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Friday
Jan182013

Friday News Digest 

This is the time of year when we earn the right to be Minnesotans. The sun rises late and sets early. The temperatures this weekend will dip into the double digit below zero range. It is so cold that even my two Samoyed dogs appreciate sleeping indoors at night. (If you don't know what a Samoyed looks like, here is a picture of Avalanche, our newest rescue dog.) Still, there is no place else I would rather be. I love that fresh chill, my warm bed and the occasional cup of cocoa. It's not for everyone, but it's for me.

Hope you appreciate your home as much. Enjoy the news.

  • Kaid Benfield has long been far too generous to me and the work we do here. One of the great things about the last few years has been getting to know him. I'm fortunate to be his friend and want to make a point here on our first FND to wish him health, strength and good fortune in 2013. I also need to thank him for including my book on his list of The Best Green Ideas of 2012.
  • While I'm going to do a longer post and more formal announcement in the future about this topic, I can confirm the rumor that I will be giving the closing plenary at CNU 21 in Salt Lake City. Some of the details are yet to be worked out, but the general outline has been agreed to. Make your reservations now -- this is going to be a great time.
  • This year we have opened up the Strong Towns Network, a social site we have been experimenting with, and WOW have you responded. I log in and it is a collection of some of my best friends and favorite posters. You've got GML4, Neil21, Cap'n Transit (the official super hero of Strong Towns), Sam Newberg, Shane Mitchell, Jeffrey Jakucyk, Gabe Dobbs, Jeff Morrow, Alex Cecchini, John Simmerman (Aloha, dude), Matt Steele and many of the others you find adding to the conversation here. I'm thrilled! The Network site is a lot better place to have the type of conversation that I think we need to be having and I'm encouraged that the talk is expanding beyond where I can take it. That is what we need. Remember, innovation that happens from the top down is orderly but dumb while innovation that happens from the bottom up is chaotic but smart. Join the chaos at the STN to be part of the smart that emerges.
  • I realize after reading that list of friends that it was all men! Ugh! The demographic info that we have on our readers suggests a 55:45 split of male:female readership. Okay, here's what I'll do. The next five women that join the Strong Towns Network (there is no cost) and then post or comment on a post will get a free autographed copy of Thoughts on Building Strong Towns. Next week I'll publish a list of all of my favorite female posters (Betsey and Faith automatically jump to mind, but I know there are more).
  • Thank you to Mike Lydon for sharing the best article of my week, a post from UrbanIndy called The Genius of Traditional Buildings. For those of you that have been struggling with our conversation on density this week, this article goes a long ways in connecting the dots. If you read one link in this FND, this is it.

Perhaps even more importantly, the small sizes [of the lots/dwellings] encouraged ordinary citizens to become developers.  Many buildings were financed directly by business owners or residents, who would offset building costs with lease income from unused spaces.  These self-developing streetscapes ensured that no single developer or architect controlled the evolution of the city.  It would reflect a social, shared history instead.

  • In our conversation about density, I had forwarded to me many times an interview Robert Dalziel that appeared recently in The Economist. Dalziel is a London-based architect that has researched housing styles and has some helpful thoughts on low rise construction and density.

In the chapter called “density in urban form” we draw attention to the fact that you can get very high densities with low-rise housing by using some of the clever tricks that have been used in some of the archetypes. The disadvantages with high rises are many and it’s not just about them being too costly to build and maintain. It’s more about the fact that as soon as you go high you lose a sense of community because you detach yourself from the street. I think the general conclusion was that there is still a presumption in design that to get high densities you need to go very tall. The rather surprising conclusion was that you don’t need to.

  • It pays huge dividends to have brilliant friends. One of my most insightful is Jen Krouse of Steepletown Studios. Thsi week she shared an article about gradual engagement with me, the type of cross disciplinary insight that makes her one of my most valuable advisors. (For those of you relatively new, Jen designed our website and comes highly recommended.) You want to change hearts and minds? Give people a little taste of what a new experience would feel like. Let them turn the dials. Smell the thing. Taste it. Go on. You can do it. Whether it is an app or a street, it's all good.

Gradual engagement encourages visitors to become users immediately. Rather than presenting users with information about the product, it enables them to use the product right away, without signing in and without creating an account …at least not until they have had a chance to use the product and add some of their own data!

  • It is kind of comical sometimes to watch "master" plans fall apart as the old military adage no battle plan survives contact with the enemy proves applicable to the urban planning zoning realm. That California is almost becoming a caricature in this regard makes the comedy tragic. The latest update is from Napa Valley. I especially love how, upon realizing that their traffic plan has been terribly flawed from the start, their reflexive response is to update the plan. I guess they will get it right this time. (Note: a rational response would be to adopt a growth pattern that is not so dependent on projections. Then the fools making projections can be as wrong as they generally are and nobody gets harmed.)

Lacking redevelopment money, the city has no funding source for reimbursing the developer if either project were to occur, the city said. “It’s not apparent to us where that money might come from,” Holley said.

However, the improvements may no longer be warranted, Holley said. When the city’s traffic circulation plan was written in the late 1990s, traffic in the area would increase at an anticipated 3 percent each year, Holley said.

However, the Soscol and Imola area has seen no increase in traffic in the last decade.

“It certainly calls into question the need for those improvements,” Holley said.

No more parking studies or sustainability plans. No more BRT Band-Aids or streetcar fantasies. No more consultants paid to tell the city and select business owners what they want to hear. We know what needs to be done downtown, all that remains is to convince ourselves that we can change. We can reset the table downtown for a more vibrant future in three simple, affordable steps:

1) return all downtown streets to two-way
2) place on-street parking on all blocks 24/7
3) implement smart parking technology

Poul Hertel is among those who say the idea is dangerous.

"It shows a remarkable faith in human nature to expect this to happen, and I'm sure we'd like it to be true. But is it true or is it just a case of the emperor s new clothes?" he says.

Rosemont resident Cady Cannady is more blunt.

"Lines in the street instead of a curb?" she says. "You just have to go to any parking lot where they drew out the lines for the parking spaces to notice that there's a percentage of people who didn't park within the lines."

  • Here in Minnesota, the Governor has indicated that he does not support a recommended $0.40 cent per gallon gas tax increase, not because he is against tax increases, but because he says the increase won't make a difference. That hasn't stopped some smart people from advocating for it and the usual suspects from pretending it will make a difference. We'll keep on this track until we can't, then we'll do something else. I personally think the course correction will be measured in months to years, not years to decades, but I've been constantly amazed by our ingenuity in avoiding substantive decisions.
  • Speaking of which, over on the Strong Towns Network I put some perspective into the entire fiscal cliff joke that dominated our post election dialog. The most delusional reaction to it all came from a source I generally respect and find intelligently informative, that being the publication Grist. Here's what Susie Cagle had to say, 

On Dec. 31, 2011, that shelter was shrunk from $230 a month to $125, while the benefit for people who drive to work and pay for parking was increased from $230 to $240 — meaning the government was incentivizing people to drive instead of take public transit. Now, thanks to the fiscal-cliff deal, tax benefits for transit takers and car parkers will be equalized — both will get a benefit of up to $240 a month.

to which I responded on Facebook:

That silver lining is actually just the glare of delusion caught in the reflection of your rose colored glasses. #ridiculous #blindtoreality #letthemeatcake

I am SOOOO sick of the national political dialog in America. I've canceled my cable subscription and turned off the news. None of it has any relevance to my life anymore.

  • Another nice little wrinkle in the entire fiscal cliff debate....interest on municipal bonds. The Ponzi Scheme is under assault from a directions. We live in such a complex world, don't we? 

A wealthy couple in the highest tax bracket who receive $100,000 a year in municipal bond interest currently pay tax on none of it, effectively lowering their total tax bill by $35,000 under the current rates. But under the administration proposal to limit tax breaks for households whose taxable income is more than $250,000, the same couple would see the savings on their tax bill reduced to $28,000, effectively resulting in a $7,000 tax payment.

Sounds good?

....if investors see less of a tax break, they will demand higher interest to make up the loss, and higher interest rates will mean higher borrowing costs for governments.

Oops.

  • I was recently sent this article about a debate over growth and development in a rural county with the hopes that I would comment on it. I believe the wish was that I would point out how wrong these supposedly pro-growth commissioners are. Okay, they are, but that's so 2010 for us here. What really struck me in this article is how the opposition -- those proposing a Strong Towns approach -- are arguing for more programs, initiatives and subsidies to counter the other programs, initiatives and subsidies that are causing the problem. (Oh, but the new stuff is good. Uh huh.) For those of you that are Christians (or have access to a bible), I refer you to Matthew 26:52.

Mahoney proposed her Sustainable Development Plan last summer. It would limit residential development to areas already served by public infrastructure like sewer and water lines. Suburban towns that sign on to the plan and restrict sprawl would rewarded with grants to offset lost tax revenues. Developers would be given tax credits to build in urban center rather than paving over farmland.

  • It has always been amusing to me to hear advocates for digital billboards argue that they don't distract drivers. Then why do people want to build them, especially in a country where nearly nobody carpools or shares rides (they're not targeting the passenger, in other words)? Thanks Sweden.

The study, conducted by researchers at the Swedish National Road and Transport Research Institute and funded by the Swedish Transport Administration, found that drivers looked at digital billboards significantly longer than they did at other signs on the same stretch of road, with the digital signs often taking a driver’s eyes off the road for more than two seconds. 

A well-regarded 2006 study by Virginia Tech for the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration found that anything that takes a driver’s eyes off the road for more than two seconds greatly increases the risk of a crash.  The study also found that nearly 80 percent of all crashes involved driver inattention just prior to (within 3 seconds) of the crash.

  • Finally, if there is a clearer argument for completely defunding our state DOT's -- or at least massively reshaping their role -- I'm not aware of it. I give you, the Budget Flow of California State Fees and Taxes Designated for Transportation Purposes, a handy little diagram that clearly demonstrates that an organization too complex to coherently explain what it is doing is an organization too complex to coherently function. (PS. This is not a gag.)

Hope everyone has a great weekend. See you back here on Monday.

 

If you'd like more from Chuck Marohn, you should really get a copy of his recent book, Thoughts on Building Strong Towns (Volume 1). It is a primer on thr Strong Towns movement and an essential read for those wanting to get up to speed quickly.

You can also chat with Chuck, Nate Hood, Andrew Burleson, Justin Burslie and many others over at the Strong Towns Network. Join the conversation on how to make yours a strong town.

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