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Friday News Digest

Today there's new grass on the field, hope springs eternal and my favorite team is currently undefeated. The regular season for my Minnesota Twins begins this afternoon in Baltimore. Unfortunately, I am going to miss all of my April and early May games due to Curbside Chats and other speaking engagements in California, Washington D.C., Pennsylvania and Florida. I'm sacrificing a lot here for the Strong Towns movement -- hopefully the Twins will still be somewhat in contention by the time I get to a game at Target Field in late May.

In honor of the Twins season starting, I want to share with all of you my favorite Twins blog, AaronGleeman.com. If you look closely, you'll even see the original inspiration for the Friday News Digest. All great ideas are stolen.

Enjoy this week's "Link-o-Rama".

San Diego is currently in process of electing a new Mayor. Wouldn’t you want this fictional mayor to be our new real mayor?

  • Our friend and Super Hero, Cap'n Transit, lives too far from Harrisburg, PA, to get together when I am out there in May (which you would have heard if you followed him or me on Twitter). That doesn't stop him from continuing to make great work out of our roads and streets discussion. I feel like him and I are closing in on a Unified Field Theory of Transportation.

As Chuck says, a road is for long-distance travel, and it functions most efficiently at maximum speed with the minimum number of intersections. A street is a place for commerce and other social activity, including local travel, and it functions best at low speeds with lots of connections to other streets and spaces. A country road is for medium-distance travel, and it functions best when no one is trying to use it as a highway or street.

  • At CNU 20 I will be sharing the stage with, among others, Peter Katz. I got an out-of-the-blue email from Katz (who will also be at APA in two weeks to receive an award) introducing himself and sharing an article that he wrote (Beyond the Priesthood) that had a similar theme as my recent work on Addressing the Planners. I'm anxious to hear him speak in West Palm Beach as he is a very interesting man and, as you will see in this article, we share common beliefs on the current state of the planning profession.

My conclusion is that since about 1938 planners haven't been in the business of planning; they've been reacting. They've been processing permits, holding meetings, and trying as best they can to respond to the proposals of developers on the one hand and the protests of citizens on the other. In such an adversarial environment, it's not surprising that planners would hesitate to be proactive. When bullets are flying, conventional wisdom suggests that one should lie low. But I'm not convinced that's a viable strategy these days because the conflicts aren't going away. If anything, they’re growing worse with each passing year. In his book Community and the Politics of Place, former Missoula, Montana, Mayor Dan Kemmis writes about "the procedural republic," a method of government that has replaced the sort of face-to-face citizen interaction we associate with an earlier model of American democracy: the New England town meeting.

In my view most conventional planners seem to be the product of, and servant to, the procedural republic. Carefully mediating between the conflicting rights of various individuals and groups, they persevere through an endless hell of public hearings—a forum where Mayor Kemmis notes there is precious little real "hearing" going on.

  • I have had muni bond guys email me to scoff at the notion that cities will be declaring bankruptcy in any significant numbers. I've never understood why, while I feel compelled to listen to their viewpoint as they have a different knowledge set than I do, they feel no such compulsion about understanding what I see with my -- very different and quite intimate -- viewpoint. This article in the NY Times on "bold tactics" cities are pondering did not reveal anything bold or new for our readers here, but does contain this quote as its logical concluding thought:

“Back in the ’80s, the stigma against corporate bankruptcy fell away, and it became viewed as a strategy a corporation might pursue for various reasons,” Ms. Richman said. “Recently, with the residential housing collapse, individual bankruptcy has less of stigma in society — it’s a strategy that a person might be advised to follow if they have a debt that they can’t afford. Could the same thing happen for municipal bankruptcy?”

  • That brings me to this video from a group called Publius attempting to explain what happened to Detroit. I appreciate the effort, but I feel like there is a lot missing. It is more complex than simply (1) we were successful and grew, (2) people left and now (3) we don't have enough money to maintain everything. There is something between the growing and leaving that is critical, but elusive in this clip. I've long seen Detroit as the canary in the coal mine and not some type of anomaly we can all sneer at. Watch this video and let me know if it resonates with you or if you, too, see something missing from a Strong Towns perspective.

  • It you rub shoulders with any realtors, you've probably heard the great news that housing is coming back.

REALTORS are seeing more optimistic buyers. Paul Berglin is preparing to put his 4,400-square-foot home in Ham Lake on the market.

“I think we’re going to be able to sell it for a fair price, market price or better,” says Berglin, who knows he won’t get what his family paid to build the house eight years ago.

  • If you rub shoulders with any bankers, home owners or people not engaged in fantasy regarding the value of their home, you know that housing still has a long ways to go. I've been explaining this exact thing at all of our Curbside Chat talks in recent weeks:

...a painful part two of the slump looks set to unfold: Many more U.S. homeowners face the prospect of losing their homes this year as banks pick up the pace of foreclosures.

"We are right back where we were two years ago. I would put money on 2012 being a bigger year for foreclosures than 2010," said Mark Seifert, executive director of Empowering & Strengthening Ohio's People (ESOP), a counseling group with 10 offices in Ohio.

"Last year was an anomaly, and not in a good way," he said.

“We don't have that many pedestrians out there anyway that a sidewalk would be necessary to put in.”

  • I'm continually amazed (and not in a positive way) by what is going on socially in Greece. I have been to much of Europe but not to Greece, but I have this sense of it being much like southern Italy where I have spent a lot of time. It is hard for me, as a 38 year old American who has grown up amid prosperity and stability, to imagine a western democracy descending to this level of social anarchy, dysfunction and despair. Much like my view of Detroit, I don't view Greece as a total anomaly, so when people are publicly committing suicide over their debts and there are daily riots in the street, it makes me pause to consider where this is all heading and how far it can actually go. Watch for yourself and understand that, in terms of a social economic background, you likely have a lot in common with these people.

  • If you want to understand what is going on in Detroit (and to an extent, possibly also Greece), consider what happens when a system that must have accelerating growth in order to financially sustain itself experiences normal rates of growth. Things start to go bad. This causes stagnation which, if it is not reversed quickly, leads to decline. Decline becomes a spiral that feeds back on itself. While I'm inclined to believe the the exurbs and outer ring suburbs will die a slow, agonizing death, it is an article like this that make me think it could also turn out to be a rapidly accelerating phenomenon.

"This could be the end of the exurb as a place where people aspire to go when they're starting their families," says William Frey, demographer at the Brookings Institution. "So many people have been burned by this. … First-time home buyers, immigrants and minorities took a real big hit."

During the '70s gas shortage and the '80s savings and loan industry crisis, some predicted the end of suburban sprawl. It didn't happen then, but current trends could change the nation's growth patterns permanently.

Aging Baby Boomers, who have begun to retire, and Millennials, who are mostly in their teens and 20s, are more inclined to live in urban areas, McIlwain says.

  • There was some gasping in the market last week when Best Buy announced their disappointing earnings. What received less fanfare inside the financial world was the broader implications of this very smart (Minnesota-based) company's decision to start shifting away from big box and towards boutique stores. I ultimately question the entire consumption-based economic model, but as an interim step, this is an interesting move.

The new mantra is small box. While Best Buy, Wal-Mart Stores Inc. (WMT) and Target Corp. (TGT) are still opening large stores, all are putting increasing emphasis on smaller ones. Best Buy plans to double the number of its smaller Best Buy Mobile stores by 2016. Wal-Mart is building as many as 100 small-format stores this year, while Target is opening five CityTarget locations. 

  • Speaking of a consumption-based economy, I want to thank Gerrit Slatter for emailing me this article from National Public Radio that explains What America Buys. The comparison between 1949 and 2011 is amazing and, if you ponder it a while, you can see how some inflation of food, medical and apparel today will force us to spend less on transportation (as we currently are) and, ultimately, bring housing prices back into line as a percentage of our income.

Source: National Public Radio (click for original)

  • I also wanted to share this article by Matthew Yglesias in the Atlantic Cities titled the Mixed-up Politics of Urbanism. I'm living this and it is so baffling sometimes. Thank you, Matthew, for giving it a voice.

Progressives and urbanists need to move beyond their romance with central planning and get over their distaste for business and developers. Conservatives need to take their own ideas about economics more seriously and stop seeing all proposals for change through a lens of paranoia and resentment.

  • Finally, this is Good Friday, a very important day for Christians. For those of you that have been here a while and have been attentive, you'll notice that I occasionally slip in a little theological history, which is a side passion of mine. (If that bores or offends you, you can skip this and I'll never know.) I rediscovered a pair of articles this year that I thoroughly enjoyed reading last year and, instead of keeping them to myself, wanted to share them with you.

Eastern Christianity's tradition of the resurrection of Jesus reminds our Western Christian imagination that only poetry -- be it verbal or visual -- speaks to our profoundest hopes, deepest dreams, and greatest insights. It also reminds us that theology is -- no more and no less -- the poetry of transcendence.

I hope that your weekend is pleasant and, whatever your faith or beliefs, that your life is transcendent in a way that is meaningful, hopeful and filled with joy for you and those that are a part of it.

Peace and best wishes to you all.


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Reader Comments (3)

Chuck, your grasp of the situation in the USA is probably the deepest I have seen and I've learned a lot reading you and listening to your podcasts. However I think that your understanding of the European situation (and in particular what's happening in Greece) could use some improvement . I'm Italian, I live in Tuscany (Siena) that probably is as far removed from Brainerd, MN as Pluto from Earth; despite the fact that I lived in the states for quite a while I don't think I can fully understand the situation of cities like Detroit or Youngstown (that by the way is about as big as Siena). By the same token I think that you do not really understand the complications and the depth of the Greek situation. And comparing it to Southern Italy (as you did in an earlier podcast) is very misleading. I understand that the USA, despite the obvious differences between Vermont and Florida, is a very homogeneous place. Well, Europe is not; it is as diverse as you can imagine and more.

So I urge you to caution when trying to explain things and when driving parallels between the two situations; keep up the good work.

April 8, 2012 | Unregistered Commenterkantor

Yes, I love that feedback. I wish you would provide more detail. I'm more curious than anything else. As you may know, I get a lot of my news -- the majority -- from European sources (they are more honest about the US than we are to ourselves). I think the Greek situation on the ground is extremely complicated and I don't pretend to understand it fully. Southern Italy may not be the perfect correlation, but from the descriptions I have, it seems to have more in common than anything here in the states.

That being said, I'd love a source of more authentic information. I think what is happening in Europe is so important to understand -- both for how it is similar and how it is different than the American experience -- and I crave good sources of information. Any you can provide would be most appreciated.

I loved my time in Puglia, even through it was, as you say, very different from life here in Minnesota. That being said, I would offer that the average citizen of Puglia (or Greece) have more in common with the average Minnesotan than they do with the average Indonesian, Iraqi , Palestinian or Somali. As Americans, we tend to lump all serious social unrest into one category -- that being a third world narrative -- but what is going on in Greece transcends that safe, narrow worldview. I would like to see us wake up and understand that we are not immune from the type of difficulties we witness elsewhere and that our future prosperity is in no ways guaranteed.

Is that fair?


April 9, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterCharles Marohn

I can try to clarify some of my thoughts. If I sound too pedantic, please bear with me; I'm a university professor after all and I am hardly able to express myself in a different way. As I told you I spent several years in the states; in fact I got my PhD there. If I had to identify the major shortcoming the average american has in understanding Europe. I'd say it is the total lack of historical perspective. This is somewhat unavoidable, since american history is short and rather homogeneous; of course America is largely a melting pot of people from many countries in Europe, but one does not carry history with himself.

I'll try to explain what I mean using Greece as an example; it is IMHO impossible to understand the real reasons of the Greek malarkeys (since it is much more that a sovereign debt crisis) without considering a very peculiar part of Greek history. I mean the fact that they were conquered and brutally dominated by the Turks for several hundred years. And it is the only European country (together with some parts of the former Jugoslavia, which another tough cookie to understand) that has been dominated by a muslim culture in recent times. Of course Spain was as well, but much earlier; and they freed themselves in the Middle Ages and had a totally different trajectory since. On the other hand the Greeks managed to shake loose only at the beginning of the '900 and with the substantial help of several European main powers. This course of events gave Greece a terrible and persisting "inferiority complex" ; and it was basically the desire of being "like the others" that drove them to join the Eurozone. Of course there were also economical reasons; however the singlemindedness of that pursuit and the total disregard for the means to get it (to the point that they reduced themselves to a ward of the Germans) can only be explained by their history. This long and winding speech should hint that in Europe, things happening two hundreds, three hundreds, four hundreds years ago bear actual consequences on the state of the art in present times.

Let me also point out another thing; the future prosperity is not guaranteed for anybody in the world at any given time. That's a lesson we in Europe have learned the hard way in more than one occasion. However from my humble point of observation I think that the USA are on a very different trajectory from the rest of the world; how much different really depends on how you'll be able to manage the future shortcomings. I'm not very optimistic about that, but I'm sure that if the ideas you are preaching gain more and more attention, then your future will be much brighter than the one I envision now.

You are a good person Chuck, and probably the only conservative american I've met who speaks a language that makes sense to me. But are you REALLY conservative? I maintain that's debatable; in your heart you are a revolutionary, in the practical sense of the word. In that you challenge many current beliefs of your society not from an ideological standpoint, but rather a practical one. And the real revolution is ALWAYS in praxis... ideologies come later (and often with a vengeance).

April 9, 2012 | Unregistered Commenterkantor
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