At long last, winter appears to be ending and that sure sign of Spring arrives. Yes, it is opening day at Target Field for my beloved Minnesota Twins. My brother and I will be sitting in the left field bleachers, just like last year, taking in the sun and enjoying what will be a balmy, 60-degree Minnesota spring day. For those of us that have suffered through the long, cold, lonely winter here in Minnesota, this is a great day. And after the kind of down week I had (check out the podcast for details), the hope eternal that every team has those first weeks of April is intoxicating. Go Twins!

Enjoy the week's news.

  • Last week I had to skip the News Digest to report on the incredible events in the town of Ginagaapi (if you have not read it, you need to), so we have a little catching up to do with the link love. I need to start with Chuck Wolfe (twitter), a cyber-friend who blogs at myurbanist introduced to me by a former cyber-friend (now real-life friend), Kaid Benfield. Wolfe is an amazing writer and blogger and, since I've started reading him, I've found his insights to be both comforting and inspiring. His latest piece starts off with a reference to Strong Towns blog (blush). Another guy I am looking forward to meeting in person someday, hopefully soon.
  • Graduate school has changed since my days there (which seems like a long time ago, although it was less than a decade). They now apparently have weblogs, one of which (RyanK) from my alma mater featured a discussion on our Vulnerable Cities report. They took our stuff and asked the question that really brings it to the next level. Bravo, leaders of tomorrow.

From this discussion a fascinating question is raised: "Are there cities that should no longer exist?" There are cities that have "had their heyday" but are no longer productive, or serve the same industries on which they were created. (ie. some of the Iron Range cities, or, imagine if Minneapolis still relied only on milling for industry). Populations in many cities are declining, therefore so is the tax base, yet the cost of services continue to increase, as well as the quality and quantity of services expected.

With budget deficits rising and revenues falling, decisions more controversial than what services to cut or how much to raise taxes may need to be put on the table.

Strong Towns contends that “our desire for independence has made us dependent. On automobiles. On cheap energy. On transfer payments between governments. On debt.” The site is critical of current land-use patterns and economic development strategies, favors infrastructure maintenance, and even provides space for recovering engineers. If you’ve ever said to yourself there must be a better way, you might find Strong Towns interesting. 

  • Jake Krohn, formerly of Wahpeton, ND and now living in Fergus Falls, MN, has a sixth-sense for Strong Towns thinking. Jake is a contributor to Strong Towns but, even more importantly, he is out there applying Strong Towns logic, pushing for change in his town. Check out the comments section from this article about declining population in the local newspaper. One can only hope the reporter will realize who really understands what is going on and start calling Jake first. And here Jake is inserting some Strong Towns thinking into the local blog scene to analyze a local public project. And then he sends me pictures of this abomination of what they did to their public library. Next time I'm anywhere near Fergus, dinner is on me, Jake.
  • I'm really looking forward to hearing Edward Glaeser at CNU 19 this June in Madison, WI. If you are planning to be there, send me and email or a tweet. That is especially true if your politics lean to the right as a couple of my friends in NextGen and I are working to put together a "Conservative Caucus" gathering on Thursday. Location, time and details still being worked out, but it will be a good opportunity for the many conservative-minded New Urbanists to meet and gain confidence in numbers. Maybe we can get Glaeser to join us and go over his spot-on analysis on how Tea Party principles are consistent with good urbanism.

The federal home mortgage interest deduction is public paternalism at its worst. The mortgage deduction made the federal government the silent, subsidizing partner of the millions who lost billions in the recent housing crash. The subsidy encourages Americans to borrow as much as possible to bet on housing.

The failure of these housing policies is practically a perfect parable on the folly of public paternalism. I hope that the Tea Party learns this lesson and fights to get government out of the interest-subsidy business.

  • One of my all-time favorite professors (and now that I am nearly a decade removed from grad school, one of my favorite thinkers), The Transportationist David Levinson, weighed in this week on the Ridiculous Old Economy Project that Refuses to Die, also known as the St. Croix bridge. His analysis is, of course, exactly right and it is tough to overlook the fact that the only people that seem to think this project can be justified also run for election every two to four years. If this project is built, I will abandon my hesitations on an infrastructure bank. Anything is better than a system that joins Minnesotans Michele Bachman and Mark Dayton together to spend $700 million dollars to help mostly people from Wisconsin (and degrade a Wild and Scenic river in the process). Here is some sanity from Levinson:

I think building a four lane bridge to replace a two lane bridge does not fully count as "preservation", but rather as "expansion". Given the state of the network, and the need to give priority to preservation, a four lane bridge violates that principal. As to whether a four lane bridge passes a B/C test, or better yet, a market test of whether a private firm would build it, the answer is clearly no. This four-lane bridge would not have enough demand to pay the tolls required to fund it. That should tell you something about its true necessity. The Franken article cited above suggested Wisconsin wasn't interested in funding it. Since the majority of benefits for the bridge accrue to Wisconsin land owners, it makes no sense for Minnesota to lead on this.

I am suggesting that federal policy aided and abetted the process. Those same policies remain in place today, along with zoning, taxing, lending and design practices that encourage developers to abandon old property and build on new ground farther out. Relatively cheap gasoline (by world standards) also plays a huge role. In other words, the same rules that built the first suburbs in the 1950s are now hastening their demise.

  • Thank you to my NextGen friend Jennifer Krouse for making me aware of a video of fellow-Minnesotan Joel Spoonheim and his TED talk on public health. Powerful.

  • My wife is in the newspaper business, so I know the value of a good lead. A controversy in St. Paul over a statue of Jesus creates an interesting mashup of concerns with separation of church/state, the value of the public realm, zoning and land use, and race. But even if you don't read the article, pause for a second and ponder the genius of this lead:

Jesus is said to have walked on water, but according to the St. Paul City Council he can't stand at the edge of a Mississippi River bluff.

  • The continuing crisis in Japan is both heartbreaking and startling at the same time. I want to thank Nick Barnard for sending me a NY Times piece looking at some of the weird twists of economic growth, government subsidies and social policy that eerily blur the lines between Japanese society and American society even further. We watch disaster happen in Haiti or Indonesia and believe that it can't happen here. But when it happens in a modern society like Japan, it should at the very least give us pause to consider that maybe the hyper-complex world we've created is simply one with too many fragilities.

More important to local politicians, Futaba received substantial subsidies from the national government, as well as property tax receipts from Tokyo Electric. By 2008, the subsidies alone added 13 billion yen ($157 million) to Futaba’s finances, according to town statements. But Futaba poured the money into extensive public works projects — an elderly care center, a sports park, a revamped sewage system — and eventually accumulated a debt of almost 10 billion yen, or $121 million.

  • I got a chance to listen to CNU's John Norquist last week at an event in St. Paul. He was great. Norquist is featured prominently in this video about converting separated highways into boulevards and the tremendous financial gain from doing so.

Moving Beyond the Automobile: Highway Removal from Streetfilms on Vimeo.

  • Finally, as an ambidextrous individual who has embraced both the left and right brain, I have to admit being inspired by the engineering student that won a national competition for designing a pair of jeans that double as a drum kit. And all these years I've just been tapping on the desk. For all you male aspiring engineers, check out how the women are looking at him in the video (sorry, they don't allow an embed). Clearly he is on to something.
  • They may have lost their first two series on the road, but today the Twins have their home opener and, as with every spring, we can be born again with new grass on the field. Go Twins!

 

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