Our Sponsors

Search this Site
Hidden Stuff
Wednesday
Mar142012

New Form Follows New Function

At Strong Towns, we’re part of a growing chorus, spanning across disciplines, bearing a message that communities making forward-thinking, high-return public investments will be positioned more strongly for the future. The mechanisms of growth we’ve outlined at Strong Towns are each unsustainable in the long run, as is a great deal of the development they have enabled us to produce.

Form follows function.

While I am always reluctant to quote secondary online content, I would be remiss to skip the following Wikipedia commentary about the origins of this phrase, which architect Louis Sullivan (evidently) made famous:

Sullivan developed the shape of the tall steel skyscraper in late 19th Century Chicago at the very moment when technology, taste and economic forces converged violently and made it necessary to drop the established styles of the past. If the shape of the building wasn't going to be chosen out of the old pattern book something had to determine form, and according to Sullivan it was going to be the purpose of the building. It was "form follows function," as opposed to "form follows precedent."

Sound familiar? Reader, we are together part of a dialogue about how to harness all the interrelated processes that cities accomplish, in ways that secure tandem environmental and fiscal sustainability. We don’t have a choice. Truly functional places in the future – Strong Towns – will house spaces that perform at much higher rates of return than what we currently have. They will produce energy as well and use less of it. They will perform more than one role at once. Our definition of function is shifting rapidly, hence will form.

On that much we all agree. The dialogue gets more colorful at finer grain, however. An aesthetic approach, for example, prioritizes fostering of attractive places that will draw talent (especially talented younger people), cultural vitality, private investment and job creation. An operating approach, for lack of a better term, establishes higher-amenity areas based on criteria ranging from proximity to transit, existing infrastructure, or job concentrations. More broadly, a regional approach emphasizes investment in connecting productive nodes (of employment, housing, et cetera) into a network. Urban/suburban rhetoric doesn’t fit in any of these approaches. They overlap. One size won’t fit all.

What is common among the successful cities of the future, and the neighborhoods and submarkets that bind them together, is functionality. Effective networks of people and institutions, vital job markets, courageous civic leadership are essential for transition to a new form. But each is undermined by the burdens of unproductive land use and infrastructure providing low return on investment.

The key function of modern cities is to harness the talents and skills of its people. The form that follows is a city of intentional and high-return infrastructure and design.

Monday
Mar122012

From the Mayor's Office (Part 3)

There is no simple approach to building a Strong Town. There are no one or two universal ideas that, if implemented, will change the trajectory of America's cities, towns and neighborhoods. This is hard work. For a city to get there, current priorities need to be realigned and everyone -- from the mayor, the city engineer, the maintenance worker and everyone in between -- needs to be working to get more value out of our existing investments.

As a finale to the series we've been running that began with a simple comparison of the tax base from two nearby blocks -- one developed in the traditional pattern and one in the suburban -- I am going to share what I would advise a city's mayor to say in response. This is written as an address from the mayor to the staff. I'm once again using my hometown of Brainerd as an example but, of course, this narrative could be translated to most communities across the county. This is Part 3 of the address. You should read Part 1 and then Part 2 first if you want this post to have the proper context.

Public Safety Coordinator

Your department has suffered immensely under the recent budget cuts. We have fewer police and fewer fire fighters than we did two years ago. We can all see where this is headed, and it is not good. Something needs to change dramatically.

I'll make you a promise right here and now: No more personnel cuts.

Now I need you to make me a promise: You'll work with me to change our approach.

We need to acknowledge that the way we provide public safety today is amazingly expensive. Each one of those cars costs more to buy, outfit and fuel than we pay for the officer inside it. And when it comes to fire protection, we ask our residents to pay twice. First, they pay millions for a fire protection system of underground pipes and towers and then they pay again for trucks and stations that, if we look at them objectively, are oriented more for service for surrounding communities than our own.

We need to start changing this equation. Serving the surrounding communities may be the good neighbor approach, and it may bring us some extra revenue year to year, but it is far from making financial sense. I want to focus on our town first. What is it going to take to do that well? Than any service we provide to others has to be at cost+ some incentive to make it worthwhile. We'll help them, but not subsidize their lifestyle.

And if that costs us some "clients" then so be it. If we are about building the biggest department, then our chiefs will be proud until budget shortfalls force us to lay everyone off. Our approach has to make financial sense.

There are three things I want to do that are going to incrementally start to change the cost equation, allowing us to put more money into people and effective public safety and less into gadgets, gear and infrastructure.

First, I want to start getting our staff out of their cars. As we retire vehicles, I don't want to replace them all. We still need a mobile police force, but I want to get some on bikes and some out walking. If I'm going to keep my promise, and you keep yours, our budget needs to start shifting from stuff to people.

Second, we're going to start downsizing our gear. Those big fire trucks are great for responding to that fire ten miles away, but unless that community ten miles away wants to pay for it, we're not going to replace it. I want a smaller, lighter and more nimble fleet of vehicles. We're a community of neighborhoods. We need to retool our approach to be at a neighborhood scale.

And that gets me to the third item: As you heard me tell then engineer earlier, we're abandoning the wide streets approach. You're going to have to work with me on this one. I know you believe that these wide streets allow you to get places more quickly. Maybe they do, but they cost a fortune, destroy the tax base that we need to sustain your department, and are themselves a huge safety hazard.

How many times a year do we need those Jaws of Life because two fast moving cars have collided? Too many, I know. We fix this hazardous street situation and you'll be able to put those extraction tools on the shelf for good. Imagine that!

We are going to have to think more strategically about where we place our stations, what vehicles we purchase, how we deploy our staff, etc... Public safety is more than big vehicles driving fast down wide streets. I'm trusting you to see that and to work to transition to an approach that would be more holistic and, ultimately, more effective.

Public Utilities Supervisor

I'm embarrassed every time we dig up a street that we just put down three years ago so we can replace an old water line. Deeply embarassed. You have to be too. On projects so enormous, this type of coordination is the minimum acceptable amount. 

What I need from you is a full capital improvements plan for replacement of the entire system. How old are our water and sewer lines, our towers, pumps and treatment facilities? When do they need to be replaced? How much is that going to cost? These seem like the most basic questions that any properly run utility should be able to ask.

Once we answer those questions, I want to know the rate structure we need to pay for everything. Will that double our present utility bills? Triple? Increase by ten times? We need to know becuase we need to have a very sober discussion with your customers about what we can realisticly do.

And get your mind around this: ultimately we are going to abandon large parts of the current system. Abandon as in, when it goes bad, it is not going to be replaced. It is simply not going to be cost effective to do it. This analysis is going to help us identify those areas and start that transition today. 

Maintenance Supervisor

I had a very interesting conversation the other day with an old timer from the area. He was lamenting the condition of the town but, in doing so, passed along to me a great story. He said that, when he was young, early every morning the inmates from the local jail would be roused, handed brooms and brought out to sweep the streets. Every day. He said the downtown had music – “In the Good Old Summertime” was the standard back then, he said – and that by 8 AM the entire place was bustling with activity. It is a pleasant mental image.

Now I don’t know as we’re going to be able to use inmates from the local jail – although we should look into it -- but the idea of sweeping the streets as a routine matter of business is intriguing to me. It is an emphasis on making the place more pleasant for the people that actually live there. So much of our effort today is on making our places easy to drive through. If we’re going to change the value equation in this neighborhood, we have to change our maintenance priorities.

Here’s our new priority list for maintenance:

  • Issues of immediate public safety
  • Plowing snow (seasonal priority, obviously)
  • Maintaining and repairing sidewalks
  • Tending to parks
  • Tending to boulevard vegetation
  • Downtown streets
  • Neighborhood streets
  • Roads on the periphery of town

In meeting these priorities, I want you to start thinking of neighborhood residents as assets to be deployed instead of customers that may complain about the service. You stick to this priority list, and I got your back on complaints.

To make residents into maintenance assets, they need to be part of the troubleshooting framework as well as the solution process. I suggest you adopt the program See. Click. Fix. as a first step to engaging residents. From their phone, they will be able to identify problems in their neighborhoods, take a photo and submit an electronic trouble ticket.

This may sound scary, but you need to embrace it. Don’t worry -- you’re not going to have hundreds of people whining about potholes in front of their house as much as you are going to be educating the public on the realistic cost – in terms of time and effort – to maintain our places. They’ll be able to see all of the requests, help you prioritize and, in the process, take ownership of their neighborhoods.

Then you need to tap into volunteers. We have hoards of people that want to take ownership in their neighborhood. We will create many more with this shift in focus. Let them water the plants, weed the gardens and paint the fences. Give them an opportunity to love their places and they will.

As a final thought, I want you to look at this photo of the back of a stop sign. Look what they’ve done; they painted it green. And why would they maintain their signs like this? Because the metallic back of a stop sign is ugly and detracts from the pleasantness of the public realm. Your job is to make the public realm pleasant. I need you to have this degree of passion, commitment and the attention to small details.

School District Superintendent

Madam Superintendent, I invited you here because I wanted you to hear all of this and understand how critically important you are to the success of this neighborhood and the future well being of our city. We need you as part of this solution.

The school district has already walked away from four neighborhood schools in our city, decimating the value of those neighborhoods in the process. We need families here. We need professionals. With great schools these neighborhoods draw both. Without the schools, we are at a serious disadvantage. We can't afford to lose any more.

I would make the case to you that the school district really can't afford it either. I saw the financial evaluation your building people did to justify the new campus built four miles out of town. They compared the ongoing maintenance and repair of the existing neighborhood schools to the construction and maintenance of the new. This limited analysis completely overlooked the key cost factor you are now starting to struggle with: the cost of busing.

Nobody needs to be bused to the neighborhood schools. Literally nobody. If the cost of transportation had been factored in, the neighborhood schools would have looked much better. And stop to consider the volatility with energy fluctuations that the district has opened itself up to by committing to a long term debt on an enormous remote campus, one that requires every kid to be bused to. The district already has to take money out of the classrooms to subsidize busing. Is this really good policy?

I also want to ask you to change your current busing policy. You keep widening the radius of where kids are excluded from riding the bus. Why do you want to financially reward the parent that lives ten miles out of town on the hobby farm by picking their kid up at the door for no charge while the poor kid living in the poor neighborhood a mile from school has to walk in the middle of winter? We should be doing the opposite; provide great service to those kids that cost so little in town and then, if you want to provide service, charge those outside of town that are disproportionately expensive (by their own choice of where to live) for the service.

We're mobilizing the entire city around building neighborhoods of value. We're going to be drawing people, businesses and value from the outside back in. We desperately need you to be part of that move.

Religious Leader

I've asked you to be here for the same reason as the school district. We need you, and your colleagues in the other faiths, as part of our neighborhoods. You provide social stability and a degree of community cohesion that can't easily be replicated. Getting people together, having them share meals and help each other out -- this is what being part of a neighborhood is. We need you and your peers to get back involved in our places.

And we need you to stop destroying them. I realize that most of your flock drives to weekend services. I'm trying to change that by getting more people living in your neighborhood, but I need you to meet me halfway. Please stop buying up buildings and tearing them down for parking. If people have to walk two blocks to get to the service, it is a modest price to pay for what they get. And as you've heard, I promise to work to make that walk easier and more enjoyable.

And wouldn't it be great if a large percentage of your parishioners eventually lived in this neighborhood and walked by the church each day? How many more would stop for a moment's reflection? How many would volunteer to help out more often? How many more could you reach in their moment of need? How many would walk past the church and experience that gentle reminder to "love thy neighbor"?

I want to do a project together to redevelop those parking lots you've created into buildings for people. You have a lot of power to make this city great.

Council of Local Non-Profits

You've heard me challenge our staff. Now I'm going to challenge you. Let's leverage the talent and efforts of your organizations for a common purpose. Let's focus on improving this neighborhood, and the other neighborhoods of the city. Let me give you an example.

Our parents are afraid to let their kids walk to school. You have elderly people that take the Dial-a-Ride to the mall everyday simply to do a morning walk for exercise. Let's get them out here together in the morning. Let the elderly walk the kids to school. Imagine the wisdom and insights that would be mutually shared -- not to mention the admiration and affection -- by a seven year old and a seventy year old spending fifteen minutes each day on a walk through the neighborhood. 

There are so many people wanting to do good things. I want to give them a platform right here in this neighborhood to do it.

State Legislator

I've saved you for last, and I really only have one, simple thing to request: Set us free.

I don't want more money. I don't want subsidies. I don't want grants and low interest loans. I don't want more programs or incentives or "enterprise zones". I don't want you to cap property tax rates -- or ever require that we have a property tax. I don't want you to solve our problems for us. I want you to set us free to innovate.

Hold us accountable -- I'm fine with that and, in fact, I demand it -- but reserve your paternal instincts for those places that don't meet up with expectations. Better yet, watch us succeed in this neighborhood and then tap into our knowledge and skills to assist those places still mired in stagnation and decline. That's a modern operating system for local government.

If you want innovation, you have to let us innovate.

+++

Thanks everyone. We have a lot of work to do, but we can turn this neighborhood around. Get out there and make our town a strong town.

 

If you value what you read here, consider a donation to help support the Strong Towns movement. Your support -- at whatever level -- will go a long ways towards giving us the resources and credibility we need to spread this important message. And tell a friend about us. It all helps us spread the Strong Towns message.

Friday
Mar092012

Friday News Digest

As I prepare to walk out the door for a winter getaway with my family (although we do call it "spring break" here -- not sure why), I'm likely going to have to forsake the News Digest this week. My flight leaves in just ten hours and at some point I need to sleep a little and then pack my bags. I'm kind of disappointed too because the news this week was a treasure trove of riches for us to chat about. I'll try and do a catchup upon my return.

I can report with certainty that Monday's post will be the finale, finale, finale of the series we've been doing this year on the comparison between the old block and the new. Monday you will get "From the Mayor's Office (Part 3)", which I promise to make into a great podcast sometime soon. Then we get on to new things. Not sure what yet....that is what vacation is for.

I do want to share two things though before signing off. In response to Monday's post on the institutional malpractice of the engineering profession's continued embrace of the "forgiving design" approach to local roads and streets, I received a number of emails from people who said they were civil engineers. I'm going to share one quote (not including the name because I don't have permission and I doubt the individual is up this late to even ask).

I am sometimes embarrassed to be part of a profession that waited 40 to 50 years for research on whether or not their Forgiving Highway theories actually worked... and then, it wasn't the industry itself that explored the topic. It is almost criminal to think about how many people have died based on an untested application of Freeway Theory to urban streets.

Wow. I totally agree.

Finally, my friend George Linkert shared the following video on Facebook this week. I first saw this clip and heard Neil DeGrasse Tyson utter this statement on a National Geographic Channel show and it made me weep like a baby. They have added some cheesy background music very unnecessarily in this video, but is is still worth listening to. "Many people feel small because they are small and the universe is big, but I feel big."

The universe is in us. Peace to you all. Be back with you soon.

 

Planning to be in L.A. for the APA conference in April? Live in the Anaheim area? Are you a fan of Strong Towns and Walt Disney? As a fundraiser for Strong Towns, we are providing a special opportunity for six people to get a "planner's tour" of Disneyland. See the Happiest Place on Earth through the eyes of Strong Towns. Click here for more information and to register. This is going to be a really fun time.