Friday News Digest

Next week my colleagues here at Strong Towns - Jon Commers and Ben Oleson - will be speaking at the Symposium on Small Towns in Morris, MN. I feel bad that I can't be there because I know their presentation is going to be great, full of some Strong Towns ideas that will present a new and challenging - but hopeful - set of ideas for attendees. I'm going to talk them into doing some audio so we can put them on a future podcast.

My mother retires from teaching this afternoon after two decades of working with first graders and kindergarteners while my five year old "graduates" from pre-school this evening. The circle of life played out education-style. I hope your weekend brings you as much pride and joy.

Enjoy the week's news. 

  • We have some link love to acknowledge this week. The Center for Democracy and Leadership at Augsburg College picked up Jon's well-written piece (and underappreciated - seriously, you should read it because it was profound work) on how our communities have grown to underutilize our greatest strength: their people. Minnesota Public Radio also ran a post about our Vulnerable Cities report, which they called and chatted with me about. I could not help but weigh in on the comments, so look for that. And Friend of STB Kaid Benfield wrote a post "Chuck's Advice" that gave a good analysis of my presentation at CNU. We come at these issues from a different perspective and Kaid is really sharp and insightful so I always enjoy seeing how our ideas intersect.
  • Also, my front page appearance in my hometown paper induced some interesting comments. It was easy for my mom to simply be proud years before the story chat feature. Now it is harder on her to learn that her son's "crazy" ideas are not universally embraced (quite a comment on society that saving millions of dollars while allowing the creation of places people would actually like live is "crazy"). One of my favorite comments, if only for its utter ignorance of my belief system:

I know these planner types... they want all of us to live in eco-pods and drink organic teas. Find out if any of his "clients" have ever done anything that remotely resembles his new idea. Maybe we should all ride bikes and listen to MPR as well.

  • I have also taken some off-grid criticism for embracing the "hysterical" notion that there is a very real possibility that cities will soon begin to default on their debts. My critics - some financial professionals that work in the muni bond arena - have pointed out that "even in the depression" cities did not default on their debts. Well, cities in the depression were not as leveraged as they are today nor did they have the obligations in terms of infrastructure maintenance that they currently have. Apparently some of the ratings agencies are now starting to share my concerns, with CNNMoney reporting that seven cities have had their debt downgraded to junk status. I thought one of the quotes from the article summed up the (near clueless) disposition of most cities.

"The fiscal stress is severe in cities around the country, and it's likely to stick around for at least a couple of more years," said Chris Hoene, director of policy and research at the National League of Cities.

Gee....ya think? 

  • A while back I wrote about the city of Rogers, MN, and how they could accommodate all of their growth projections without needing to grovel for tens of millions of dollars to Washington D.C. (or mortgage their future) by simply allowing one additional dwelling per lot. Well, here's a place where they have done it. Note the riots in the street and lack of all social order.

  • If we wanted to give the people of Rogers, and the ten-of-thousands of other communities with such mentality, a little nudge in the direction of financially-sound land use policy, an end to the mortgage interest deduction would be a practical first step. This week we learned that monkeys do what they are rewarded to do. Aren't we tired of being monkeys.
  • Apparently some Californians are as they strategically walk away from their homes. Is the social stigma of foreclosure gone? I'd say it left around the same time the social stigma of dishing our hundreds of millions of bonuses to executives that needed billions of dollars of taxpayer money to keep their companies afloat. At the macro scale, its all a business transaction now. What comes around.... It is why society truly needs Strong Towns more than ever, if only for a little social cohesion.

"Foreclosure is no longer the 'F-word,' " said Jon Maddux, CEO of, a San Diego company that charges a fee to coach homeowners through the foreclosure process. "There's much less stigma attached to it now."

  • The "interesting" thing (in the same way a train wreck is interesting, I guess) will be when commercial properties financed in 2006 and 2007, and now severely underwater, come up for refinancing over the next two to four four years. One point of view says things are going to get much worse for banks. Another suggests a light at the end of the two years. Is that light a new dawn or simply a train ready to flatten us? Time will tell, but a Strong Town would prepare for something short of full recovery (which is what their models all currently assume).

"My clients are experiencing more difficulty getting their properties to appraise at a level sufficient to refinance existing principal mortgage balances," said Brent Holmes, owner / broker with the Twin Cities firm Holmes | Tongen Investment Real Estate Sales.

  • The idea of a modern incarnation of Thomas Jefferson's bottom up government has fascinated me for a long time. I share Jefferson's skepticism of mob rule - true democracy - but also appreciate the value of thousands of messy, social experiments in government taking place as opposed to simply one, central bureaucracy. The web model versus the central server model. While the web is messy and produces some truly terrible and disgusting things, it has also produced some brilliant innovation. This article talks about harnessing that power to change how we govern ourselves. I'm in.

Just as the Web has benefited from moving from a static, largely one-way communication tool into a rich medium that facilitates interactivity between people, government would be improved by transforming it from a top-down, public servant-driven bureaucracy into a citizen-driven platform that encourages participation and collaboration. The ultimate emphasis of this new vision for government – dubbed Gov 2.0 – is for government to create infrastructure and policies to allow anyone to work together to access or even deliver services better, faster and cheaper than government can itself.

  • And as the NY Times reports, there is nothing like hard times to spur innovation (and paranoia, but we'll avoid the Kunstler view of the world today and hope for the best of humanity). The following quote from the NY times is from one of our candidates here in Minnesota and it is a good line to make the point (although note that Strong Towns is non-partisan and liking this quote does not mean we support or endorse any candidate or party - we don't).

“We are working essentially off a 1950s, 1960s model” of government and services, said Tom Emmer, a state representative and a Republican candidate for governor in Minnesota, where lawmakers closed a nearly $3 billion projected budget gap in May and are already anticipating a $5 billion hole next year. Mr. Emmer voted against the current budget agreement, explaining in an interview: “You cannot Band-Aid the Good Ship Lollipop. It’s time to completely restructure the hull.”

  • If we are truly losing the infrastructure race, it is not from lack of building new infrastructure. If this were a fight instead of a race, America would be the bar room brawler in the muscle shirt and a few too many drinks instead of the strategic, smaller and more nimble ninja that looks to land precise blows right where they are most effective. Our size and strength may be our liability at this point. Although the article showed that there is reason for optimism.

A survey of drivers in Houston showed that nearly one in five said traffic was so bad at times that they turned around and went home. 

That is not a problem, it is a solution.

  • Finally, I hesitate to even share this. There is something about bad rapping - especially Minnesotan bad rapping - that makes me cringe. But the message is good. So to all of my friends that argue to me that some bad songs are really good just because of the depth of the social commentary, here is a planning geek version of that thinking.


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