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.

-chuck