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Friday
Jul222011

Friday News Digest, Catch up edition

It has been way too long. Two weeks ago I had a tremendously busy week, was a little under-the-weather and was preparing to leave on vacation, so events forced me to skip the News Digest. Then last week, I was relaxing by the pool in Texas while the wires got crossed back here in Minnesota....no News Digest. I'm so sorry, and so this week we're going to make it up to you with an extra long, super spicy, action packed and never dull News Digest. And yes, it is July and I went on vacation to Texas. Hopefully this sunburn carries over long enough to keep me warm this winter.

Enjoy this month's news.

  • I admire public officials that blog, especially when they take on weighty issues in an effort to inform and inspire the residents they serve. One of my favorites is Scott Huizenga, the city administrator of East Grand Forks, MN. His recent post on Local Government Aid, the Minnesota government shutdown and the concept of the Buffalo Commons is a great example (and includes a friendly link to STB - thanks Scott).

Most frame the debate in a traditional DFL vs. Republican context.  This stands to reason given that the sitting Governor is a DFLer who favors more revenue (i.e. taxes), whereas the Legislative majority leaders are Republicans who favor budget cuts.  The divide ultimately may be more than simple ideology or party affiliation.  The more critical schism that Minnesota and several states face is urban versus rural populations.  Or, perhaps more specifically, urban versus suburban versus rural.

  • Last week we ran a guest column from Nate Hood, whose work we have featured here in the past. I've asked him to post here monthly as I like his insight and his writing is getting really good, like his post this week where he threaded a narrative on Strong Towns thinking from one edition of his local paper. He's got natural talent and a good eye for this stuff, but it is especially cool for us to watch him take our work and build on it. That's what we're trying to inspire.

New developments paying for infrastructure looks appealing in the short-run. But remember: the City must maintain the infrastructure thereafter. The maintenance cost of an extra turn lane is minimal. Unfortunately, the problem isn’t one turn lane – it’s the dozens upon dozens of unnecessary turn lanes that add no economic or social benefit whatsoever to the community at large. At best, they are only a small financial burden.

  • I was able to enjoy a Twins game with Riordan Frost of Minnesota 2020 this week (Wednesday - we won). Riordan is leaving us to go to grad school in DC, so it was nice to be able to chat before he heads out. In my pile of news is this post he did last month on Complete Streets where he quotes us and the posts we did on the topic. He let me know he would continue to write and seek to get published, so keep an eye out for him.

As Chuck Marohn at Strong Towns warns, however, we must be careful to not let complete streets be confused with complete roads. The difference, as Marohn defines it, is that a road is a thoroughfare existing outside of urban areas, whereas a street exists within neighborhoods and urban areas. The status quo for engineers when it comes to roads outside urban areas is, and should be, to focus on cars, car speeds, and car volume.

  • The website Mez Dispenser (written by Dave Meslin) detailed a Tactical Urbanism-like project taking on the phony traffic analysis presented by their city by doing their own actual counts. A bunch of volunteers went out and physically counted pedestrians, bikers and autos and their results were so far from the "official" count that it was stunning. I'm a professional with an engineering license and a planning certification and I will attest that our cities all need much, much more of this type of intelligent challenges by layman to the standards and orthodoxy of the professionals. The narrative is an entertaining read as well.

One year ago, I wrote a blog post about the City’s “John Street Corridor Improvement Study”.  I called into question the validity of some of the measurements in the report.  Specifically, the study claimed that there was not enough road width to include bike lanes and wider sidewalks.  It was presented as a choice:  bike lanes OR a wider sidewalk.  I took advantage of a high-tech quantifying device called a “tape measure” and proved them wrong.

  • Speaking of biking, congratulations for the city of Minneapolis for holding their first Ciclovia. We need to do this in every city across this state.
  • At our Curbside Chat this week I was told that I made people a little "depressed" with some of the statistics and narrative. I always find that an odd critique because I feel like I am actually fairly optimistic, especially considering that I do not have the luxury of being blissfully unaware of where we are at in this country. Want to see depressing? Try this story from Market Watch detailing ten reasons we are "doomed" to repeat the financial crisis of 2008.

Wall Street rules aren’t like Main Street rules. The guy running a Wall Street bank isn’t in the same “risk/reward” situation as a guy running, say, a dry-cleaning shop. Take all our mental images of traditional American free-market enterprise and put them to one side. This is totally different. For the people on Wall Street, it’s a case of heads they win, tails they get to flip again. Thanks to restricted stock, options, the bonus game, securitization, 2-and-20 fee structures, insider stock sales, “too big to fail” and limited liability, they are paid to behave recklessly, and they lose little — or nothing — if things go wrong.

Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner (GYT'-nur) says many Americans will face hard times for a long time to come. He says President Barack Obama rescued the United States from a second Great Depression and will keep working to strengthen the economy. But Geithner says will be some time before many people feel like the country is recovering. Geithner tells NBC's "Meet the Press" that it's a very tough economy. He says that for a lot of people "it's going to feel very hard, harder than anything they've experienced in their lifetime now, for a long time to come."

  • I came across a 1982 article from Time Magazine about the rapid rate of business bankruptcies at that time. It was worth reading and gave some context to where we are at today. Individual bankruptcy filings are skyrocketing, but from the data I have seen, it does not look like businesses are in the same position. This is not to say businesses are doing well -- to the contrary -- just that, like other parts of the economy, they are floating in the sea waiting for the next wave to crash into them. From my vantage point, this is especially true for small businesses, which is a major focus of the Time article. The impact of inflation and the need for a run of bankruptcies to cleanse the system described in the article may provide some preview of what is to come for us today.

Despite the anguish corporate bankruptcy causes individuals, many economists agree with Eastern's Borman that it is an inevitable, perhaps even healthy, aspect of capitalism. Like a forest fire that creates more productive land by burning off dead trees and scrub, the failure of one company often yields markets, capital and skilled labor that fuel the growth of another. Says Eugene Lerner, professor of finance at Northwestern University's J.L. Kellogg Graduate School of Management: "For a long time, thanks to inflation, a lot of firms found it convenient to borrow a lot more than was prudent. If inflation had continued, these same guys would have been millionaires. But someone always gets caught when the merry-go-round stops."

  • One of the things that confused me 15+ years ago when I euphorically made my first investment in a rising tech-led bull market was how stock prices would drop dramatically even when there was a positive earnings surprise. I'm not going to pretend that I understand the market, but what I do know is that our securities trading system is not set up for my benefit. This article on earnings surprises explains another facet of the ridiculous nature of the game being played.

The percentage of companies that have beaten expectations often is cited as a barometer of corporate profitability, an indicator of how well the economy as a whole is doing or a predictor of where the stock market is going. What goes unsaid, however, is that these positive surprises are becoming so common they are nearly universal. They are predetermined in a cynical tango-clinch between companies and the analysts who cover them.

  • We've written extensively here about the frail financial condition of America's cities largely wrought by the unproductivity of the suburban pattern of development. Earlier this year we focused in a blog and a podcast on the predictions of Meredith Whitney, a respected analyst that projects large scale municipal bankruptcy. I don't know all of the nuances surrounding Central Falls, R.I., but it looks like they are headed into bankruptcy.

As state officials try to dig Central Fall out of its financial hole, negotiations are ongoing with labor unions and retirees and cuts are being sought from every corner of the budget. Without major concessions, bankruptcy is a very real possibility. Bankruptcy can take a toll on a city’s reputation and put stress on neighboring communities, which might have to step in to provide services.

“It’s a difficult, painful, and wrenching process,’’ said Richard Levin, an attorney who has been advising the city council in Harrisburg, Pa., which has been flirting with bankruptcy because of more than $280 million in debt on its trash incinerator, several times the size of the city’s annual budget. “Some people think bankruptcy is like a bath or a free pass. That’s not it at all.’’

  • We're hoping to make it over to Fergus Falls, MN, very soon for a Curbside Chat. It looks like the discussion there is evolving in the right direction thanks to some really active and informed residents.

When you look at cities of Fergus Falls’ size, particularly many suburbs of the Twin Cities, said [Community Development Director Gordon] Hydukovich, “They’re trying to get down to what we have.” What Fergus Falls has is a pedestrian-friendly, scenic neighborhood within walking distance of a downtown area. Study author Cindy Gray and the 23-person committee determined that such an area is valuable to Fergus Falls and helps set it apart from other cities, although Hydukovich added that the plan could still change before final approval.

  • As I write this, I have CNBC on here in the office and they are featuring all of the politicians talking about the debt ceiling. I read the Economist and find the foreign, generally apolitical, take on our system to be more interesting that nearly anything we produce here. They have some good insights in this brief on the bargaining position of Speaker Boehner.

HOUSE Speaker John Boehner is fond of saying that a debt-ceiling deal that raises taxes cannot pass the House of Representatives. Slice the numbers a bit more carefully and you can easily conclude the opposite: a deal that doesn’t raise taxes won’t pass, either.

  • The Economist also had an insightful take on the sausage being made over a transportation bill, legislation that is guaranteed to disappoint on multiple levels. We've simply built a system that is too big and too unproductive to maintain. All the tax increases and spending cuts imaginable won't change that underlying math.

And America’s roads and railways are deteriorating; the Congressional Budget Office estimates that $20 billion more is needed each year just to keep them in their present poor state. If the parties are unable to bridge their differences, the gridlock in Washington will quickly find its way to streets around the country.

  • The transportation funding gap is something they discuss in depth in this piece posted on The Infrastructurist blog, although they seem to suggest that a gas tax increase can somehow prevent decline. While I won't argue that it will forestall decline in some areas, I think they are more precise in their analysis on the underlying dysfunction of the system, as stated in this quote from the piece:

We’ve all heard about the trillions of dollars America’s transportation needs. The numbers are so big they seem insurmountable. But today’s spending patterns, whether there is more money or less, exacerbate the problem because they are so dysfunctional.

  • The Disney Corporation is brilliant, especially in their design of theme parks, and I've been a huge fan for a long time. I lament that the only place most Americans can catch a glimpse truly good design is at a Disney park, and I often use Main Street USA in speeches to explain some aspects of placemaking for people who have lived for decades in hostile, auto-only environments and know that as "reality" (instead of what it is: an historical anomaly). I don't want to second guess Disney, but I have to admit being baffled and confused by the "Cars Land" they are building in their California Adventure park. I realize the cartoon theme, but watch the walk through video below and decide for yourself is this is space you would enjoy inhabiting.

  • I am not one to get all uptight over obesity statistics. I understand the devastation of obesity and its tremendous social and financial ramifications, but I also understand how obesity is the symptom, not the problem. We won't fix obesity in America until we are much poorer and, as a result, walk more, do more physical work, eat more local and less processed foods, etc... I grew up on a farm and we ate volumes of food I could not imagine consuming today, yet we were very fit and healthy (while today my BMI is, sadly, in the "overweight" zone). Despite my lack of passion for the topic, there are some very revealing statistics and information in this article from Huff Post.

The nation is getting bigger and bigger every year. And looking at state-by-state statistics over the last 15 years, the groups found exponential waistline growth – Colorado, with 19.8 percent of adults considered obese according to 2010 data, would have been the nation's fattest state in 1995.

"When you look at it year by year, the changes are incremental," says Jeffrey Levi, executive director of the Trust for America's Health, which writes the report with the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. "When you look at it by a generation you see how we got into this problem."

  • Earlier this year we wrote about the perverse subsidy of school busing, especially in suburban and rural areas. Now a school board in Texas is asking parents to pay directly for busing their kids.  I'm not sure this is how I would go about doing this, but I do think we are more likely to see this as schools struggle to keep money in the classroom.

Under the plan, parents or guardians will pay $185 a semester for one child to ride the bus and $135 for a second child. Students who get free and reduced lunches will have to pay $100.

“There will be buses,” superintendent James Veitenheimer told parents after initial worries that there wouldn’t be bus service during the school year. “They just won’t be free.”

  • And finally, my beloved Twins are getting healthy, pulling themselves out of the cellar and becoming a much more entertaining team to watch than their brutal play in April and May. I had planned to post this video of speedster Ben Revere tumbling into a somersault on his way to legging out a triple, but this GIF file of Thome's monster home run took precedence. The great thing about this is not the home run, which you can't see, but the immediate and dramatic reaction of Delmon Young waiting in the on deck circle. You can tell from seeing his expression just how far the ball traveled.

Keep cool, be safe and enjoy your weekend.

 

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Friday
Jul012011

Friday News Digest

I'm from Minnesota. We can count the number of truly hot days each year using our fingers. For this reason, and because I'm financially-prudent (did someone say "cheap"?), I opted not to install air conditioning in our home. While Steve Mouzon of the Original Green would be proud (I understand he shuns A.C. in Miami, which to me is akin to shunning heat here in January, but more power to him for walking the talk), it is those handful of days each summer that can become a tad unbearable. Actually, the days I can handle -- it is the hot, muggy nights that really wear me down. I won't complain too much because I almost had to turn the furnace on last month. Yep, that's Minnesota, where every conversation begins with a comment on the weather.

Kinda hot out dere, eh? Enjoy the news.

  • Okay. The Better Block team is officially the coolest group out there today. I'm going to be in Dallas next month and I really need to meet these guys. This week they made the case that a complete street creates greater revenue potential. Check out the photos that go along with the article. Their genius is that realization that, yes folks, it is really that easy.

An assumption often made is that our roads are paid for by gas taxes. The reality is that none of our residential and non-highway/interstate roads are covered at all by gas taxes…it’s soley property taxes. To make matters worse, when business opportunity erodes in an area, we typically raise taxes to continue maintenance which pushes business away and creates an undue burden on residents to fill in the void. The money we’d save by reclaiming portions of the streets for businesses and people would go far to helping our city’s balance sheet. Fewer potholes to fill while increased area business tax revenue would help cover the costs of pedestrian amenities like lighting, watering trees, et cetera.

  • The notion that a highway should somehow change when it reaches a small town is a concept lost on the engineering profession. The conventional approach is that the highway doesn't change to match the town, the town changes to match the highway. After two generations of this mindset we find ourselves not only with huge safety problems but we have gutted the tax base of our small towns and buried our DOT's in maintenance obligations.  The Rural Blog writes about one set of engineers that are starting to see things differently. Starting.

Those five lanes were reduced to three, with bike lanes added to either side of the road. Two years later, continuous sidewalks were added to allow pedestrians to move between downtown shops. Sycamore trees were planted to show cars this was a neighborhood, not merely the intersection of Highways 299 and 96. Traffic slowed further, which legally allowed the speed limit to be lowered to 35 miles per hour. Pedestrian crosswalks were drawn. A community downtown was created.

  • In the time I've been writing this blog, not only has Kaid Benfield become a friend and mentor, but his writing -- which I had not been exposed to before (my ignorance) -- has continued to inform and inspire me. His posting this week on "The Pursuit of Happiness" has added to my reading list and given me even more to think about.

“One of the great, but often unmentioned, causes of both happiness and misery is the quality of our environment:  the kind of walls, chairs, buildings and streets we’re surrounded by.

“And yet a concern for architecture and design is too often described as frivolous, even self-indulgent. The Architecture of Happiness starts from the idea that where we are heavily influences who we can be - and argues that it is architecture’s task to stand as an eloquent reminder of our full potential.

  • Another writer I admire is my Minnesota Iron Range friend and peer, Aaron Brown. This past week he wrote about his mixed emotions with the "progress" of tearing down his Depression-era school and replacing it with a modern facility. He beautifully captures the mixed emotions felt through so much of America.

The old building was once a stand-alone school. The classrooms where I attended my English and social studies classes had cloakrooms and back offices which used to serve administrative functions. From one of these rooms I can recall Mr. Hadash fishing out a dog-eared copy of "The Grapes of Wrath," telling me to keep it because I "needed it." I still have that book. I still need it. I also remember Mr. Haapala lending me "The Red Badge of Courage" from his back room, telling me to return it because Stephen Crane wrote it in three weeks and I ought to be able to read it even faster.

  • Last week in the news digest we ran a graph of the Shiller Index of home values. I was made aware this week of this instructive video where this graph is modeled using a first-person roller coaster. The end, where the coaster just climbs and climbs and climbs to the peak of the housing market in 2006 demonstrates just how far from any "normal" we went (and just how far our correction still has to go).

  • Speaking of housing, there was a report out of Dayton, Ohio, that some banks are considering giving away homes in order to cut their losses. Banks would get a tax write-off for their "donation" and cities or community groups would get properties. It is truly telling to consider that some of our housing is worth no more than a charitable write-off. This may be an early anomaly, but the economic rationale behind this decision is likely to become more widespread in the coming months and years.

Negotiating for an exit strategy from the mortgage meltdown, representatives for a foreclosed properties servicer that works with major banks met Monday with Dayton city officials to discuss the abandoned properties.

How the early discussions will shake out is unknown, but a potential outcome includes transferring some properties clogging up bank balance sheets to a land bank or some other public entity, a move that occurred earlier this year in Chicago.

  • The lack of mobility of homeowners is creating a situation where the suburbs are aging in place while their youth -- the only group in America right now besides the ultra-rich with true mobility -- are leaving for better opportunities elsewhere. While this is an interesting social phenomenon in and of itself, the implications for maintaining the suburban development pattern are significant. All of this deferred maintenance is coming due at the same time families are coming to grips with the fact that their homes were not worth as much as they believed, their retirement is not as secure as they thought and their prospects for renewing their communities are fleeting.

People think of the suburbs as a place full of kids, soccer games and minivans, but this is changing fast. People like to stay in the places they know, and as the kids move away the parents are staying. The density of people per acre is dropping fast, as is the need for schools and soccer pitches, while the need for senior services is going to dramatically increase.

  • Did I mention that deferred maintenance bill now coming due? Here is a quick look at Wisconsin's bridges. For the record, and my intuition tells me that Wisconsin is in far better shape than most of the rest of the country.

Goldberg’s biggest fear isn’t necessarily the condition of bridges but what will happen if funding continues to decline.

“In fiscal terms, it’s a death spiral,” he said. “Things are not looking terribly promising. There is this budget-cutting fever at the moment, and even though there is a pretty broad consensus that transportation is important, Congress hasn’t been terribly supportive.”

He said federal lawmakers are discussing a two-year stopgap that would continue funding at current levels. The hope is by 2013, the economy will be in better shape to withstand an increase in transportation maintenance funds, he said.

  • A while back we ran a piece on child safety and car seats (Do we really care about children? - April 18, 2011). In that piece I had quoted economist Steve Levitt of Freakonomics fame about the use of child seats. Since this entire line of thought began as a disagreement with my wife, it is fair to question whether I am still trying to win the argument. Nonetheless, I was made aware of a video of Levitt talking about the subject and wanted to pass that along. (PS - His insights bolster my argument.)

  • The Federal Reserve has ended its Quantitative Easing program -- the creation of new money used to purchase U.S. debt. In a potential preview of what is to come, a tiny $35 billion bond issuance this past week was weakly received by the market. When countries, institutions and individuals do not buy our debt, interest rates must rise to attract enough buyers. The sum of $35 billion may seem like a lot to you and me, but compared to the $1.5 trillion of new debt we take on this year and the $2+ trillion of prior debt we roll over, it truly is tiny. Keep an eye on this because America cannot afford to pay a higher interest rate on our $14.5 trillion adjustable rate mortgage.

The U.S. government sold $35 billion worth of five-year debt on Tuesday in its weakest auction for such bonds in a year, which could raise worries the market has become too expensive after a long rally.

It was also the second auction in as many days to attract weak demand, which could put pressure on the U.S. Treasury if this proves to be a sign that investors are fretting about budget problems in the United States.

  • Finally, I have not had a chance to read this article on How to Create a Job, but it was sent to me by someone who knows how and, in my skimming through it, looks worthy of our time. I'll come back to it this weekend, but wanted to make sure and share it with everyone now as well.

Be safe and have an enjoyable Independence Day celebration. Go Twins!

 

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Friday
Apr292011

Friday News Digest

Happy Friday, everyone. I'm a little behind the normal schedule today for two reasons. First, there is a little four year old girl that has not gotten much "daddy time" this week since I've been out for much of it, so she's absorbed my attention up to this point. She's sleeping now so I'm working to get caught up. Second, I was at Target Field Wednesday night watching baseball be played in a snowstorm, but I wake up today to a glorious and sunny day. So I'm going to click "publish" on this blog post and then write so you'll actually get a rolling, unedited version if you are hitting refresh, understanding that when Girl #2 wakes up, my attention will again be diverted.

May your life be equally full of such diversions - enjoy the week's news.

  • Last November I had a chance to meet fellow New Urbanist and NextGen'r Edward Enfurt while in New Orleans. On a group walk one evening back from dinner, he was kind enough to take the time to explain a lot of the city's features to me and gave me a wonderful tour from his eyes. Since then, I've enjoyed reading his blog and following him on Twitter and find myself really enjoying his insights. This is a guy worth following, so check out the Restless Urbanist and plan to come to CNU 19 and meet and hear from bright people like Edward in person.
  • The South Dakota governor is starting a new initiative to target economic development in small towns. My initial reaction is skepticism based on an understanding that an elected official's term is much shorter than the length of time needed to see significant results, and that hunch was bolstered by the quotes in the article. But there is some hope there from the comments section from someone who gets it (third comment), although from the popular voting he ranks behind both a belief in the unicorns and abandonment as viable options. Great work, Tom.

The fact of the matter is that government policies (both State and Federal) have been responsible for the hollowing out of small towns across this country since the Modern Economy began (post WW2). For some enlightening insight on small towns, and great ideas to make them successful, check out http://www.strongtowns.org/. The ideas on that site are likely to be far more effective than whatever tax-incentive, infrastructure-subsidy program the state government has planned.

  • I also wanted to give a heartfelt thank you to the Savannah Association of the Blind for including a link to us on their website. It caught my eye because I don't look at us as advocates for the blind and so we don't typically get traffic from a source like SAB (although if we are helping blind people, that is a truly great bonus). Here is how they listed us, which is right on and absolutely made my day.

Strong Towns - Make a better community for everyone, including pedestrians.

  • On Wednesday we ran a preview of the Bernanke press conference. I found it fascinating and frustrating at the same time (and I still want to get back with my peeps in the comments section for Wednesday. If you are interested in hearing for yourself, here's the video.

As Phil Angelides, co-chairman of the FCIC, told me, “Wall Street hasn’t learned any lessons, because they paid no real price.” When historians dig through the rubble of the financial crisis of 2018 or 2020, they’ll wonder how we could have been duped again so quickly.

  • My friends in Maryland may particularly enjoy this response from the Maryland Department of Transportation to a driver upset with sharing the road with a bicyclist. It is a great analysis of the rights of non-auto travelers.

You mentioned that you’ve seen two car/bike crashes (presumably on Jones Mill Road) in three years and that even one is too much. I assume the argument is that bicyclists should be banned from Jones Mill Road because of these crashes. If true than we would have to ban motoring as well, considering the 32,000 motor vehicle fatalities occurring annually, let alone the hundreds of thousands of injuries and collisions that occur nationally. Instead of taking that extreme step as a society we determine if motoring and bicycling are reasonable risks while we continue to work on improving safety.

The quality and quantity of the transportation systems that serve rural America have been steadily eroding for many decades.  

For some reason there is no discussion of the disproportionate amount of money spent in rural areas, the fact that we have poured our wealth into rural roads, etc... The article largely presents is the same old, worn-out, woe-is-me narrative that has dominated - and stifled - discussion in rural areas for decades. Even when they list the goals that a new omnibous road slush fund bill should have, they skip right past the damage that our approach to rural transportation has done and instead equate prosperity with more funding for roads. The idea that doing more of what got us here is going to make things better truly is insanity. Come on, Daily Yonder - you guys are great. Let's dig a little deeper.

Back in a bit to finish.... 

It's Sunday now - yesterday was a combination of swimming, dance and prom and I am amazed at how sleepy one can become from all that sitting around - and I'm going to save the rest for next week. Thanks everyone.