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Live Blogging from CNU 19, Saturday

Last day for me here in Madison. I've been here since Tuesday and, while this Congress has been amazing, I miss my family back home and am going to be happy to be back on the road headed towards the woods in Central Minnesota this evening. There are so many amazing people here -- both ones I have known a while and ones I just met -- and I know my mind is going to be filled with all the thoughts and ideas that have come from these connections for a long, long time.

And I think that may be the best way to start this last day - the people. One thing about the New Urbanism is that it has grown far beyond its architectural roots. That is by design, because New Urbanism is more about life than it is about the narrow focus of architecture, however important it may be. As New Urbanism has grown, it has picked up a broader and broader group of adherents. I have met people here that are engineers and planners like myself, but also people with backgrounds as diverse as communications, music and economics. You embed people with this broad of a background on the loose framework of a Congress that is intentionally designed for the exchange of ideas, and you have a gathering that is more valuable and productive than anything else I have ever attended.

If you are one of those that have been following CNU 19 through my eyes, I am very thankful you are here. Taking notes in this way has always helped me digest what is going on, but the fact that so many others find value in them as well compels me. That being said, if you are not here in Madison but potentially have the means to make it to West Palm Beach next year for CNU 20, do something important for yourself, for me and for everyone else engaged in building Strong Towns by planning to be at the next Congress. We all benefit from the incubation and dissemination of ideas that goes on here and you will add to that exponentially by your presence. May 9-12, 2012 - start making your plans now.

So here we go - Day 4.

Open Source

I started an Open Source session today based on the book Switch and focusing on the large issue of how do we change the "elephant" of society at large and "clear the path" so that people want to choose more productive living patterns. We had a great conversation, which I would summarize with the findings 1) end peverse subsidies, 2) fix urban schools and 3) 

We're going to be continuing this conversation online in one forum or another. If you were part of this conversation or my prior Open Source group on Complete Streets, OR if you are interested in being part of these ongoing, informal discussions, please email me at When we get the online forum up and running, we'd be glad to include you in the conversation.

Bikeability: What it's Worth

One of the NextGen people I really admire (I admire them all, actually) is Eliza Harris (Twitter). She's been very kind to me in sharing her time and enthusiasm to get me integrated into CNU. She's also a fellow conservative-minded person and we've had some delightful conversations on the intersection of conservative thinking and New Urbanism. Very engaging.

Eliza moderated a session on bikeability - something outside of my core area of knowledge and competency, but something I need to know more about. I'm recording the session, but here are my notes.

Randy Neufeld, SRAM Cycling Fund, was the first speaker. He had some great photos and examples, but I'll summarize his talk with a primary strategy that I really liked: Take people on a trip. We need to get our public officials out into communities to see how things like biking are done in successful places.

Jonathan Patz, MD, talked about some of the health benefits of cycling and reducing auto travel. Some interesting statistics and observations on "natural experiments" like Yom Kippur, where people reduced driving for religous reasons and there were large measurable benefits in asthma-related and other emergency room visits.

Maggie Grabow, states that 40% of all car trips are 2 miles or less, 50% of the population commutes five miles or less. How do we replace these car trips with bicycle trips? She did a model to see what would happen if one in five trips were replaced -- not a radical amount. The result was that hundreds of deaths were prevented, hundreds of thousands of fewer hospital admissions and billions of dollars in savings. I really don't question such radical results - just the activity alone would be a dramatic change from what most people get. And how easy is this?

Sara Rider, Saris Cycling Group, a company from here in Madison, discussed an incentive program that they put in place to encourage people to bike. Intersting approach and I can see the appeal to the culture of a bike equipment manufacturing company, but I have an incentive program that would be less complicated and more effective for the broader population - $5 gasoline. Here is a cool video that she shared:

A lot of these speakers promoted a group called Bikes Belong, so I'll link to that website for you to check it out.

My colleague Jon Commers just sent me a Tweet asking about cold weather urbanism. I'm going to ask a question on cold weather biking, Jon, when we get to Q&A. Here's the feedback from the group:

Many cold climate cities are big into cycling. As you go further north in Europe, cycling often increases. Also, we should not look at it as an either or - bike most of the year, but you might not be able to do all. Also, communities that get out and plow right away show a dedication to biking. Wear warm clothes and it is actually easier to do than skiing, snowshoeing or fishing.

Urban Agriculture Design Elements

I have not had a chance to talk much with one of the guys I admire the most, Steve Mouzon, and even had to miss his session earlier today, so I could not pass up the opportunity to come to this session that he was part of.

Lisa Taranto started off the conversation by talking about water (scarcer than you would think) and gas. Interesting fact: 1 barrel of oil yields 42 gallons of gas, which is the equivalent of 25,000 embodied man-hours of energy. This equals 12 people working 40 hours a week for 50 weeks per year.

Horticulture is the slowest of all performing arts. 

She had a great talk that I found myself simply listening to (podcast to come), but she did make a book recommendation that I will pass on here: Dirt, The Erosion of Civilizations.  

Steve Mouzon - Most food would need a passport to get to you. Most foods we eat take over three weeks and travel over 1,500 miles to get to you. Preservatives and genetic modifications have distorted what we eat. Food security is becoming important the way energy security became important years ago. Who wants to live within 10 miles of where they spray pesticides and herbicides? 

Efficiency: The current food system is efficient if you look at it in terms of man hours. Bio-intensive agriculture is much more efficient in terms of land area. The industrial food chain is also very inefficient - 80 calories of input needed to bring in 1 calorie of food. We can't pay people low enough in this country to make industrial agriculture work, so we have exported a lot of the production. We can feed about 1 or 2 people per acre using industrial agriculture. Using a bio-intensive approach, we can feed 20 people per acre.

Steve posed a question that we need to ask: What is the local cuisine? Or what should it be? I've been thinking about this a lot as I have two little girls that eat fruit by the pint. Strawberries, blueberries, cantelope, etc... all stuff that we do not grow locally. If this stuff becomes too expensive or is just not available, what do we do then?

Just as a reminder to everyone, you can get more of Steve Mouzon online at

Battery dead - thank you for following Strong Towns at CNU 19.


Live Blogging from CNU 19, Friday

CNU is kicking off an initiative to sign up new members so, for those of you that have been following along here but are not members of CNU, here's a short video for you and the link to join. Even if you can't make it to the Congress, this is an amazing organization that is worthy of your support. And trust me, you put a little into it and you are going to get a ton back. 

Let's go Day 3!

A couple programming changes for those of you here at the conference. I had scheduled an Open Source session at 11 AM -- and someone added my name to it so you'll know which one is mine -- but I have had to reschedule that to tomorrow, Saturday, at 11:15.

The reason is because I have been asked to speak -- literally just asked -- at the Member's Choice session this morning at 11 AM. This is really an honor that I could not pass up. I'll be giving my Petcha Kucha presentation from last night.

This means I need some assistance because I am going to miss a session tomorrow I really wanted to attend and record the audio from. If there is someone here at the conference that would be willing to help me out by sitting up front and turning on and off my recorder, please get a hold of me at The session I want to get is Steve Mouzon's session on Megatrends: Technologies and Techniques that are changing the built world.

Edward Glaeser

Urbanist and Conservative, Professor Edward Glaeser is a speaker I am thrilled to hear. Thanks to my wonderful mother-in-law, I now have his book, Triumph of the City. The following are my notes from his talk.

As counties get denser, incomes rise. Productivity is connected to the ability of people's connectivity. This is the idea transmission concept - the notion that our increase in productivity arises from our ability to share and grow ideas, concepts and innovations together. 

We live in a world where we can telecommute from anywhere, but we don't. We choose urbanism. The technologies that would allow us to spread out have actually encouraged us to come together. This is more obvious in the developing world, where the cities are the future. Bangalore may seem like a place where we call when our computers don't work, but if you are there, it feels completely different. It is a place where bright, young engineers gather.

New York top three industries included publishing. An interesting story here about how piracy of books created a market advantage for New York, since they got the imported books first. (Sounds a lot like the complaints Microsoft has with China currently). 

A beautiful story about how the painters of the Renaissance connected and learned from one other. This how how humans create things.

Successful cities in the 18th Century were built around smart people, local production and connections to the outside world. The same is true today. Henry Ford and Detroit started this way, but their product - the automobile - and the process - the massive assembly line - gave them short-term advantages, but put them in a position where they could not adapt and change.

The car was going to be popular because of mobility advantages, but we did not have to subsidize it to the degree that we did. The same with home ownership, which bribed people to live cities and move into suburban homes. This moved mass amounts of people out of cities. We did not respond to this well...urban renewal, crazy things like building a monorail over abandoned streets, etc...

Two Policy Questions:

1. There is little care for continuing with the Federal obsession with home ownership. It is risk-enhancing, regressive and bad for the environment.

2. Transit policy is less clear. The price of Federal transit support is highways. It is not always obvious that Federal investments in transit will work out. Privatizing the transportation systems would allow transit to compete with the automobile. 

Quote: "Knowledge is more important than space." The trading floor as an anology. Technology does not make this less important, it makes it more important.

Quote: "It pays to work around smart people." As the number of college-educated people increases, wages go up for people without college degrees.

It is important not to indict cities for their poverty. Cities do not make people poor. They attract poor people because of the opportunity. If you are close enough to someone to sell them a paper, you are close enough to rob them of their newspaper. Still, a city like New York has a longer life expectancy than the average American, lower obesity rates and lower rates of suicides.

Quote: "There is a reason why New Yorkers like government more. They need it." They need it a lot more than someone living in rural Montana. 

Policy Challenges for the U.S.

  • Subsidizing our highways.
  • Subsidizing home ownership.
  • Fixing our urban schools.

Stefanos Polyzoides

The two great strengths of New Urbanism: We access history through study. We learn through observation.

A very interesting observation that I will try and relay. He is showing photos of pre-colonial architecture from Malaysia. Polyzoides then points out how the original colonial powers were different than the way we operate today. They came and, without petroleum, electricity, air conditioning, etc... they actually had to observe the way people lived locally and adapt to that in order to survive. He then shows some of the early colonial architecture and how it fits with the architecture that existed prior. Today, we are in the process of making the great cities of Malaysia - and other Asian countries - into L.A. 

Architecture is the place where I have the most amount of learning to do here with the New Urbanists, but this was an interesting observation to me. Kind of like the Mouzon Original Green discussion, modern technology has certainly set us apart from the natural systems that surround us, that we used to adapt to for our survival and thus became part of our identity. Are those days returning even in a small way because, if so, we are woefully unprepared. 

Members' Choice

I was asked to speak at the Member's Choice session here at the last minute to redo my Petcha Kucha presentation from last night. Cool. But first, other speakers...

Geoffrey Block (Twitter), NY bike activist, presented a video that I had seen at the NextGen session. You are going to want to check out this video, which is available on his blog.

Speed Kills

Lynn Peterson, Oregon, states that she is a "recovering engineer", a title I have used myself. I like her already. Said that she did not go into engineering to do "plug and chug" -- referring to the rote application of standards -- but instead wanted to solve problems.

Engineers need to be reminded that they are not standards, they are guidelines.

The issue of liability for those that differ from the guidelines is drilled into an engineer's head from early in their education. We need to focus on safety, but if we don't look at context, we will not be really looking at overall safety.

Engineers have three central design criteria:

  • Design Speed
  • Design Guidelines
  • Mobility Guidelines (Level of Service analysis - LOS)

We can't build to the maximums anymore because we don't have the money. Designing to LOS is not going to work anymore. The cash-in-hand analysis is forcing us to rethink our approach. She gives a great example of a project to widen and straighten a roadway that could only do a small part due to budget. Driving along on a winding road, all of a sudden you hit this widened and improved section, then it goes back to winding again. Not only does this mess with driver expectation, but it is silly to do if we don't have the money to build and maintain the entire thing.

She quotes an Oregon DOT attorney that said as long as they document their design decisions, the case can be made in court. If they just follow the standards, there is no good defense.

Billy Hattaway, PE and Florida Managing Director of Transportation, said that much of his job with the DOT was damage control. They were removing parking and sidewalks while widening lanes. Had a conversion process when he saw other communities - in the Portland area - do things differently. Moved out of the DOT to work on the problems from the outside.

Engineers have equated meeting the standards with providing safety. This is not true. We kill a lot fewer people today than we did before, but a lot of that has to due with lower VMT. The carnage is unacceptable.

The AASHTO Green Book is all about motorists. It actually says that we should "use as high a design speed as possible". The reality is that in suburban development we actually wind up with very low overall speeds. He didn't state why but I'm assuming it is due to the traffic controls and the start/stop nature of suburban driving. He said he studied a corridor and said the average speed was less than 20 mph. The obvious conclusion of this observation is that we could design for lower speeds, eliminate a lot of the traffic controls and thus save lives and probably shorten overall travel times.

The AASHTO standards are not based on safety. They are based on studies on how to keep traffic moving in the system.

Another observation - standard lane width measurement goes from the edge of the pavement. The gutters unecessarily adds another three to five feet to the width. We should design from curb face to curb face.

A yield street design is 24' curb face to curb face.

Obviously I - and many other engineers - need to read the AASHTO green book more closely. Hattaway had a ton of quotes from the book that were mind-blowing and go against the entire standard engineering convention. It is like discovering a counter-theory for Christianity in the New Testament. Blasphemy, but very exciting. Can't wait to use that information myself.




Live Blogging from CNU 19, Thursday

Day 2. Wow, is this place awesome!

I had to say goodbye to my colleague, Jon Commers, who was only able to spend a short time at the Congress this year. He promised me that next year (West Palm Beach) he would be there for the duration. Make your reservations now because CNU 20 is going to be great too.

Open Source

Today started with an Open Source plenary, which is a new emphasis at CNU on Open Source. We featured a post here earlier about Open Source from our friend Edward Erfurt, but to recap, Open Source turns the standard conference format inside out. It challenges the brilliant minds assembled at the conference to meet and discuss issues of concern to CNU and placemaking. Someone offers a topic and then people who are interested in that topic assemble to discuss.

For this session, I offered the topic "Complete Streets and New Urbanism" and was amazed at the quality of the people that showed up to discuss this. We had a number of engineers - so refreshing to have them here - along with a number of others, including CNU Board Chair Victor Dover. We identified three things that we need to do as New Urbanists:

  1. We need to apply the transect to the Complete Streets concept to fully develop the notion that a successful Complete Street must have a relationship to the adjacent land use.
  2. A good place to start this process is the Urban Thoroughfares Manual, a book put together by the Institute of Transportation Engineers and CNU. We need to apply the principles in this manual to Complete Streets.
  3. We need to have a conversation with Complete Streets and groups like Transportation for America to add a Complete Neighborhood / Land Use concept to their existing construct.

The greatest thing about New Urbanism is that it is not afraid to co-opt and improve upon other people's good ideas. Complete Streets is a good idea. Applying New Urbanist thinking, it can be a great idea.

Agrarian Urbanism

I'm following up on my interest on the Agrarian Urbanism concept by attending the session on it today. Andres Duany is the first speaker and I am recording him for a podcast. As usual, he is full of quotable statements. Here's one I paraphrase:

The New Urbanism is not about simple answers. NU adds about 600 members each year and loses about 400. We are better off without the 400 if they are looking for easy answers. There are none. This is a complex undertaking.

Duany describes four typologies consistent with the approach.

  1. Agricultural Retention - Save farmland where it is and keep it farming.
  2. Urban Agriculture - Food that is grown within an urban setting.
  3. Agricultural Urbanism - The population is not committed to growing food, but food is grown, somewhat as an added amenity.
  4. Agrarian Urbanism - A society that grows food. This is like the old village, which is a machine to grow and harvest food. Cities and towns did more, but a village existed just to grow food.

The village is the machine. If the Land Trust would buy the village and make it work, it would be much more effective than buying the farmland. Buying the village and making it work would destroy the market for the dumb subdivisions that crop up across the rural landscape.

He throws out an idea that he said was developed by Steve Mouzon to have the developer sell four-acre lots with the agreement that the land was to be subdivided seven more times. Each lot would have a pond  - this would allow people to develop their own little "utopia" as they see fit, on their budget, over time. An interesting idea - don't reject it out of hand because it is based on some old, fundamental principles that used to govern how this country was developed.

There is a huge diversity of what can be grown everywhere except large agribusiness and window box gardens. 

In order to overcome agribusiness, we need to have better definition to our urban boundaries. With people living on the edge of farms, it allows people to devote their leisure time that is now allocated to lawn maintenance to growing food.

Conservative Caucus Lunch

Just got back from the ad-hoc, and well-attended, Conservative Caucus lunch. This was a gathering off-site from the Congress and not affiliated with CNU, but we had a good turnout and a lot of discussion on how conservative principles - especially financially conservative principles - are consistent with a New Urbanist approach.

I'll throw in a quick disclaimer here that Strong Towns is a non-partisan organization, not endorsing any candidate or party, and that the views of our board and staff reflect a broad cross section of the political spectrum.

And this is kind of the point for getting together. CNU is not a Red or Blue organization and the principles in the Charter do not speak to a part or an affiliation. Much of the debate today in conservative circles (correctly) takes issue with rail projects, but does not apply the same rigor to highway projects. Many self-proclaimed conservatives oppose all land use regulation, except for the Euclidean zoning that their town has adopted. These views are more conservative (opposed to change) than they are truly fiscally conservative. Helping to illuminate that is something I am trying to do here in this space, now with the help and support of others at CNU.

Thanks to everyone that attended. We're now making this an annual event.

The New Urbanism and the Bicycle: A Dialogue

I got to this session late but was able to hear Mike Lydon (Street Plans Collaborative, Tactical Urbanism, Smart Growth Manual, Twitter) speak on biking. He said something here that he had relayed to me before, that being that the website People for Bikes is one of the most brilliant approaches to organizing social change that he has seen. Check out their website and you may agree.

As part of the Q&A, the panelists were asked what city in the United States was the most bike friendly. I'm sitting way in the back so I don't know the speakers' names, except Mike. The first said Minneapolis and the second said Madison. Mike disagreed on Madison and made the point that there are no bike-friendly cities, but there are bike friendly neighborhoods. He cites Portland as having places that are excellent, but outside of those it is terrible. Indicates that New York is the same.

Project Lodge - Pecha Kucha

The place to be right now - the place I am heading to - is the Project Lodge, which is located off-site at 817 East Johnson Street. (map) There a number of people, myself included, will be giving Pecha Kucha style presentations. I'm going to try and set up an audio recorder to capture the evening and, I promise, have a podcast update for people yet tonight. One possible microphone is dead somehow, so I'm going to have to improvise. No problem.