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Member News Digest

One of the ways our members advocate for building strong towns is through their own blogging. Here’s some recent highlights from our Member Blog Roll.

  • Steve Shultis of Rational Urbanism talks about public squares and the potential for activating the one is his hometown of Springfield.

My city disappoints much of the time, not least because my expectations are very high, but yesterday, for twelve remarkable hours in its finest outdoor room, Springfield was as fabulous a place as any. Though it took a special event to show that it was possible, on its best day, and with tremendous effort, Springfield can be as good as a couple of towns most people have never heard of just going through the motions on a normal day.

The term "complete streets" has been popularized by the nonprofit Smart Growth America, which also sponsors the National Complete Streets Coalition. They begin by noting the widely-acknowledged fact that street development in America since World War II has focused on moving cars, and moving them as quickly as possible. In contrast, the defining principle of a "complete street" is one that is designed "with all users in mind – including bicyclists, public transportation vehicles and riders, and pedestrians of all ages and abilities [emphasis in original]." The corollary, then, is to allow individuals to choose their mode of getting around, rather than feel forced to travel by car because it's not safe to go by any other means of transit.

I think palm trees can sometimes play a role in defining public space and the "outdoor room" on the street and they make good accent trees. And certain types of palms, when clustered together can provide a decent amount of shade.

Among the anti-urbanists, those implausible arguments include the contention that the fiscal problems at city halls are the result solely of ineptitude, not a flawed land-use paradigm, a denial of the induced traffic phenomenon, and a rejection of climate change coupled with the far-fetched suggestion that thousands of reputable scientists are working in a secret cabal to hide the truth.

  • Bill Emory provides great black and white photography. His latest.

When you rip out the bones that a place was built upon, that place will struggle to exist. Some places have managed to rebuild themselves - around cars, busses, or subways, but many places have failed. When I see all of these places scattered throughout the United States that look as if they have seen decline or a lack of substantial investment since the 1940s, I feel that these places have simply failed to adapt and recover from their bones being ripped out. These are places that used to bustle with wealth and people, and now both have moved on. 

If you are a member of Strong Towns and have a site you are communicating from, let us know and we’ll add it to the blog roll. If you’re not a member, sign up today to become one.


Stroad Nation

We can’t over-simplify the dynamics of all that has happened in Ferguson, but it’s obvious that our platform for building places is creating dynamics primed for social upheaval. The auto-oriented development pattern is a huge financial experiment with massive social, cultural and political ramifications. It is time to start building strong towns.

Thank you for your patience here the past couple of weeks. Two weeks ago I was with Joe Minicozzi in Lafayette, Louisiana working on a really important project with the local government there. More details to follow this fall and early winter. Then when I got back, the family and I took a camping vacation to bring the summer to a close. Yesterday Daughter #1 turned ten, a milestone I’m not sure I’m willing to fully accept quite yet. I started this blog when she was four – to have those days back again. Anyway, back in the saddle this week so buckle up as there’s a lot coming your way.

I don’t have cable and so I’m not in touch with the news cycle that many of you that watch cable news experience. I feel my life is better for it, although there are times when I do sense I’m missing some of the soul and substance of an issue getting my news primarily from print sources (and those, primarily of foreign origin). The ongoing matter in Ferguson is one of those instances. Add in the racial complexity – of which I am, by my own admission, lacking in intimate understanding – and I feel at an even greater disadvantage. I’m going to tread where I feel on solid ground, knowing others have more to contribute on this subject but hoping I can offer some relevant thoughts that you have not heard in other places.

I’ve spent some time on Google looking at the area where the shooting took place and the QuikTrip that was the flashpoint for events that followed. While this is a fairly ubiquitous pattern of development here in the United States, there are some important things to note. What I see with Ferguson is a suburb deep into the decline phase of the Suburban Ponzi Scheme. The housing styles suggest predominantly 1950’s and 1960’s development. We’re past the first cycle of new (low debt and low taxes), through the second cycle of stagnation (holding on with debt and slowly increasing taxes) and now into predictable decline. There isn’t the community wealth to fix all this stuff -- and there never was -- so it is all slowly falling apart.

Decline isn’t a result of poverty. The converse is actually true: poverty is the result of decline. Once you understand that decline is baked into the process of building auto-oriented places, the poverty aspect of it becomes fairly predictable. The streets, the sidewalks, the houses and even the appliances were all built in the same time window. They all are going to go bad at roughly the same time. Because there is a delay of decades between when things are new and when they need to be fixed, maintaining stuff is not part of the initial financial equation. Cities are unprepared to fix things -- the tax base just isn't there -- and so, to keep it all going, they try to get more easy growth while they take on lots of debt.

In 2013, Ferguson paid nearly $800,000 just in interest on its debt. By comparison, the city budgeted $25,000 for sidewalk repairs, $60,000 for replacing police handguns and $125,000 for updating their police cars. And, like I pointed out last week, Ferguson does what all other cities do and counts their infrastructure and other long-term obligations as assets, not only ignoring the future costs but actually pretending that the more infrastructure they build with borrowed money, the wealthier they become.

Ferguson isn’t all decline, however. They have the now infamous QuikTrip and all the other stroad development types that thrive on places in decline. Multiple car lots – some abandoned – strips malls, drive through restaurants, a Dollar Store and then you have a quarter million dollars of infrastructure supporting these storage sheds. This is an investment that employs nobody, creates little value and doesn’t even use the sewer/water/sidewalk that has been built there at enormous public cost.

One of the saddest buildings is the Ferguson Market and Liquor Store. Look at it. Understand that there is something close to $300,000 in public infrastructure adjacent to that site. That’s a huge public investment and an enormous ongoing commitment that the taxpayers of this community must shoulder. What do they get for it? There is all this waste of asphalt for a drive-through ATM. Then look at the fence on the right side, as if it is so offensive that one would seek to walk from the market to the McDonalds. And speaking of walking, that $25,000 being spent on sidewalks is obviously not being spent here. How about $50 for a shade tree?

When places like this hit the decline phase – which they inevitably do – they become absolutely despotic. This type of development doesn’t create wealth; it destroys it. The illusion of prosperity that it had early on fades away and we are left with places that can’t be maintained and a concentration of impoverished people poorly suited to live with such isolation.

Once we reach that stage, what opportunities does our development approach provide? The Ferguson planning documents are full of talk of infill and using tax subsidies to attract development. We can see what infill looks like. Here is a photo of the approximate location where Michael Brown was shot. Note the infill housing on each side. Our zoning codes dictate clusters of housing that are at one price point. Single family residential. Multi-family residential. M-2. M-3. etc....

Even if the initial price point is high, the cycle of decline brings it down over time. The buildings are auto-oriented – parking minimums force that logical adaptation – and so they present a rather despotic front to people not in a car. There are no eyes on the street, the buildings all orient towards the parking lot. And nobody even cared enough when this was built to plant some shade trees next to the sidewalk so people could walk in a modest amount of comfort.

Are we surprised that two men would be walking in the street here? If they were going to be on the sidewalk, they would need to march single file.

Earlier this year I wrote about Dunkin Donuts and their franchise model. You need a net worth of a half a million dollars to start a Dunkin Donuts. How many people in Ferguson have that kind of wealth? The median household income in Ferguson is 21% less than the state average. The median house is worth 32% less. How would the average Ferguson resident, living in a community programmed for decline, build enough wealth to start a doughnut shop?

The reality is that they can’t. So they don’t. So the business subsidies and the millions of dollars of public investment in infrastructure go to the typical cast of characters. A full 22% of Ferguson’s employed males and 21% of employed females work in retail or food service. Those are low wage jobs where, like the Dunkin Donuts, the profits rarely stay in the community. Where is the wealth to take that abandoned strip mall, convert one of the bays to a donut shop and make a go of it? It’s not there. What little wealth there is being sucked out of the community.

Let’s pretend that there was some wealth. Let’s say we have someone in Ferguson – and I’m sure there would be lots of candidates – with some real entrepreneurial zeal. They want to start a business in one of those abandoned buildings. How many zoning regulations, public hearings, parking requirements, building inspections and general red tape would they need to go through to make that happen? How does that impact the cost of entry? We establish all these things on the way up, insist they are part of the way we will keep order during the stagnation and then stubbornly refuse to challenge our assumptions on the way down. Of course, the city seems eager to help, if you are in the right place and will be paying sales tax. (Note: they at least appear to allow food trucks to some extent.)

This stroad nation we have built is also not well equipped for the transportation needs once a place goes into decline. Despite being relatively poor in comparison to state averages, 86% of employed people in Ferguson drove to work in a car by themselves, an incredibly expensive ante to be in the workforce. Only 3% used public transit while 9% carpooled. That leaves less than 2% able to use the most affordable option available: biking and walking.

If you live in Ferguson, you are essentially forced to drive for your employment and your daily needs. That is the way the city was designed. There was no thought given to the notion that people there might not always be prosperous, that they might desire to – or have an urgent need to – get around without an automobile. When you look through the city’s planning documents, you see that walking/biking infrastructure still primarily means recreation, not transportation, despite the obvious desperate need for options.

Unfortunately, nothing I’ve brought up here is really unique to Ferguson. All of our auto-oriented places are somewhere on the predictable trajectory of growth, stagnation and decline. Racial elements aside, I think we are going to see rioting in a lot of places as this stuff unwinds. The most insightful thing I’ve read on this subject over the past couple of weeks was Kareen Abdul-Jabbar’s column in Time magazine.

This fist-shaking of everyone’s racial agenda distracts America from the larger issue that the targets of police overreaction are based less on skin color and more on an even worse Ebola-level affliction: being poor. Of course, to many in America, being a person of color is synonymous with being poor, and being poor is synonymous with being a criminal. Ironically, this misperception is true even among the poor.

And that’s how the status quo wants it.

We’re entering a really dangerous phase of this Suburban Experiment. While we once believed that the path to prosperity was the “American Dream”, a house in the suburbs and an ownership society (FDR saw this as a social equity issue as did GWB), it is now evident that this approach creates poverty. It not only creates it, it locks it into place in a self-reinforcing cycle. Like I’ve said before, how we respond to this is the social challenge of this generation.

So far, I’m more worried than anything else. I joined the Army on my 17th birthday and spent the summer between my junior and senior year of high school at basic training. Despite the total exhaustion, there were two nights I just couldn’t sleep: the night after bayonet training and the night after our first day shooting the M-16 at pop up targets, which were silhouettes of people. Just contemplating, even at a very detached level, the notion that I might be asked to take a human life was a very sobering notion for a 17 year old. Simulating the act was eye-opening. Fortunately I was never faced with the moment where I had to do the real thing. I don’t know how I would have reacted.

It is with that background that I find myself beyond horrified at police officers – not even soldiers but public safety officers – in full camouflage gear pointing their weapons at American citizens. I even saw photos of a sniper. A sniper! Snipers are used to take down targets with stealth – terrifying – and we’re deploying them during social unrest. My mind is just blown. I don’t think we – as sober citizens – can overreact to this reckless display of force. You never point a weapon at a person unless you are prepared to kill them. Is that what we’ve come to?

We’d better hope not. We’ve bought ourselves some time with our extraordinary monetary policy – given the baby boomers a chance to sell their suburban homes and get some of their retirement savings back – but I don’t see us being able to keep this thing propped up a whole lot longer. Maybe we can – I’ve been surprised thus far, after all – but I suspect that more and more places will hit the decline phase of this experiment in the coming years and not get the bailout they are hoping for. The money just isn't there.

A lot of cities are going to need a Strong Towns approach when that happens. While I’m not trying to over-simplify the dynamics of all that has happened in Ferguson, it’s obvious that our platform for building places is creating dynamics primed for social upheaval. Our auto-oriented development pattern is a huge financial experiment with massive social, cultural and political ramifications. It is time to start building strong towns.


Three Weeks to the Minute...

...until the kickoff of the Strong Towns National Gathering on Friday, September 12 at 1 PM.  We're really excited to see so many of you together in one group for the first time!

The Friday News Digest will return next week as we ramp up to our fall schedule of speaking and continued work on forwarding the Strong Towns message. 

Permits are pulled and sessions are coming together for the event which will shape the future of our movement. At the gathering we’re going to be focused on three major themes: what we want, what we know, and what we do. Read more about the themes and schedule of the event.

To challenge and inspire us will be keynote presentations by Chuck Marohn, Dallas developer Monte Anderson, former Seattle Mayor Mike McGinn and the unveling of the new Curbside Chat trailer video by Gracen Johnson.

Perhaps most importantly, the National Gathering will be a time to discuss a more complete and succinct way to define what it means to, "Do what you can to build Strong Towns."  A draft of what we are calling the Strong Towns Platform is being finished up currently and will be released to our Members and attendees of the Gathering.  In conjunction with the message of why and how we need Strong Towns, we also need better direction on what each of us can do about it, concept Andrew Burleson discussed in this post about an Individual Call to Action.

The Call to Action today is this: Register to attend the National Gathering. We are at a tipping point in terms of the logistics and will need to finalize much of our details in the next week in order to send out appropriate information to the attendees. Remember, there are options to attend just one day of the conference, Friday or Saturday, if you can't make it for the whole event.

If you are coming and haven't formally registered, please do so today. If you are on the fence, maybe need a place to stay on the cheap or other help, email me and we'll try to figure something out.

To our registered attendees: More information on travel logistics and conference planning details are forthcoming in an email later today. We will be starting a Google Group for all attendees as a more direct communication line leading up to and during the event. Stay Tuned!