I know that followers of the Strong Towns Blog have been bombarded with content this week. Trust me - you are getting a fraction of what is being dished out to me here. And I am getting only a fraction of what is available here in Atlanta at the Congress. I've found that what I love here most of all is the feeling of a "congress" as opposed to a "conference". I think the former implies, and genuinely so, the notion that there is a deliberation taking place, not just a series of lectures. There is something ingenious in how this is loosely organized to bring people like me - a writer and thinker and not necessarily a shoulder-rubbing networker - together with this amazing array of people, ideas and really, the opportunity for discovery.
Plus, for a cynical Gen X'er, there are a lot of people here that I really admire. As I type I am sitting across from Andres Duany, who I have heard speak now three separate times (always with new ideas). James Howard Kunstler, who we quote here at STB quite frequently, sat next to me, shook my hand even, before getting up and giving the more dire version of the financial discussion I gave yesterday at NextGen. I've now made the acquaintance of Mike Lydon, one of the authors of the Smart Growth Manual and just a really good guy. After buying the book The Original Green, I was able to sit in on a discussion with the author (and blogger) Steve Mouzon, a session which was also attended by another blogger and planner I admire, Hazel Borys of Placemakers.
About the only thing better than this would be taking batting practice from Francisco Liriano along with Joe Mauer and Justin Morneau. There are times I feel mentally as inadequate and overwhelmed here as I would be physically playing ball with the Twins. Does not mean it is not fun, though.
Okay, enough about the experience. Here are my notes:
I started the day today with a session on Rethinking Stalled Suburban Development. One of the presenters explained - in details I am not sure everyone got, even though he was really good - just how dire the situation is in the commercial real estate market. I am going to save a lot of his comments and the handout we got for another follow up post next week, but here are a couple of "highlights".
- According to Morgan Stanley, 65% of regional malls are weak (should be torn down) or weakening. The mall is definitely a creature of a past age.
- As we have discussed in this blog, the reason we have a policy to keep interest rates so low is to protect banks and real estate. This is especially scary since a) they are linked together, b) commercial real estate is in need of a major market correction, and c) we all know low interest rates cannot last.
- There is an effort right now to have money appropriated to buy commercial properties like malls, demolish them and basically reduce the glut of commercial properties. The land would be turned into park land and/or held for future development. They were talking somewhere around $200 BILLION for this effort. If that sounds radical (it does), the speaker plainly stated that the sum dwarfs what we are spending and risking by trying to handle this crisis by monetary policy alone. Gulp.
A later speaker (and I'm sorry I do not have names on these - my bad) dealt with the dead idea that commercial development is somehow this great subsidy for residential development. Not true (as our readers know and understand).
After this session I got into a conversation with some of the NextGen people and it was so good that I missed the next session. I wound up latching on to one of the Open Source discussions, this one headed by Steve Mouzon. A couple cool insights here.
First, one of the things that CNU does that is great is this open source format. Have a topic you want to talk about? Write it down, pin it up on the wall and they organize a group to discuss it. Show up, jump into a group, and all of a sudden you are part of a conversation with all variety of people. Very democratic and also very informative.
Second insight is on Steve Mouzon. The guy is one of those cult-of-personality people - absolutely original to the core. He is an architect, so that already makes him interesting to the engineering part of my brain. Add to that the dress (black sneakers, black dress pants, a black t-shirt and a black dress coat) and he has this zen-like nature, a look which is a cross between Jeff Goldblum with a southern drawl and a Passionist priest (only with green architecture as the religion). I read his blog routinely and really enjoy everything from his musings on pencil weights, modular buildings and his consulting practice to his feelings about his kid.
I guess what I am saying is that there is a genuineness from him that I value.
The talk he chaired was really deep into sustainable architecture (out of my range of expertise), but it kept coming back to the same concept: we need to build places we love. If we build places we love, they will last. It is almost like a Golden Rule for placemaking. As a broad concept, it really works and I like it.
The entire notion of Original Green is that, before "green gadgets", we used to be naturally sustainable by just doing smart things with how we designed, built and maintained our structures. In a way it is radical, but if you step back and actually look at what he is saying, it is incredibly sensible and simple. Like orient your house to make the best use of the sun. It is a craft that we have lost, and for no good reason.
My next stop was a session on Agricultural Urbanism where I could download some Duany and Kunstler. I recorded their talks and will feature them in one way or another on a future Strong Towns Podcast, but some highlights....
Duany brought up a Pew Research study he has referred to before (actually, he referred to it as Gallup when I have heard him before) and this time I was able to look it up and find it. The study showed that people preferred to live in small towns and rural areas (51%) over suburbs (25%) or cities (23%). I'm going to do a writeup on this someday too because the implications of it for the small town pattern of development is powerful.
I have heard Duany talk about agriculture before. I respect him too much to dismiss his thoughts as a) ignorant or b) unrealistic, but coming from nearly anyone else I would think both. The solutions he is proposing are based on one (correct) premise; rural living is subsidized by urban areas. It is true (start with re-reading your Jane Jacobs if you doubt it) that rural areas depend on government transfers from urban areas to survive. By Duany's logic, society should be able to then dictate to rural areas that they perform a useful function, that being to grow food. As an abstract concept this is completely logical, but as someone who has worked and lived nearly exclusively in small towns and rural areas, I can say that this is so far divorced from reality that it is hard to know how to react to it.
Duany calls this Agrarian Urbanism, the building of community around the practice of agriculture. It is equivalent to the notion of a golf course community, except instead of golf you have farming and instead of having the development surround the amenity (golf course), the amenity (land devoted to agriculture) is surrounding and within the community, allocated to properties based on the intensity of farming desired by the individual property owner.
It is all very quaint (I'm still pondering the concept because I can't simply reject it out-of-hand), but there is a practical side to it that we can immediately apply. The agglomeration of people in these settlements means that you can do value-added production at a scale not possible with the individual farmer. A model settlement would have a farmer's market, a restaurant featuring locally grown food, options for food processing and preservation that could meet health standards for broader distribution as well as things like the sharing or rental of implements.
I'll post the audio soon and our readers can judge for themselves.
The same with the Kunstler presentation. I did not take many notes because I knew I was recording, but I did write down a couple of thoughts:
- A typical Kunstler quote, raw but truly insightful: "As the stress level rises in society, so does the level of delusion." So true it is scary.
- Another direct quote: "In the future, if you are going to live in a rural place, you will need to have a rural occupation." I would clarify this by offering that I think he is saying that you will need an occupation that fits in with a local/regional economy. In other words, commuting an hour to a metro area is not going to be viable. Again, I think he is right and, if so, that will ultimately change everything.
After Kunstler, the developer of Serenbe, Steve Nygren, spoke. He had a lot of great pictures and stories about the development, which is even more amazing of a community when you place it in the context of the massive sprawl of Atlanta. Check out their website to get the flavor of a very special development.
I believe it was Julia Sanford who spoke next about the development of Sky, a development in southern Florida with some unique architecture and design. It is very eco-dominant, along the line of Mouzon's Original Green concepts, with structures that are designed to grow and evolve with the community. It is quite Utopian, but gives some great imagery and a kind of majesty about a modern, agricultural lifestyle. One of the descriptions was of a Jeffersonian geometric order in the Wilderness, a thought that intrigues me greatly. I have been searching for a webpage because I viewed it extensively before, but I can't find it now. If someone knows where I can link to more information on Sky, please let me know.
Tomorrow is my last day here. Thanks for following along.