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Friday
Mar282014

Friday News Digest

It has been far too long, I know, since the last news digest. My apologies to our loyal Friday readers. As it is, I’m up really late Thursday night in Greensboro finishing this off before catching a couple hours of sleep (literally) and then heading home. I would have been to bed earlier but I couldn’t turn down an opportunity to play pool with Jeff Speck and Joe Minicozzi who, by the way, are pretty good (I am not). I have a really fortunate life.

Enjoy this week’s news:

  • Dapper Mitch Silver – a great description given him by a Raleigh newspaper – is headed to New York City to run their Department of Parks and Recreation. It is really nice to see the accolades he is getting as he departs and the anticipation building for where he is landing. New Yorkers, of which Mitch is one, can be a tough crowd, but I suspect they will embrace one of the more dynamic and innovative planners I’ve ever met. Congratulations, Mitch.

Thanks to Silver, Raleigh has better comprehensive planning, a vision of where it wants to be and stacks of planning documents to help it get there. In Raleigh City Council meetings, some officials get good grillings from council members. Silver typically made his presentations, calmly answered questions and rarely heard complaints. He was thorough, and the council respected him for his careful preparation.

He also made contributions around town by participating in other civic endeavors and giving speeches to many community groups, all of which left impressed. It’s good for Silver that New York also was impressed, but it’s a loss for the Capital City.

  • Our close friend, Joe Minicozzi, was the central focus of an article in Forbes. I got to speak with Joe again this week, this time back in Greensboro, North Carolina. And I got to meet (and hug) his mom last week when I was in Stuart, Florida – what a sweet woman. I get to hear a lot of speakers and nobody keeps my attention, or shares information more powerfully, than Joe Minicozzi. Some announcements soon (next week?) on a couple important events where Joe and I are going to be presenting together. Stay tuned.

Armed with an impressive array of PowerPoint slides, computer models and property tax data, Minicozzi travels around the country to encourage municipalities to see that their downtowns, no matter how neglected, often contribute far more value in terms of tax revenue — property and sales tax combined — than even the biggest big-box store.

One of the key components of his research has been to break down the economic impact of land on a per acre basis, allowing him to make apples-to-apples comparisons between, for example, a six-story, mixed-use building (a combination of residential and commercial uses) and a single massive retail store, in the same way you might use miles-per-gallon to evaluate the fuel efficiency of a car.

  • My trip to Florida was well covered in the local press, including this piece in the News Leader out of Sarasota. While Florida is the Stroad Capital of the United States, there are enough redeemable places that I have seriously longed to move there. It is especially enticing when the winter here has been so cold and we all know that, once the snow melts, mosquito season will begin in two weeks. Any cities want to bid on relocating the Marohn family? (Note: Any city that would is not going to be a place that would interest me, a strong towns advocate.) Like this quote:

From a city budget standpoint, tradition downtowns are “vastly more productive” than suburban projects, Marohn concluded. “In our rush to grab the elusive dollar on the edge, we’re literally stepping over nickels and dimes waiting there to be picked up.”

  • Economists of a certain persuasion (the ones running our economy today) have been saying that all the money printing and zero interest rate stimulus is a benign policy because we don’t have any inflation. Of course, the way they measure inflation doesn’t include, or dramatically misrepresents, things that are critical to a normal person’s daily life. Let’s take, for example, food….

 

  • Little by little, the Strong Towns message is making its way around the country. Next week it will be in Arkansas where I’ll be giving a Curbside Chat and a workshop the following day. We’re also going to be hosting an intimate, members-only meetup, so if you are not a member, now is your time to become one.

“It is an opportunity to learn from one of the best in the field about ways to grow and strengthen your community in a way that is sustaining,” said Michele Halsell, Applied Sustainability Center Director. “This workshop is geared toward city planners, mayors, city financial directors, city council representatives, public works directors and economic development professionals.”

  • I want to thank the website Urban Resurgens (cool name too) for highlighting the Growth Ponzi Scheme in a recent posting. I really love how people adapt and use this work, putting it into their own words and building on it in the process. That is how the world changes – very awesome.

While my focus for this blog is really urban design, planning, transportation, and economics, maybe I need to devote some time and research to water issues.  After all Georgia is currently pursuing a legal border war with our neighboring states, because Atlanta is literally sucking the state dry. A year ago, a friend’s father who specializes in municipal water told me, “You don’t know how close you all came to running out of water during the last drought.  It could have been really disastrous.”

Typically, when drought strikes Atlanta, we hear alarmist cries to get more water to Atlanta from somewhere or somebody else.  ”Without water, Atlanta can’t keep growing so quickly!”  To me, this rings of the Growth Ponzi Scheme, as articulated by Charles Marhon at Strong Towns.

  • Now we have even more evidence of declining driving demand. When will the engineering profession start to question its own models and assumptions? What is to be gained by sticking so dogmatically to the current approach? I have to believe that this problem will be solved in time as new thinking starts to infiltrate, then dominate, but the mind of the engineer should be more curious and open than it seems to be.

  • Do you think the people who put together this list – the worst places to park your car – ever pondered that these are some of the best places in North America to live? Hey NerdWallet, I can think of a lot of things worse than searching for a parking spot. How about living in a crappy place? Or I know, how about having a lot of places to park and nothing worth parking at?

There’s nothing worse than spending your precious time finding a parking spot only to fork over a small fortune to park your car for a few hours. Not only can searching for parking be stressful, but paying for parking can be a big strain on your wallet as well. Parking is one of the main reasons a lot of people ditch the car if there’s good public transportation in their city.

Guerrilla traffic-calming efforts like Patterson’s have become a growing issue in Baltimore and in urban areas across the country, as fed-up residents attempt to slow motorists with do-it-yourself measures. (This past November, in another Baltimore neighborhood, an artist installed a steel sculpture in the middle of a traffic circle to draw drivers’ attention to the traffic pattern.) Most of the time, cities will remove or paint over these efforts by self-appointed civil engineers. They’re illegal, and officials say they pose liability issues. A few cities, including Muncie, Ind., in 2008 and Vallejo, Calif., last year, have arrested people who painted crosswalks without permission.

But there is another approach, say people like Mike Lydon, an urban planner with the Street Plans Collaborative and the co-author of a handbook called Tactical Urbanism. Lydon says cities should “look at the action of citizens as a civic act, as care and interest in their neighborhood.” Instead of punishing proactive members of the community, he says, “cities should use their resources to help scale those efforts up and make them permanent.”

  • Every now and then a blogger comes along that really catches my attention with recurring fresh insights. Walker Angell over at Streets.MN is one of those. His latest starts with a provocative question – Why are we killing our children with cars? – and then, when you are sufficiently outraged at the suggestion, he backs it up with facts. Excellent writing and insight.

Our current rate is what Sweden had achieved by 1982. The Netherlands had achieved this by 1993, Germany by 1994, and Denmark and Finland by 1995. We are 20 to 30 years behind these other countries in providing safety for our children and at our current rate it will take us 38 years to get where they are today, much less where they will likely be by then. It’s not a competition though. What this tells us is that there is no reason that so many of us and our children need to be killed every year.

It’s worse in context. Throughout all of these decades we’ve had the world’s leading healthcare and trauma system. A child involved in a crash in the U.S. likely has a better chance of survival and of a better overall outcome than in any other country. Yet we have so many more crashes that our better healthcare system can’t make up the difference.

  • You long time readers will know that, as Kaid Benfield described it to me, I don’t “enter this conversation through the door marked conservation.” I don’t find myself often talking about carbon emissions except to explain that, if that is important to you, it is certainly a happy side effect of a Strong Towns world. That being said, the ignorance displayed in this article got to me. The notion that we would ever run out of single-family homes – or even have a shortage -- because we are adjusting our policies to no longer favor horizontal expansion is just silly. We’re going to be tearing these places down, salvaging them as our cities contract over the next generation. This just affirms, though, my thought that – as compelling as it may be to some – the environmental message is not going to significantly change policy on a continental scale. Only a realignment of our economic conversation will do that. I think the two could align. Time will tell.

Stack-and-pack living is a blueprint for misery in urban America. Few people would want to live in such conditions. Yet this is exactly the vision that smart-growth advocates and their political allies are pushing.

For example, the regional smart-growth plan for the San Francisco Bay Area, approved last summer, calls for jamming an additional 2 million people into just 5% of the Bay Area’s land over the next 27 years.

Similar plans exist, or are being discussed, in metro Chicago, El Paso, Minneapolis-St. Paul and a seven-county area of South Florida—including Broward, Miami-Dade and Palm Beach counties—to name a few locations.

These regional government master plans effectively eliminate local control of communities. They also run into the Law of Unintended Consequences.

As politicians force urban centers to embrace more high-density housing, people who still want the American dream of a single-family home with a yard must move to the suburbs and commute farther.

  • Millennials are messing with the pre-conceived (and egocentric) beliefs of the Baby Boom generation the same way they once messed with their elders. Who are these crazy kids that don’t want cars? As someone sandwiched between these two overwhelming forces, I’m enjoying watching this transition that, quite frankly, can’t happen fast enough.

It used to be that having your own car provided the ultimate sense of freedom for young adults, allowing them a means to get together with friends, establish independence and separate from their parents. It was a critical right of passage to real adulthood to drive your own car, and it was the one place you could blast music without your parents complaining. Popular movies of the later Baby Boomer’s and Gen X's coming of age, such as Risky Business and Dazed and Confused shaped this generation’s sense of self, portraying images of fancy sports cars as the ultimate young adult possession.

Today however, older teens and young adults don't need cars to achieve a sense of self and freedom. This generation’s coming of age consisted of graduating from the Internet and CD-ROM computer games to hand-held mobile devices where they’re establishing identities, relationships, and individualism online all day long--as much as, if not more than, in the real world.

  • Earnings at Costco were lower-than-expected, signaling weakness among another big box retail darling of the stock market. Coincidentally, I returned from my recent trip to Florida to discover that I had a Costco membership. What? We now have a 20 pound bag of pretzels in the pantry and it won’t close. I can’t help feeling like my life is a little worse off now. But, consolation, I think Costco will be an early out in the coming retail unwind.

But the fact that in early March Costco reported lower-than-expected earnings and its stock price has slumped now has some wondering if the company can stay on its hot growth streak going forward. In particular, concern is being raised that Costco’s membership model and its bulk-goods products don’t appeal to the nation’s young consumers—and that the Costco experience might not be a good match for the millennial generation even after they grow older and have families.

  • Every spring we are allowed to have hope, if only for a little while. That is the magic of baseball. I love the Minnesota Twins and, while the hope is not real deep this season, there is hope for success nonetheless. To all you baseball fans out there, may your team fare well this season, unless your team is the Yankees, Tigers or White Sox in which case I hope your entire roster is banned for performance enhancing drugs and you are forced to watch your AAA lineup get stomped every game this season. Oh, by the way, I hate the Yankees, and you should too.
  • Kind of couldn’t help but smile when I saw this video. One of my favorite cities in the country doing what they do best: being happy. Go Memphis!

Thanks everyone and have a safe weekend. We’ll see you all back here on Monday for more.

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