I am going to do a formal announcement when I get back from a quick family trip next week, but I wanted to let our die hard Friday News Digest readers know now that Thoughts on Building Strong Towns, Volume 1, is now available in paperback, on Kindle and the Nook. The book is a collection of essays from the blog, edited and with additional notes added. My target audience with this book is the thousands of people that are new here in the past year or so, the casual blog reader that wants to learn more about Strong Towns and those people that want an easy way to share our message with others. I've priced it cheap enough to share (and have removed the Digital Rights Management in the hopes that you will). A formal announcement to come when the distribution channels are fully set up, but for now, consider yourself in on an advance exclusive.
Enjoy the week's news.
- Thank you to Gordon Price and the blog Price Tags for their kind words (blush). I really want to make it to Vancouver in 2013. Let's plan on it.
There’s a danger of just reporting and retweeting everything Chuck Marohn writes, it’s all so good!
- It is interesting to watch one of the wealthiest cities in Minnesota come to grips with mechanisms to fund basic maintenance of infrastructure. The Star Tribune had a piece on assessments in the city of Edina, which assesses 100% of the cost of maintenance. (Note that I've made the argument -- inspired by some legal minds and not disputed by any -- that such assessments are illegal. That never came up in this story.) Edina has basically come up with a way to lessen the pain by stretching out payments and rigging interest rates. Incidentally, the notion of paying $22,900 every 25 years or so for maintenance is in the ball park for standard Suburban Experiment development. Compare that to your property tax statement to roughly see where you are at.
Starting with projects that got underway this year, homeowners will get 15 years instead of 10 to pay for projects in their property taxes. Interest rates charged by the city will be cut in half, and the payment formula will be standardized so homeowners pay the same principal amount each year.
- One of my twin hometowns, Baxter, MN, is dealing with the same problem, ironically with similar numbers on a residential tax base a fraction the size of Edina. I had to laugh at the proposed interest rate for the assessment -- 5.4% -- and use that revelation to again point out that many cities actually make money on assessments.
Residents questioned how long they’ll wait for sewer. Others spoke of a desire to have a wider road to allow pedestrian and bike traffic. Even one wider shoulder was suggested as an option for people or bikes. An older resident said the council should leave the road as it, put on a seal coat, and go with that at this point. People are losing their homes, he said, adding now is not the time to upgrade a road he said isn’t really that bad. Residents also said improving the road would add to an existing speeding problem.
“These are all great points and the speeding issue we’ve heard that before, but I just want to make sure everyone understands, too, the city is paying for 55 percent of the this project,” said council member Rob Moser.
Moser said a walking or bike path eventually should occur but widening any part of the road at this point adds to the project by creating more stormwater needs and triples the project cost quickly.
- A fantastic analysis this week on CNN.com where former mayor of Ventura, CA, William Fulton, dished up the Strong Towns message. Great to hear it stated in this way from other places.
The way in which we plan and build our towns and cities has a direct impact on how well they do. Financial resiliency and prosperity is woven into the very fabric of cities. Where businesses go, where houses go, where roads go, where sidewalks go, where farms and natural spaces go – all of these things collectively affect a community’s economic performance and the cost of providing services there. Put things closer together, the services cost less. Put things farther from each other, the services cost more for the jurisdiction and its taxpayers. But in the case of many American towns and cities, we haven’t always planned and built in this fiscally conservative way – and that’s one of the biggest reasons why cities are struggling today.
When sprawling new development happens, it’s easy to mistake that for prosperity. New buildings and wide roads look great when they first meet the eye. But over time, distant development costs more, gradually bleeding taxpayers and putting the hurt on municipal budgets.
Think about it. Every time a new, spread-out subdivision is built far away from existing infrastructure, somebody has to pay for a bunch of roads that serve a small number of residents. And sewer and water lines too. And fire trucks that must travel farther to serve fewer people. And police cars. And ambulances. And school buses. And dial-a-ride buses. And – in many parts of the country – snowplows.
- A couple of years ago I proposed a simple solution for an exurban community here in Minnesota that was struggling to make ends meet, encouraging them to simply allow their single family homes to convert to duplexes where the owner wanted it to. Ben Ross of Greater Greater Washington provided similar analysis after local planners released proposed code updates that prohibit the practice. Locking in place a system that is failing financially is the very definition of insanity.
This is simply absurd. Montgomery has an acute shortage of affordable housing. The greatest need is for large rental apartments. Two-family houses save money for owners and renters alike. It's time to make them legal.
- I really enjoyed the way this article analyzed the interface between the Suburban Experiment and religious practices as well as the notion of "conservative" from a theological perspective. As a practicing Catholic, I believe that the Church as well as the flock miss a lot when our only interactions with each other are as structured, intentional and rare as they are in modern America, where zoning and hierarchical roads make the experience of interacting with a church anything but unintentional.
The suburbanization of American Christianity has had a huge impact on institutional and denominational structures. Automobile-shaped development has produced an automobile-shaped ecclesiology. The car has abolished the possibility of the parish. And that, in turn, has helped to redefine “neighbor” as a matter of preference more than of proximity — as optional rather than obligatory. That redefinition is rather significant, since “Who is my neighbor?” is kind of an important question for Christians.
- My friend Josef Bray-Ali had a fantastic article this week analyzing the near-sighted approach being taken on the Metro 710 Expansion project. Josef is a member of the Strong Towns Network and I have really enjoyed what he routinely brings to the table there. In this article he questions why anyone would invest in such a risky project, a great question that is becoming more and more relevant as municipal debt becomes riskier and riskier.
This document is supposed to be selling this project to bond buyers, taxpayers, and policy makers? Let’s get this straight: even in the best case scenario, the 710 expansion will flood our freeway with trucks and send job growth to two counties who aren’t even paying for this thing to get built?!
Looking past Metro’s damning findings would require a seriously disengaged bond buying money manager. In Metro’s rosy scenario of near infinite growth, the 710 project will create growth outside of Metro’s financial base and will materially hurt the lives and health of those living within its boundaries with increased particulate matter and more truck traffic.
- Transportation for America featured a post by David Goldberg, a reporter formerly with the Atlanta Journal Constitution, examining the recent rejection of transportation taxes by Atlanta area residents. It was a good column and worth the read, but one of the more interesting things to me was the idea that the urban areas maybe should "go it along." This was brought up as a somewhat taboo last resort, which is crazy. As soon as core cities figure out that they are better off looking after their own place and not catering to their suburbs, the finance of our places will change dramatically.
First, regional votes in places without a tradition of regional institutions and decision-making are an extremely heavy lift. In our focus groups, the idea of a regional solution held a lot of appeal. But in reality, voters were being asked to send a lot of their money to a “regional” approach with unclear lines of accountability. The money would have gone to GDOT, MARTA, the Georgia Regional Transportation Authority and to local jurisdictions throughout 10 counties.
But with money spread all over the place, where did the buck actually stop? They were being asked to trust, not just their local electeds, but government writ large. In this day and time, with this electorate, that may have just been too much to ask.
- Finally, I can't reveal where I'm headed next week, but it will likely include a friendly reenactment of this scene from one of my favorite movies.
Enjoy your weekend. We have good posts lined up for you next week. I'll see you when I get back.
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