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No new streets

I spent the last week in Florida doing a series of Curbside Chats and then participating in the Next Urbanism Summit, a retreat of CNU's NextGen. We all gathered in Steve Mouzon's (The Original Green) office and started off with everyone in the group giving a Pecha Kucha style presentation (20 slides, 20 seconds each) on a topic of their choice. This makes for a fascinating day of talks and subsequent discussion.

One of my intellectual soul mates in NextGen is attorney Ian Rasmussen, who had my favorite presentation of the entire weekend. He called it "No New Streets" and, while I'm going to try and get him to put together a blog piece on it, I have to share the key insight. To paraphrase:

We need to start getting used to a world where there will be no new streets. What you see on Google Maps today is what is going to be there fifty years from now, if not fewer as many streets will be abandoned. The fact that we don't have the money to even maintain a fraction of what we have already built is a powerful constraint that we don't fully appreciate.

Our mental disconnect was fully evident in Florida, a state devastated by the housing crisis yet seemingly filled with the belief that a world with new subdivisions and strip malls is just around the corner. When a property here in Minnesota is going through foreclosure, the snow in the driveway does not get plowed and the lawn does not get mowed; subtle hints of decline. In Florida, the structures apparently get boarded up with chipboard placed over the windows and doors (due to hurricanes, I assume) giving large swaths of formerly successful areas a bombed out look that is eye-catching for all the wrong reasons.

That does not stop their engineers and traffic planners from building yet more. When touring a wholly redundant, $200 million bridge project funded largely by Federal transfer payments (something that won't be there when this expensive, redundant bridge needs to be maintained), I was told this amazing fact: The Florida DOT is required, by statute, to design for a 2% annual increase in traffic on all state highways. Even where there is a documented decline in traffic, they must overengineer for enormous growth. This is a system hard wired to fail.

I spent some time with my parents who are staying outside of Orlando in STROAD hell. To demonstrate how inefficient the STROAD approach is, when I left to drive to the airport, my GPS told me it was 20 miles, yet the trip would take 35 minutes. Sure, the speed is posted at 55 mph and you can fly by all the boarded up strips mall and condo units, gas stations and fast food joints pretty fast on the six-lane STROAD, but you have a stop light every half mile. I sat there at many so early in the morning, the lone car among the desolation, waiting for the light to turn green.

The answer, of course, is simple. There will be no new streets. We must develop strategies to do much more with ones we have. That is a Strong Towns approach, and it won't involve more traffic but a fundamental reevaluation of how we build value within our places. And it is going to involve an enormous financial reckoning as we come to grips with the fact that the illusion of wealth inherent with the suburban Experiment is just that: an illusion.

If you can get your mind around the notion put forward by Ian -- that there will be no new streets -- you can start to come to grips with the enormity of the change that is upon us. 


There are so many people I need to thank for making the trip to Florida possible. For starters, Kev Freeman and Edward Erfurt of Martin County for bringing me to Stuart for a Curbside Chat, Karja Hanson for lining up a Chat in Little Havana, and Eliza Harris for getting me connected in Orlando where we had another great event. I am fortunate to have such generous and amazing friends.

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Reader Comments (8)

Ian Rasmussen is a genius. Somehow we need to share images of Ian's maps as he can map time/space continuum with ease.

February 15, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterHoward Blackson

"No New Streets" is a nice sentiment and a great polemic for pointing out the lousy way in which public infrastructure has been arranged over the last 50 years. But, be careful what you ask for. Banning a bad thing does not produce the same result as promoting and demonstrating a good thing.

Compact, Connected, Complete, Complex, and Convivial places need streets. Some of these will, by necessity, be new streets. We are developing a 7 acre infill parcel in Chico, CA that will need some new streets if it is to be anything but a 7 acre superblock.

The problem we are facing is the failure of a lousy pattern of building. New streets will be needed to repair and retrofit the places built so badly under that pattern. The task is difficult enough without our colleagues limiting the tools we can use.

February 15, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterR. John Andcerson

Now "no new Stroads" -I'm all for that.

February 15, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterR. John Andcerson

I hear you, John, and I don't believe Ian was arguing for not connecting segments, just that reality dictates that the era of road/street building is over, thus the era of greenfield development is over, and the landscape thereby is going to evolve much differently in the coming decades than those just passed.

Looking forward to staying at your place in April.


February 15, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterCharles Marohn

There are enough competing definitions of greenfield development out there to really fog this discussion. If my dad and I expand an existing town with a speculative housing project we call the Queen's Square and after a few years we build some speculative townhouses a little further up the hill and call that project the King's Circus -some may consider that greenfield development. (Since what was a green field became developed).

Development in the pattern of coherent neighborhoods has advantages over placeless sprawl. That distinction on importance of pattern is not made in the bumpersticker phrase "no new streets".

February 15, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterR. John Andcerson

I'd say that a better rule would be: To build a new street you have to tear down stroad.

February 15, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterVectoor

I would love to see this as a campaign slogan somewhere a-la the famous "No New Taxes" slogan. New Streets/Roads/Stroads absolutely demand taxes, (thank you A+ on my recent Finance & Budgeting exam), so "No New Streets" would be a very progressive way of saying "No New Taxes". Print it.

February 15, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterDHeyburn

The retrofitting will likely happen on an incremental basis -- slowing morphing B-grid into A-grid with road diets, then adding back in connectivity where none exists today. Within portions of over-built county and state roads in rust belt and sunburnt cities, I agree, we can look for a return to gravel from asphalt along with reforestation.

But as a former road builder (turned community builder), what I'm interested in seeing is a return of the road to the place. That is, just as subdivision of lots allows for incremental infill and lets the locals "own" the development process with sweat equity, returning of state and county roads within cities and towns allows for character-appropriate retrofit. And reconnecting the dots between investment and return.

Importantly, not all of this continent is faced with this particular issue. There will be new roads in many places, including Western Canada, fueled by the petrobuck. Regardless of local economies, it's essential that regions learn from each other, and observe what happens when various development patterns go out of the money. If we don't pay attention, our local economies get brittle fast.

February 16, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterHazel Borys
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