I am going to try and make up for the pathetic News Digest last week -- and my failure to complete it over the weekend -- by giving you extra volume and extra analysis. I'm all hepped up on candy hearts (damn you, Valentine's day treats) and Mountain Dew so this could go on a long, long time....

Enjoy the week's news:

  • Cap'n Transit, the anonymous blogging super hero of the land use realm, once again applies Strong Towns principles to a local STROAD, touching on a shared pet peeve: pedestrian overpasses. I am really honored and it gives me a sense of purpose when good writers like the Cap'n take our stuff and build on it to make specific, substantive points about their built environment. If Cap'n Transit is not on your blogroll, I recommend you add him.

Most of the time, though, pedestrian overpasses suck. They're at their worst when they cross streets that have wide sidewalks and retail, like I've seen in Santo Domingo. In these cases, a driver who wants to cross the street has a huge advantage over the pedestrians who have to climb up, over and down. Underpasses, as used on Queens Boulevard and in Paris and London, are just as bad. In Strong Towns terms, pedestrian overpasses are bad for crossing streets. In fact, they're one of the ways that streets get turned into stroads.

  • Another great writer is our friend, and regular contributor, Nate Hood. Writing on the new Streets.mn site, Nate weighs in on one of the more controversial communities in the Twin Cities Metro Area: Lake Elmo. I can't say that I've always found Lake Elmo enlightened or even thoughtful as a community, but I tend to agree with Nate's analysis that their only true crime is resisting the ubiquitous Suburban Experiment embraced fully by their (now struggling) neighbors. Regardless, being the father of two young girls, I can't help but thinking of this video whenever I hear the words Lake Elmo.

First of all, when they say “growth” they are referring to what Strong Towns calls “The Growth Ponzi Scheme”. In other words, that our current financial problems at the local level are not, as some suggest, a lack of growth. Yet, our problem is 60 years of unproductive growth — “growth that has buried us in financial liabilities.” Lake Elmo has few of these liabilities, whereas places like neighboring Woodbury have many.

Fact of the matter is, Lake Elmo will likely be in a better financial position in the long-run because it doesn’t have “growth” (and the long-term liabilities that come with such financially unproductive land uses). In a nutshell, this article plays off our misconceptions of growth – that any new development must be good for the community as long as it a brings near-term property tax increase. This mindset, so embedded into our cultural vernacular, needs to change.

  • When people link to our site and others follow that link, it shows up as a referring site in the reports our blog software tracks. I enjoy following some of the less-traveled links to see where the Strong Towns message is reaching and how it is being put to use. A trend I've noticed is people responding to other sites with links/facts/quotes from Strong Towns. For example, someone named Steve pointed out that the Mountain View, CA, council seems to prefer STROADS, our friend Steve Stofka followed up a thoughtful post by pointing the author (and readers) to our conversation on STROADS, and Tom H. issued this challenge to those seeking election to the city council in Sioux Falls, SD. Great work, everyone.

EVERY current City council member, candidate, and the mayor himself should be well acquainted with the principles espoused on this site:

http://www.strongtowns.org/

You can’t claim to be running a financially-sustainable city if you don’t do something about the suburban-growth Ponzi scheme.

  • I've never heard of New Albany First, but I like their local business focus and am proud that they list us under "Resources and Affiliations". Let's do a Curbside Chat in New Albany and I'll make sure we're down for both.
  • Later this month I'll be traveling to Austin, TX, as part of a retreat with the Orton Family Foundation and some great allies in the community-building realm. I'm already humbled by their inclusion of Strong Towns, but then this week they released this article where they included us in a broader discussion on resiliency. Announcements on our partnership with Orton coming soon.

We’ve yet to hear about a town in the U.S. that isn’t facing budget shortfalls and cutbacks, and most places are pretty creative at making do and doing without when it comes to rec funds and school supplies. But the Minnesota non-profit Strong Towns has helped communities reexamine their decisions concerning land use and infrastructure improvements. Strong Towns’ “Curbside Chat” program and a companion booklet helps communities see why some “growth” and “progress” is actually setting us back.

  • Thank you to whomever sent me this beautiful piece by Sharon Astyk. In it, she draws an analogy between an impoverished family and an impoverished country. There is a lot of deep insight there -- I found myself wanting to pull out an excerpt about five times -- so do yourself a favor and read the entire thing. I tend to agree with the overall sentiment: we're going to go through some tough times and the sooner we stop fighting that notion, the sooner we can start to repair the damage that has been done.

That is, real poverty works pretty much the same at the personal, state or national (Iceland, say) level - you can't buy much, you can't save money, your costs get driven up. you lurch from crisis to crisis, getting further and further in the hole. Some people are able to make their way out due to concerted effort and some good luck, but for most people, no matter how you try, getting out is almost impossible - because it would require the ability to invest in your future. At best, you can maintain, get a little ahead this year, and fall back next, rather as Japan has done for the last 25 years.

  • Minnesota's own Tom Fisher is one of the most brilliant people I've never met. Fortunately, my colleague Jon knows him fairly well and I'm hoping that leads to an introduction someday soon. In the meantime, he had another brilliant piece in the Huffington Post where he talks about the old economy changing into new and how our politicians seem to be failing us when it comes to making this transition. The entire thing is worth a read.

We have developed our cities based on the old economy, with residential, commercial, and industrial areas kept separate and "pure" through single-use zoning. That made sense in an economy that divided our work lives from our private lives, and that spawned large-scale noxious industries that no one wanted nearby. The next economy, though, may look more like the way in which people lived and worked prior to the industrial revolution, in which home, office, and shop co-exist in some combination of physical and digital space. This may require rethinking our zoning laws to allow for a much finer-grain mix of uses and repurposing buildings designed for single functions that will have no tenants or buyers if they remain that way.

  • Over at the Strong Towns Network there are now 160 members and a lot of good discussion going on around the implementation of Strong Towns principles. One of the things we do at STN is provide what we're calling Strong Towns U, a bit of daily knowledge we share, often in video form. This video got chatted about a little bit more than usual; not sure if it was the bad facial hair, my inability to write $80,000 (I wrote $80,0000 -- not sure why) or my "fantastic" drawing ability. Regardless, here's a little taste of what we've got going on there daily.

  • If you're not connected to us on Facebook, you may have missed this article from Joe Minicozzi that we shared there last week. If you are going to forward one item from this week's digest to your friends, neighbors and local officials, either make it Ricky Gervais singing lullabies to Elmo or this article from Joe.
  • So Canada is rethinking the strip mall. Being relatively close to Canada geographically here in Minnesota, I have a special affinity for our less-messed-up relatives to the north. That the strip mall would fade into obscurity is inevitable (unless you are from Baxter, MN, where incredibly we are building more while literally thousands of square feet sit vacant -- we're pathological in our desire to recreate 2005). What was incredible about this article was that someone actually laments it.

Strip malls -- once anchors of postwar North American suburban neighborhoods -- are doomed, with thousands across Canada and the United States already derelict and eyed by land developers.

But at least one Canadian academic sees value in maintaining the ubiquitous local retailing plazas, and has amassed proposals such as adding community gardens or toboggan slides, or morphing them into giant bee hives or parking lots for food caravans.

"Strip malls were once the economic hubs of new suburbs," said Rob Shields, a sociology professor at the University of Alberta in Edmonton, who received a government grant to rethink strip malls to benefit communities around them.

Governments use GDP and jobs as tools to guide investment decisions, when they should be using ROI. Here's looking at a couple of ROI numbers for transportation investments for streetcars, cycling, and walking. And the principles that will enable returns from the street. 

"Looking at the ROI of Movement here, we’ve been mainly talking money. But when you find a character-rich, highly valued place, you’ll also find a high quality of life and lowered environmental impacts per person. When you dig further into what makes these places, you’ll conclude the streets are genes in the DNA of Place. Or maybe they’re even more like histones, which compact and organize DNA."

"Just as DNA is essential to life and health, streets are essential to the health of our urbanism – and therefore to our economy, society and environment. In old urbanism, streets are nearly as complex as the double helix of DNA. Unnaturally simplifying streets as we have over the last 65 years, into a meager selection of freeways, arterials, collectors, locals, and cul-de-sacs have put the health of cities and economies and people at risk."

"Just as in complex lifeforms, urbanism isn’t easily put into a petri dish for studying one moving part at a time. But until we understand – and appropriately value – the ROI of Movement, the DNA of Place is at risk."

  • The sad story of Magnetation Inc. -- a iron ore related company that is the illegitimate child of (legal) political graft -- is only made comical by its threat to move away from home to build its $300 million plant. The fact that there is so much political drama and backstabbing here is further validation that a top-down, politically-driven approach to local economic development is nothing more than a Minnesota-nice form of legal corruption. When are we going to embrace the economic gardening approach? (Answer: When our political system evolves from hunter/gatherer to placing a higher value on the long, slow, but far-more-fruitful task of gardening. So, in other words, when we're totally broke and can't hunt any more, macho men.)

“To me, it’s embarrassing that a guy who got $1 million of free taxpayer money from Minnesota would even consider going to another state,’’ Rukavina said, referring to a $1 million grant Magnetation’s CEO Larry Lehtinen received in 2008 from the Minnesota Minerals 21st Century Fund administered by the Minnesota Department of Employment and Economic Development.

  • The fact that cities could be forced to pay enormous sums of money to build ADA-compliant sidewalks is adding injury to insult. We so cavalierly built places that humans can't traverse without a car -- assuming everyone would ultimately drive -- that now that we're broke and actually have to get around without cars, important segments of our population can't do it. I'm interested to see how California -- a state so financially committed to the Suburban Experiment that I don't see how they can intentionally turn back -- handles this (humane) mandate.

The lawsuits were filed by disabled people who say broken sidewalks make it impossible for them to get around and seek repairs or improvements. The plaintiffs contend that the conditions violate the federal Americans With Disabilities Act, a tool that has been used across the country to force better access at restaurants, department stores, movie theaters and the like.

The tactics are already paying off. In the biggest sidewalk-related settlement in California, the California Department of Transportation in 2009 agreed to spend $1.1 billion over 30 years to fix state-controlled sidewalks, crosswalks and park-and-ride facilities.

Sacramento settled a similar case by agreeing to allocate 20% of its annual transportation fund over the next 30 years to make repairs and install ramps.

The larger problem is connecting them [skyways] to the streets in more obvious ways. Visitors sometimes glance up from the sidewalk to the busy skyway and wonder how they can get into it. City plans have called for improving ground-to-skyway access since the 1980s. The 15-year vision for downtown unveiled last month showed glass elevators lifting pedestrians from the sidewalk.

It's no simple task, however.

  • Last weekend I got a little testy when, in the Q&A following a speech I gave, someone innocently suggested that the federal government could be a great partner for a Strong Towns, local-centric approach. (If you're interested in that exchange, wait for the "extra" in next week's podcast.) I have no patience for making the Strong Towns movement a Washington-focused approach. You live by the sword, you die by the sword. Exhibit 5,675,321.

As a result of congressional inaction, the feds will now provide a maximum tax benefit of $125 a month for people who commute to work by public transit or vanpools, only about half as much as the $240 monthly maximum  for commuters who incur parking costs.

For the past two years, Congress provided equal tax treatment for commuters who incurred costs for parking or public transit — $230 a month.

However, the two houses allowed the equal-benefits provision to expire at the end of 2011. As a result the maximum transit benefit reverted to $125 a month, while the maximum parking benefit automatically increased to $240.

  • I start the week in the land of pop, fly into coke country and then end up in soda. When it comes to Mountain Dew, I'm multilingual.

  • A couple of local items. Pitchers and catchers report in about two weeks and I'm excited -- as always -- for my Twins to get back on the field and hopefully redeem themselves after the most pathetic season of my lifetime (and, yes, I was alive during the second half of the 1990's). I was at Target Field when then Detroit, now Twins, reliever Joel Zumaya grotesquely threw out his arm, so I'm going to make sure and be there for this pitch. And switching quickly to hockey, I thought being intoxicated was a job requirement for the zamboni driver.

Police were called to Hayes Arena Monday night after the Zamboni driver began weaving across the ice and smashing into the boards. Coach Bryan Dornstreich called 911 as the 10-minute ice resurfacing job went on for nearly a half hour.

  • Finally, I wanted to share this video with you that my wife emailed me while I am here at the office doing the FND. I really miss George Harrison, and hearing his isolated voice on this recording choked me up. This is one of my favorite songs, from my absolute favorite album, and I wanted to pass it on to you because I feel that ice is slowly melting. I hope you do too.

Have a great weekend.

 

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