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Friday
Jun132014

Friday News Digest

Last week was a wild trip. As with much of my life, I was seriously overscheduled for CNU 22. My biggest regret at the end of the week was not being able to take the time for all the kind people who wanted a moment or two to chat. I’m so sorry but I squeezed in everything I could. That being said, I did manage to collect a ton of content that I’m going to be sharing on the podcast as well as a few other things that will be shared here in due time.

CNU has become somewhat of an annual checkup on the growth of Strong Towns. From Atlanta and Madison where I spoke briefly with NextGen to West Palm Beach where I had a session on the center stage to Salt Lake City where I gave the closing plenary, I’ve watched our movement grow each year. While my speaking role was not as prominent this year (no complaint from me), the reception was overwhelming. Last week was another reminder of how we’ve built a really great team of people around this country. I came away physically exhausted but mentally enthused. You guys rock.

Let’s get on with the news.

  • I have to start the news this week by congratulating Team Strong Towns which absolutely wiped the field at the CNU NextGen kickball tournament. Not even close. Team Lydon and Team Naperstek were so afraid they didn’t even show. I, for one, was not surprised.

  • I want to give a shout out as well to everyone that helped with the NextGen Late Show. My two guests – Joe Minicozzi and Gracen Johnson – were tremendous. Gracen put together that hilarious into video. Nate Hood for being the announcer. Erika Ragsdale for being such a great sport with the NextGen dating game. Matt Steele for getting us a great sound system. Jim Kumon for picking it up. Matthias Leyrer for holding the cue cards (I messed up – not him). And of course John Anderson and Howard Blackson for some help with a few punch lines. No word on whether the Late Show will make a repeat in Dallas, but that was more fun that even I thought it would be.

  • Back home, my hometown of Brainerd reached a bold compromise, narrowly averting months of agonizing gridlock, when they agreed to decrease the minimum house size, not all the way to “tiny,” but stopping short at merely “small”. For those of you following this issue, our city planner is on the record here as being “torn,” which I’m sure has some alternative definition I’m not able to grasp. Either way, if you want to build on certain selected lots and then go through a lengthy conditional use permit process in which neighbors are invited to show up and object and the city can write a long list of arbitrary conditions, you too can build a starter house in a city badly needing private investment. Small steps.

City Council member Gary Scheeler suggested that 500 feet be the minimum instead of 400, making the change “from ‘tiny’ to ‘small houses.’” That would help from lowering real estate values as would be more conducive to neighborhoods, he said.

“I am opposed to tiny houses, but willing to make something work with small houses for the good of Brainerd,” he said.

  • Chaska, Minnesota, population 24,000, is preparing to build a $13 million curling facility in an effort to “bring people downtown.” For those of you not familiar with curling, it is essentially shuffleboard for young people, a game played on ice (which we have in abundance here much of the year, yet we prefer to create it artificially indoors). The curling club in Chaska is 600 members strong which makes the proposed investment only $21,600 per member, a relative bargain compared to the new Vikings stadium. Of course, this is going to draw all kinds of people to Chaska and those people will, you know, spend money and such and, of course, that will all make everything good so…..did I mention that curling is fun and it’s an Olympic sport already…. Build it and they will come, baby.

Including the $2.6 million the city paid to acquire the commercial space and several homes where the curling center and Green Mill/Crooked Pint restaurant might go, the entire redevelopment might cost $13 million to $15 million, said city administrator Matt Podhradsky. That would be paid for by curlers, the restaurant’s lease, a $300,000 tax levy increase, carry-over of some expiring debt and local utility fees.

  • Minnesota is lucky to have someone as brilliant as Tom Fisher keeping people honest. His recent commentary on Minneapolis’ new transit hub called “The Interchange” points out how, even with a focus on pedestrian traffic, our design skills fall short of truly understanding what makes a great place. We are planning some video shorts on the Green Line – Minnesota’s new light rail line that opens tomorrow – to demonstrate this same thing. It is maddening, especially when you spend a billion dollars.

The way in which the Interchange treats pedestrians points to a larger problem. Not only do transportation planners seem to prioritize vehicles over people when it comes to the design of public space, but they also appear to have lost any sense of how pedestrians actually behave.

I am sure this doesn’t stem from malice or malfeasance. It may reflect, though, our having viewed cities for so long through car windows at a speed that can blind us to the nuances of the pedestrian experience. Talking about such things may seem — well, so pedestrian — but if we don’t start making people more of a priority in big transportation projects like this, someone is going to get hurt.

  • I had to read this article on the fall of planning that was posted this week on Planetizen. While I agree with the notion that the influence of planners is waning dramatically, I disagree with the argument that this is somehow because the idiots in general society are now more skeptical of us while also being more empowered to voice their less-informed opinions. We’re sucking it, my fellow planners, plain and simple. When you are a profession all about regulation, you are going to struggle to be relevant in the new world we are entering. For planners to be experts again, we have to be the ones with that secret sauce, the one that builds wealth and value throughout the community (not simply tries to maintain it). That means less regulation, more design. Fewer projections leading to big projects and more tactical experimentation leading to smaller interventions. Less hubris, more humility. Those people pushing back on all your brilliant planning might be simple laymen, but I’d take a city built by a dozen of them chosen at random over most AICP planners today. And I’m AICP too.

The fact that perfectly rational and educated people believe it is not simply acceptable, but preferable for laymen to attack the authority of experts is creating many of the problems that planning projects face. Community meetings where laymen make grand conclusions are, unfortunately, quite common. Capitulation by decision makers to community groups over experts on transit projects, for example, can be directly responsible for increased costs and lower performance. Similarly, when a high-rise development that would inject hundreds of units to a neighborhood is defeated, it can contribute to increases in the cost of housing over the long term.

  • The economic story of the next decade (or more) I believe will be innovation leading to the establishment of enterprises that undermine the existing corporate/social order. This will be followed by those within the existing corporate/social order using the means at their disposal (particularly government) to resist that change. Of course, we’ve seen this throughout history only now we are watching it happen at super speed in a hyper-connected world. The latest in this saga is from Miami, one of the country’s most crime ridden cities, where the police have been tasked with running stings on people participating in car sharing through Lyft. Sleep soundly, Miami.

And the county, under pressure from existing taxicab and limousine owners, has escalated its enforcement of the defiant car-service industry, joining forces with the Miami-Dade Police Department to catch scofflaw drivers.

Between Wednesday and Thursday, Miami-Dade impounded three automobiles belonging to drivers for Lyft, which two weeks ago began offering rides via a smartphone application. A competing company, UberX, launched its similar service this week, though as of Friday it had yet to be cited by regulators.

  • Earlier this month there was a great story about Fargo and the amazing work (which we’ve reported on here) they have done to rejuvenate their downtown. It is a real success story, and no offense Fargo….friends, if they can do this in Fargo, anyone can do it. Sadly, this week there was another story about Fargo, this time about $1.8 billion of federal dollars flooding in to build a flood diversion system so the city can facilitate even more of the really destructive horizontal expansion they are burdened with. As I posted on Twitter this week, we can bankrupt Fargo slowly or flood them quickly…I wish a sensible third option were on the table.

Supporters say the diversion is the only way to protect the region from an inevitable catastrophic flood that could cost lives and billions of dollars. Opponents say the diversion’s main purpose is to allow fast-growing Fargo to expand into the flood plains that hem the city in on three sides, and they question why century-old farms should be sacrificed for the sake of urban sprawl.

  • Young people are going into farming, but not the corporate stuff you find throughout the country. This can’t happen quickly enough. If you see this trend near you, do everything you can to support it, especially if you care about the future of your place. We need this, urgently.

Large conventional farms can churn out commodity crops quickly and economically. The average American farm, tilled by heavy machinery, is now 434 acres, up from 418 in 2007, the USDA reported recently.

But changing consumer preferences for locally grown and organic food have paved the way for young farmers to carve out a niche.

  • Earlier this year I was given an opportunity to tour Abrams Street in Arlington, TX. Like everything I experience in Arlington, it was an auto-dominated mess, but unlike the rest, there was a little something getting started and a handful of people committed to bring that spark up to a full flame. This week they got a big lift when the Arlington city council voted to change Abrams Street – an arterial – from a stroadish 4-lane down to a 2-lane street. I’m very excited about this. Congratulations to everyone involved, especially the Verdunity team that brought us down there to further this conversation. My friends, if they can do this in Arlington, what’s your excuse for not?

During a workshop Tuesday afternoon, council members expressed their support for a plan that would reduce Abram Street by two lanes between Collins Street and Cooper Street, leaving one lane in each direction and a center turn lane.

It also calls for wider sidewalks throughout the downtown area and additional streetscaping.

It was one of three different configurations city staff presented to council members. The other two called for more lanes and less sidewalk space.

  • Another development out of Texas…..toll roads. I thought it was kind of sad that this reporter – his byline said “transportation writer” which I thought, only in Texas – attributed (as fact) this change to “living in a state with a booming population and a Legislature that dodges solving transportation funding shortfalls.” Whether it is (as reported) a lack of a gas tax increase or an absolute misunderstanding of how transportation investments are used to build wealth leading to massive overbuilding (my explanation), Texas is starting to see that it is out of transportation money. ‘bout time.

Virtually every major Dallas-Fort Worth highway project includes plans for new tolls, in many cases replacing what have traditionally been free carpool lanes. By the time billions in planned construction is done, most of the area’s major corridors will either be toll roads or feature some sort of toll component.

  • I really want to like Transportation for America – and I suspect the feeling is at least a little mutual – but I’m not on board what their version of local empowerment. They start their pitch with, “Most taxpayers would agree that the level of government closest to the people should have more control over how transportation dollars get spent in their local communities,” which sounds great. I’m all in. Unfortunately, like most with a DC-centric view of the world, the mechanism for accomplishing this is too predictable: another federal program to dole out more money – this time directly to cities, how novel -- one that will contain all the requisite strings to ensure it goes to “the right” projects. Until cities keep their own money and tax their own people for the transportation they want to pay for, we aren’t going to have anything that nears rational project selection. This isn’t going to accomplish what they are hoping for, unless what they are hoping for is continued relevance as an organization. I, for one, hope that both Strong Towns and T4A become completely irrelevant as soon as possible, although for very different reasons.

Thanks to the leadership of a bipartisan group of Representatives and Senators, this terrific proposal would set aside a small portion of each state’s federal allotment to create a grant program especially for local communities. The grants would be awarded on merit by a panel with representatives from state and local jurisdictions, ensuring that funds go to well-conceived projects with the most local support.

  • Maybe if they taxed their own citizens and thus paid for the bulk of their transportation improvements locally, cities like San Antonio wouldn’t be inclined to do such ridiculous things as installing $1 million worth of bike lanes where they are critically needed and then, when some unidentified people complain about traffic being slowed along their favorite stroad, voting to take an additional $740,000 out of the bike lane fund to rip them out. San Antonio has slivers of some of the greatest urban environments in North America surrounded by an overwhelming amount of stuff that is utterly despotic. This is depressing.

Who has $1.74 million to throw away? Apparently, the city of San Antonio.

City Council's overwhelming decision — it was a 10-1 vote — to ditch bike lanes on South Flores Street reflects a lack of spine and conviction.

Not only is it a monumental waste of money to appease a small group of overreactive residents, but it also flies in the face of stated city goals to improve bike infrastructure, the urban core and promote better health.

  • Finished Jim Rickards’ The Death of Money and owe you a long post, or series of posts, on that amazing book. Rickards argues that the IMF is going to be the backstop for the next financial crisis, a credible supposition since it is hard to see that being the Federal Reserve and it certainly can’t be the U.S. Treasury. I learned an interesting thing about the IMF this week; its headquarters is required to be in the country of its largest shareholder. Today that is the United States. Soon, it will be China. Had the IMF existed in 1930 (it was established with the Bretton Woods agreement that established the post-WW II international monetary system), it would have been London. As happened in the 1940's, when the U.S. insisted on a gold-backed currency, power is likely to flow to the country with the hard assets to back their promises, and the will/capacity to do so.

“But the way things are going, I wouldn’t be surprised if one of these days the IMF was headquartered in Beijing for instance,” she said. “It would be the articles of the IMF that would dictate it.”

Lagarde said the IMF has a good relationship with China, the world’s second largest economy and she praised the government’s commitment to fighting corruption.

She had less kind things to say about the U.S., which remains the “outlier” among Group of 20 countries to approve an overhaul of the ownership of the 188-member organization. The plan would give emerging markets more influence and would elevate China to the third-largest member nation.

  • Nassim Nicholas Taleb is right again and, as he would say, his expertise is not domain dependent. The human body is a complex system that has evolved over millennia. Amazing stuff.

Fasting for as little as three days can regenerate the entire immune system, even in the elderly, scientists have found in a breakthrough described as "remarkable".

Although fasting diets have been criticised by nutritionists for being unhealthy, new research suggests starving the body kick-starts stem cells into producing new white blood cells, which fight off infection.

  • Word is the president and his family are going to be moving to the Cesspool of Sin – Asheville, NC – within a couple of years. Seriously, I know it has involved a lot of people, but Joe Minicozzi is such a hero to me and I’m really happy that a place he loves and works so hard for is succeeding so wonderfully. Gives me hope for my little part of the world.
  • And finally, by popular request, here is the video Gracen Johnson put together to kick off the NextGen Late Show last week in Buffalo. I fell over laughing the first time I saw it – hope it has the same impact on you.

 

Thanks everyone. Next week I’m headed to Washington State for stops in Dayton and Ellensburg (more information here). The week after we’re going to have a membership week with a lot of stuff so, if you are a member, watch your inbox for an early announcement. If you aren’t yet a member, come on….you read to this point. What else do we need to do? Sign up today.

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