This week I was able to teleconference with landscape architect Benjamin Morton and Mike Lydon of the Street Plans Collaborative on our appearance as speakers for CNU 18's NextGen 7. NextGen is the name given to the Next Generation of New Urbanists. I am really honored to be able to bring a little Strong Towns philosophy to Thursday morning's session, where Ben and Mike will also be presenting. They seem like intelligent, informed and thoughtful guys. I am looking forward to meeting them in person and learning something from their presentations. So, if you have not registered for CNU 18 yet, it is definitely the place to be the third week of May.

Enjoy this week's news.

  • Public Management magazine (I've just branded myself as a total geek) had the most fascinating article about how cities with a AAA fiscal rating are handling the economic crisis compared to cities that are not so highly rated. If you assume these cities are more professionally and competently managed, the results are revealing. AAA rated cities are more likely to make targeted budget cuts instead of across the board cuts, are more likely to leave open positions unfilled, are less willing to defray maintenance and are more likely to raise fees. While Moodys is not on anyone's list of most-admired-companies, the correlation between the AAA rating they bestow and the intelligent approach to the crisis was really telling.

Across-the-board cuts are often rooted in a sense of fairness: every agency should contribute to the cause. Across-the-board cuts can also be a way to avoid tough decisions: targeted cuts require a serious discussion of community values, relative benefits of different services, and long-term implications.

  • The NY Times did a piece on the city of Perry, Iowa, and their approach to economic development, which is opposite of the standard "chasing smokestacks" approach used by most small towns (because our state and federal economic development policies encourage it). This is a great story of a city that has taken a real Strong Towns approach. I may have to move there.

Perry’s fortunes dived in the late 1970s, when the Milwaukee Road, the last of the rail lines that sustained the town from its founding in 1869, was shut. But rather than trying to land one big project or employer, in the 1990s Perry embraced a development strategy based on adding recreation, lodging, education and clean energy to its traditional strength in livestock agriculture, and it has been steadily picking up momentum even in the face of the severe national recession.

  • In terms of adopting a Strong Towns approach, the Environmental Leader posted an article that analyzed NY Mayor Michael Bloomberg's management of the city and how he has adopted many fiscal approaches from private industry. While we understand that government can not simply be a business venture without the profit, paying attention to things like return-on-investment should be common sense, especially in a time of fiscal tightening.

Mayor Bloomberg championed PlaNYC and shepherded its creation using pragmatic principles borrowed from the business world: an emphasis on innovation, a disciplined focus on goals and cost-benefit analysis, and a commitment to accountability made possible by tireless efforts to measure and analyze data.

  • The innovation in NY is interesting in the context of a growing movement to empower cities and/or economic regions over states. A blog post by Mary Newsome of The Naked City reports on a radical idea: abolish states. There is no question that there is a valid point to be made here. As Jane Jacobs taught us, the organizing geography of economies is the metropolitan area. The article is worth reading, but you can also get sidetracked (like I did) imagining a wholesale realignment of continents along socio-economic lines as the Economist did with Europe this week.

"You create the new American economy in cities," [ex-Miami Mayor Manny] Diaz said. He and [ex-Seattle Mayor Greg] Nickels – and, I imagine, multiple other mayors – are enormously frustrated that state elected officials don't recognize that the nation's economy, and by extension the states' economies, are created in the nation's cities. The Miami economy, Diaz noted, is the 11th largest economy in the nation and bigger than most state economies.

  • As we have discussed here many times, our national transportation policy creates perverse incentives that encourage us, on one hand, to expand our systems without end while on the other hand we forgo critical maintenance on what we already have. Transportation for America has an interesting take on this problem and some solutions for policymakers.

Whether in states with low or high population, Americans are concentrating more and more in urban areas, both large and small. Yet our national policy seems almost to be designed to thwart urban mobility. Roads and bridges in our towns and metro areas take the worst pounding, and are most in need of repair and maintenance, but don’t get the resources they need. Metros plagued by congestion need a full array of tools: fixes to bottleneck-creating highway designs, rail and busways, congestion-management technology and planning and land-use approaches that minimize impact on highways and maximize transit investments.

But as we said before, the DOTs have one tool: bigger highways. You know the old saw: When your only tool is a hammer, every problem looks like a nail.

  • I want to take a moment to promote a thoughtful series of articles by David Levinson on high speed rail. I kept reading the articles in the series thinking: Wow! I love the Internet. I used to pay for that stuff when I was a student of Professor Levinson's. There are seven parts to the series, so go back to the home page of The Transportationist blog and scroll down to get the entire thing.
  • My hometown newspaper does this brief each day where they look back decade by decade at the news of the day. The April 28th entry demonstrates just how dramatically our living patterns have changed over what is a very short period - just two generations. It was not that long ago that our communities were much different places.

60 years ago (1950)

A team of runaway horses crashed into a car at Fifth and Laurel Streets, injuring the driver of the car. Following the crash the horses continued down several streets until a boy jumped from a moving car into the wagon, bringing it to a halt.

  • Finally, some bizarre propaganda and fun with numbers by the Center for State and Local Government Excellence suggests that state and local workers not only make less than their private sector counterparts, they do so while being more highly educated. The website actually suggests the poor compensation of public employees is causing governments to have difficulty in hiring. Say what? We have a former employee we had to let go from CGI due to the economic slowdown who applied for one government job and is competing with 2,000 applicants. I've worked with local governments for 20 years and never seen a community that did not have vastly more applicants than openings. I'm sure the Center is just trying to counter the pervasive number of reports that the compensation gap greatly favors public employees. If that is the case, they have a long way to go to "correct" the widely held perception.