Today I'm in Topeka, Kansas, to deliver a keynote for the AIA. That's four Fridays in a row that I've been on the road, and the News Digest has taken a hit. I've developed a routine that allows me to not only function, but arrive home not completely wiped out. Unfortunately, that includes sleeping, which makes it more difficult to write. I literally have thirty news stories to share now -- they've been building up for a while -- so let's get going.

Enjoy the news.

  • Also, huge congratulations to my friend, Mike Lydon, and his team who this week released a Spanish version of Tactical Urbanism, Volume 2. Their work is changing the world, quite literally.
  • The most amazing article I've read in the past few months was shared with me by Jen Krouse and is called The Island Where People Forget to Die. It is about a Greek island where people live extraordinarily long and healthy lives. While many people have studied this effect in the past in an attempt to come up with "miracle" approaches we can integrate into our American lives -- cod liver oil, ginseng, the Mediterranean diet, a glass of wine a day, etc... -- the part I found so valuable is how the author acknowledged that there is no one factor but a complex combination of things that seem to create this effect. And among them is, no surprise, community.

Studies have linked early retirement among some workers in industrialized economies to reduced life expectancy. In Okinawa, there’s none of this artificial punctuation of life. Instead, the notion of ikigai — “the reason for which you wake up in the morning” — suffuses people’s entire adult lives. It gets centenarians out of bed and out of the easy chair to teach karate, or to guide the village spiritually, or to pass down traditions to children. The Nicoyans in Costa Rica use the term plan de vida to describe a lifelong sense of purpose. As Dr. Robert Butler, the first director of the National Institute on Aging, once told me, being able to define your life meaning adds to your life expectancy.

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The big aha for me, having studied populations of the long-lived for nearly a decade, is how the factors that encourage longevity reinforce one another over the long term. For people to adopt a healthful lifestyle, I have become convinced, they need to live in an ecosystem, so to speak, that makes it possible. As soon as you take culture, belonging, purpose or religion out of the picture, the foundation for long healthy lives collapses. The power of such an environment lies in the mutually reinforcing relationships among lots of small nudges and default choices. There’s no silver bullet to keep death and the diseases of old age at bay.

  • Matthew Yglesias of Slate.com highlights Economic Gardening as his Favorite New-to-me Idea of 2012. If you don't know about it, you should make an effort to learn. It will be your favorite new idea of the year too, guaranteed.

Conventional economic development strategy notes that there are some engines of prosperity elsewhere—a big factory, a corporate headquarters, whatever—and then seeks to transplant those engines to the city. Economic gardening says that instead of playing this game of zero-sum competition, local authorities ought to look around at the businesses they already have and ask what would it take for some of these firms to grow. You're creating your own engines of prosperity out of the seeds that are already available in your community, trying to build up local strengths rather than bid to the bottom for transplants. It's not a super-ideological idea, and in a lot of ways I think it's just common sense, but I also think it serves as a great metaphor for what's wrong with a lot of mega-projects and bribe-oriented development schemes.

  • The NY Times had a good article on what it is like being a mayor of a small town.
  • This new site -- Rational Urbanism -- was recently shared with me. While they got my name wrong (which is okay -- it's not about me but the ideas), I was enthused by the direction they want to take. Keep an eye on it.

Rationalism, being honest about reality and striving to be objective, will be at the core of our methodology. Many cities are overburdened with exaggerated claims about danger and problems of livability. Furthermore, the “common sense” solutions to the problems which do exist often have at their core the models and paradigms of suburban development and so tend to exacerbate rather than resolve them. The goal is to take a fresh look in order to separate myth from reality first, and then look for urban solutions for real urban problems. The work of William Whyte, and The Project for Public Spaces will inform much of this analysis, but so will the ideas of James Howard Kunstler, Jane Jacobs, Mark Marohn, and others.

  • Can biking save Small Town America? It is not the solution, but it is an important tool in the toolbox that all should be using.

  • I was in Traverse City last month, a place that should be much more attractive and inviting than it is. It is, unfortunately, a place given over almost exclusively to the automobile, to the detriment of its character and, I am sure, its financial health. While there I became aware of a major project to address these shortcomings but, alas, they gave it over to their engineers to design. The result: a Complete Street STROAD. Keep trying.

I don’t have time to find much positive to say about the newly released corridor studies (PDF). At first glance, and I stress only a glance, it isn’t  very promising. The trust is that this is only a first step. The reality is, it’s probably what we are stuck with. Nonetheless, there must be some positives in this study–right? I let you to find them.

If I lived in SoFo, I’d be upset, because the 14th St. right of way improvements aren’t promising…I don’t get it, it’s a 25-mph zone in a mixed use corridor…why encourage higher speeds with 14-ft lanes? The minimum lane width on an expressway is 12-ft! The excuse is to make it a shared lane. Foul ball!

  • And in my twin hometown a Baxter, MN, we have a new threat to business: the food truck. These evil vehicles are not a way for locals to start new businesses with lower cost of entry (you can easily spend $100,000+ just for a sign on the highway strip in town), food trucks will potentially undermine our wholesome "tax-paying" businesses. You know, it is unfair competition for a food truck to go up against such unsubsidized, free-market stalwarts of the community like Arby's, Taco Bell and the new local obsession, The Olive Garden. It's un-American!

Mayor Darrel Olson said the major concern is unfair competition and people who come in from outside the community and set up in front of a tax-paying local business.

“They are paying taxes,” Olson said of Prairie Bay. “They are not flying through. They are a community member. “

  • It is fun to look back at what we thought today would be like back when today was the distant future. All of those -- and I meet them everywhere I go -- that believe some technology innovation will save America from having to deal with the problems of the Suburban Experiment should watch this.

  • A shift from taxes to fees at the local level is artificial (cities are often limited in what taxes they can impose, but not so limited when it comes to fees) but not something that causes me a lot of distress. While charging someone to respond to a fire seems a little cruel, it is perhaps a necessary evil in a Ponzi scheme finance system where there is little correlation between taxes paid and services demanded.

Across the country, cities and towns of all sizes are struggling to meet the wants and needs of local residents and businesses in creative ways. Since the recession, the struggle has become even tougher as the economic downturn has taken a drastic toll on city finances. Property tax receipts, as one indicator of stress, have declined in the last two years and are expected to continue to fall as the housing market remains soft. Even as housing picks up steam, the impact on city coffers will be delayed by two to three years because assessments and property taxes do not register immediately with changes in the housing sector.

  • The dogma of the Suburban Experiment is perfectly encapsulated in the first four paragraphs of this article. Delivered by a U.S. Representative who is a self-described "fiscal conservative", it reinforces every misunderstanding we have about growth, infrastructure and prosperity. It drives economic development (in the short term, but is a long term financial drag) and it requires federal funding (for the first life cycle, then locals have to pony up for maintenance on a tax base too small to do it). Look at the cost too: $30 million. And that is just for a portion of the project! Repeat this exchange in tens of thousands of communities across the country and you can see why this country is bankrupt.

Federal, state and local officials marked the next leg of the Veterans Drive project with a groundbreaking Wednesday at the intersection of Broadway Road and Veterans Drive, speaking all the while of the need for more funding to finish the road.

 “This is a very important project for Pekin — and for the whole region really, because this is what drives economic development,” said Sen. Dave Koehler, D-Peoria, of the 46th District. “The portion we are going to dedicate today was obtained through federal funding.

 “The portion that is just south of here was money I helped get out of the capital bill — $30 million of which is going to really redo the whole southern part Veterans Drive all through the industrial section. The next piece that we need to do, quite frankly, is the part that connects us with 474, and I’m advocating that we do another capital bill this spring because we have to continue to improve and upgrade our infrastructure because that’s what drives our economy.”

 Koehler said building roads creates construction jobs initially, and more jobs down the road when new businesses locate along the corridor.

  • And in a story that rhymes with the last one, in the Suburban Experiment we devalue our communities by subsidizing declining rates of investment. What is the highest and best use for a former manufacturing site? A 7-Eleven. And look at how we justify this. Blight removal, temporary construction jobs and some counter clerks permanently (while the franchise fees leave the city). Is this really the best we can do?

The $100,000 incentive, which will pay for preconstruction costs, will come from the city’s general fund and be paid to Wright over a period from 2014 to 2019.

After Wright purchases the land and demolishes the buildings, the developer will lease the site to 7-Eleven.

Brandon Cooper, senior project manager for Ogden, said the project will provide many benefits to the city beyond just the removal of the old, rundown buildings, which the city estimates would cost more than $300,000.

Ogden’s Economic Development Department estimates the project will increase sales tax, increase property values and property tax, create 30 to 50 temporary construction jobs and eight to 12 permanent jobs, and will serve as a catalyst for additional development.

  • Imagine what a group of Florida mayors could to improve the quality of life and economic opportunities of their residents if they had access to $1.2 billion. Anyone who talks to me about needing more revenue for infrastructure should have to explain projects like this one.

Much of the focus of I-595's $1.2 billion reconstruction over the next 17 months will be on completing the express lanes and the bridges that will link them to the turnpike.

The new S.R. 84 is expected to function like a collector road, allowing traffic to travel between Davie Road and S.R. 7 without getting on I-595 and helping to eliminate accidents caused by merging traffic and lane changes.

  • This dude is a hero, arrested for painting an illegal crosswalk. And why was it deemed "illegal"? Because it was not near a school. Obviously, only children walk and, even then, only right next to the school. We are a ridiculous country.

Stump, a 27-year-old Ball State University graduate student and father, says he was arrested in July on a charge of criminal mischief for creating the crosswalk at the intersection of Dicks and North streets. A police officer then warned him after he went back to touch up the paint in August, and the county prosecutor decided to charge him again.

"If they're not going to provide a safe environment for me and my community, then I believe I have a moral obligation," Stump told 6News' Ray Cortopassi on Wednesday.

  • I flew into Kansas City last night and, based on the anxiety I left in my wake on my last visit, made it a point to skirt the downtown and get out of the area as quickly as possible. I'm slightly amused to see them continue to struggle with a simple thing like removing some unnecessary, and very expensive, traffic signals. There is so much more that needs to be done, things that are going to be far more difficult to communicate.

City staff said they were ready to set 144 more stoplights flashing, and told callers and reporters they wouldn't back down on that because reduced traffic meant those stoplights are no longer needed, and research said stoplights where stop signs are sufficient encourage people to race or run red lights, causing accidents.

On Thursday, all the council members expressed concern about the plan and the way it was being implemented.

  • A model for what Kansas City and other American cities should be doing is Aukland, New Zealand, where they have implemented a shared space strategy. I swear, whichever American city figures this out first is going to be the magnet that attracts growth, capital and all kinds of innovative people. (Is that Portland?) Everyone else will be followers. Our greatest problem here is our own mental hangups, our own narrow vision of what is possible.

“With this report – one of the most comprehensive evaluations of a shared space to be undertaken internationally, we now have proof that shared spaces have made the streets safer and more attractive for people and done well, they can deliver significant benefits to local businesses. We will continue to identify opportunities to roll out quality shared spaces to suitable streets in the city centre as well as in Auckland's suburbs and towns”

  • This shocking revelation from the bond market: the presence of transit service connected to productive land uses reduces demand for parking spaces. We need some type of field testing on this radical notion. It just can't be true. It can't be!

It is the Yankees’ fourth season in their 50,287-seat stadium, a season that saw the team win its division while posting the second highest attendance in the major leagues. But the eleven parking lots and garages owned by the BPDC were only 43 percent full–and that’s on game days. Other days, they’re largely empty.

Most fans have been traveling to games by subway or taking a train to the new Metro-North station near the stadium. Others have looked for street parking or lots with prices lower then the $25 to $48 dollars charged by the stadium lots.

That means less money than expected for the company, which has been drawing from a reserve fund to pay off bondholders. That fund is all but depleted, which has thrown the company into default.

  • Coming soon to a city near you: Dissolution. It's not just for marriage any more.

"If the dissolution goes ahead, all assets go to the county. However, any cash assets would be used for New Norway projects," explained Linda.  Linda and Kai So of municipal affairs led the meeting. "Long-tern debt would also go to the county and they could either absorb it by using cash assets, or add a special tax for New Norway residents to pay for it."

  • I think I speak for most Mid-Western Americans in expressing concern and best wishes for those impacted by the major storm out East. As we prepared for winter to descend on us, I'm reminded just how fragile things really are. Be safe, everyone, but like these guys, don't forget to laugh.

  • Finally, many of you know I am a Disney fan. This week, someone sent me this article about Disney and urban planning -- a good read on the topic. Also this week, Disney announced it purchased the Star Wars franchise. You likely don't know, but should be able to infer by my age (39) and the fact that I am a male that I grew up playing obsessively with my Star Wars action figures. As my girls call them today: Daddy Dolls. Here's to two great things; may they go great together.

 

Enjoy your weekend, everyone. If you are in Minnesota, please be safe out there with the hunting season beginning. Don't forget to get that extra hour of sleep this weekend. See you back here well rested on Monday.

 

 

If you would like more from Chuck Marohn, check out his new book, Thoughts on Building Strong Towns (Volume 1)

 You can also chat with Chuck and many others about implementing a Strong Towns approach in your community by joining the Strong Towns Network. The Strong Towns Network is a social platform for those working to make their community a strong town.