Like many of you, I've been mentally absorbed the past two weeks with the news coverage from Egypt. I understand there are many geopolitical complexities here, but I can't help cheering for the Egyptian on the street that has grown up in a country without any real political freedom or much in the way of opportunity. As Natan Sharansky (a Jewish dissident from the former Soviet Union who now lives in Egypt's neighboring country, Israel) points out in his inspiring book The Case for Democracy, the human condition is one that yearns for freedom.

And I would add "community" to that short list of common desires. ("Brotherhood" is actually the word that comes to mind, but it is not gender-neutral nor, in the case of Egypt, politically-neutral). Perhaps the most inspiring image from the Egyptian unrest I have seen yet is the one below of Egyptian Christians locking hands to guard their Muslim neighbors as the latter pause for their prayers. If you, like me, find this scene to be an overpowering expression of the basic goodness of humanity, understand that these Christians are simply returning the kindness they received earlier. Even in the darkest times, we are surrounded by beauty.

Now on to the week's news:

  • We have been blown away by what some people have done with our list of Starter Strategies for a Strong Town. First we go to Traverse City, MI, and the My Wheels are Turning blog which details how the local city is, and is not, working to implement these strategies. The series runs in two parts - Part I and Part II. Most importantly, note the various ideas thrown out for conversation and then the dialog at the end. We're obviously tapping into something already going on there, but its great to see how some Strong Towns thinking can move the conversation ahead. Great job, Traverse City!

In the late 1990′s, Bob Otwell, the former executive director of TART Trails, calculated how many years it would take to complete the sidewalk gap at the then current spending. The calculation approached 400 years to complete 8-miles of sidewalk gaps. We don’t have 20 years, let alone 400.

This relates to the CIP (capital improvement plan) because too often the CIP is treated as a wish list and only accurate for a year out, yet written for 5-6 years. The planning commission is attempting to strengthen it and we will need to advocate hard for a more balanced approach to priorities to shorten that 400-year time horizon.

  • Another place where something special is going on is Northfield, MN. I know there are a number of people there that read STB -- thank you -- as well as other, resiliency-related works. Check out council member Betsey Buckheit's application of the starter strategies in her blog. I'm not surprised that nearly all of these are on their radar, one way or the other. We'd love to come to Northfield for a Curbside Chat - just say the word down there.

Back when the Comp Plan was being drafted (2006 and 2007), the consultants promised a “form-based code” to go with the plan (the city even sent the city planner off to learn about form-based codes at your expense), but when the draft arrived (from the same consultants, sort of), the result was not form-based, but regulations trying to micro-manage uses.  The Planning Commission has made great progress, but more could certainly be done.

  • Our good friend and fellow blogger, Kaid Benfield from NRDC, also featured the strategies in a post. Like Kaid, I'm really thrilled to have been invited to be in Maryland this March for the ESLC Vibrant Towns conference. Can't wait to meet in person and to share the podium together with Kaid.

A colleague and I were discussing at lunch just yesterday how green space often gets left out of land development because of the piecemeal, parcel-by-parcel approach that development usually takes.  Chuck believes that being strategic about municipal park development can strengthen private sector investment, andmy park-guru friend Peter Harnik would agree.

  • Someone I am looking forward to meeting with next week, Riorden Frost, wrote recently about the Old Economy Project that Refuses to Die (which is our name for the Stillwater Bridge project). Frost works for MN2020, which is an important home for innovative ideas here in Minnesota. His article - Not this bridge, not now -- was right on, capturing the salient issues surrounding the project. My favorite part though was the practical solution provided by a commenter.

MNDOT orginally proposed a 2-lane replacement bridge that would orginate at the same spot on the WI side as the current lift bridge, and it would diagonally cross the river by-passing the downtown area. A bridge like this (use the Smith-Ave high-bridge in St. Paul for a reference) would cost the taxpayers about 1/3 of the cost of the bridge they are proposing now. MNDOT has called this Alternative E. Go back to Alt. E, plan to tear down the old lift bridge and there would be nothing standing in the way to get this project done.

  • I also want to give a shout out to JW at the Kunstlercast discussion forum and thank him for recommending our most recent podcast to his fellow Kunstler listeners. There are a lot of common threads between Kunstler's ideas and what we are doing here in the Strong Towns movement, and I am a huge fan in their direction as well. However, as a modern American, I'm still waiting for some personal validation from Mr. Kunstler that only a positive response to my Facebook Friend request can provide. (And I'm looking forward to seeing him, and other Kunstler folk, again at CNU this year).

Strong Towns is a podcast that has many similarities to KunstlerCast, this episode in particular is definitely of interest to KC listeners. I found it fascinating.

  • There is a lot of municipal debt that is being rolled over this year, much of it for budget reasons (lower payments and improved cash flow). There is also a lot of new debt being issued, as states and cities opt to borrow where they can, hoping for flusher funds in the future when we get into that "recovery" we try to convince ourselves is just around the corner. Not surprisingly given our level of delusion, things are not going exactly as planned.

The muni bond market was hit with the latest wave of bad news Thursday, prompting a selloff that sent the market to its lowest level since the financial crisis. A New Jersey agency was forced to cut the size of a bond issue by about 40% because of mediocre demand, and pay a higher rate than expected. And mutual fund giant Vanguard Group shelved plans for three new muni bond funds, citing market turmoil.

  • To understand what is going on in the municipal bond market, we recommend reading Nouriel Roubini. His book, Crisis Economics, is on our list of recommended reading for Strong Towns thinking. And in this article from Bloomberg he gives some insights into the workings of "bond vigilantes." Instead of thinking of them as greedy hyper-capitalists, picture them as a group of people deeply committed to protecting the modest returns on your grandma's pension fund. You don't want mess with grandma.

The U.S. will suffer a “train wreck” at the hands of bond investors if it fails to solve its budget problems, said Nouriel Roubini, the economist who predicted the financial crisis.

“The fiscal problem is very serious,” he said in a Bloomberg Television interview today with Tom Keene at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland. “The bond vigilantes have not yet woken up in the U.S. in the way they have in the euro zone. Unless the U.S. addresses this fiscal problem, we’re going to see a train wreck.”

  • At least one study now suggests what many have long known: a fast growing city do not necessarily mean great things for residents. As we pointed out on Monday, growth can't be the goal but overall resiliency, which you can think of as growth with a spatial and social component to it, as opposed to growth for growth's sake (our national policy).

Fodor looked at 2000-2009 data and found that on a series of measures, fast-growing cities were less prosperous than slow-growing ones. Fast-growing cities had lower incomes and during the Great Recession (i.e. 2007-09) saw greater income drops. He found no correlation between growth rate and unemployment.

  • Need another example of our collective malaise? Now it's sledding hills. Come on people, we're apparently fine with the brains of our children atrophying before our eyes as they watch hours of Sponge Bob on Nickelodeon, play endless games of Wii and mainline corn syrup and sodium, but we can't risk that they'll break a wrist or get the wind knocked out of them (a frequent occurrence on a really good sledding hill). I fear for us as a people, especially when we turn our cities over to the nanny-state mentality of bureaucrats and lawyers.

Lawsuits filed by injured sledders, it seems, have struck fear in the hearts of municipal and county government officials, prompting them to simply ban sledding at some of the state's erstwhile sledding meccas.

  • While this may have nothing to do with the Strong Towns movement, it is my favorite story of the week and I just had to share. Over 1,200 planets, and 54 of them in the "Goldilocks" zone. Everywhere we look, the wonders of the universe continue to exceed our imaginations. And it's only going to get more interesting.
  • Finally, thanks to all of you that have followed along with this "live" version of the Friday News Digest. I'm very fortunate to have a schedule that, while brutal at times, gives me at least one day a week where I get some one-on-one time with my girls. Stella has moved on from doing paper dolls next to me and now has the living room cleared for a singing and dance show. There's my queue.

Enjoy your weekend.

 

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