (I've may have added that last sentence myself).

Urban planners often have tight deadlines and work schedules. They may also face acute pressure from citizens groups or politicians who strongly favor or oppose specific building projects. Be prepared to explain and defend your ideas and negotiate compromises. Most planners also ultimately have to come to grips in their career with the disheartening realization that all of the hours lost to meetings, all of the presentations to mindless bureaucrats and short-sighted politicians and all of the flesh lost to citizens and advocacy groups have only created, in the best situation, a mediocre improvement on the lives of humanity that, itself, is but a Ponzi scheme waiting to collapse.

  • If you only read one article in this News Digest, make it this one on the high cost of ignoring the aesthetics of building and neighborhood design. The author makes some excellent observations on the way in which we, as a culture, look at building the human environment and how that contrasts to the way other cultures around the world have different values. As our relatively new country begins to age, it is evident to many that we are not doing so gracefully. I am part of a growing movement of planners that believe this will ultimately cost us financially, as well as socially.

The first assumption, that beauty is subjective, owes much of its appeal to the fact that it is functional in a democratic culture. By making this assumption you avoid giving offense to the one whose taste differs from yours. He likes garden gnomes, illuminated Christmas displays, Bing Crosby singing “White Christmas,” and a thousand other things that send shudders down the educated spine. But that’s his taste, and he is entitled to it. Leave him to enjoy it and he will leave you to get on with listening to Beethoven quartets, collecting antiques, and designing your house in the style of Palladio. But sometimes the assumption becomes dysfunctional. Each year his illuminated Christmas display increases in size, gets more bright and obtrusive, and lasts longer. Eventually his house has an all-year round Christmas tree, with Santa protruding from the chimney and brightly shining reindeer on the lawn. To be honest, the sight is insufferable, and entirely spoils the view from your window. You retaliate by playing Wagner late at night, only to receive blasts of Bing Crosby in the early hours. Here is the democratic culture at work—on its way to mutual destruction.

  • Minnesota has its own version of the Kelo versus New London case pending that we will want to keep an eye on. The City of Eagen condemned property for economic development purposes and it sounds as if one Supreme Court justice thinks they went too far.
  • I want to send a thank you to Randal O'Toole, who we wrote about here this past Monday. Not only was he good enough to post a nice comment on this site but he followed up with an equally kind email. O'Toole has a blog called The Antiplanner, dedicated to the sunset of government planning. We may not agree on the premise, but I anticipate we will have some valuable discussions here on those thoughts in the coming months.
  • Last year we published a series of videos from an Andres Duany lecture in San Antonio. I've run across a new series of Duany giving the Smart Growth Summit keynote. Here is the first in the series - definitely worth your time.