Last weekend the Marohn family went camping in Northern Minnesota. It was a beautiful weekend but, unfortunately, it really messed up my week. First, despite growing up on a farm and never having any allergy problems, years of air-conditioned office life have made me soft. Soft to the point where a good, wholesome weekend in the woods can physically level me (allergies) in a way successive nights of three hours of sleep does not. Second, I started a book just for fun about Magellan's voyage in the Age of Discovery and can't put it down. So between drowsiness, preoccupation and spending far too many hours on the road this week, my news reading has been limited. In other words, this edition of the News Digest will have some mid-summer's brevity.

Enjoy the week's news.

  • First of all, I want to give a sincere "thank you" to all of our readers. It has amazed me how the connective power of the Internet can combine with a good idea whose time has come (Strong Towns) to bring people together in ways unimaginable two decades ago. Within hours of our posting Curbside Chat here Monday morning we had communities from across the country asking to sign up. We're all looking forward to meeting and discovering new ways to build stronger towns and neighborhoods.
  • A guy named Dan Rodricks at the Baltimore Sun wrote a column calling for Maryland to abandon the pursuit of growth for a pursuit of sustainability. It is very thoughtful and reminded me of language used at the opening of the Aspen Ideas Festival by columnist Tom Friedman. I think it is interesting to note that Rodricks struggles with the familiar lament of feeling like a socialist in a (theoretically) capitalist society.

Many people who've thought about this a lot are profoundly pessimistic. Growth, they say, is too much a part of the American culture; it's a mantra of business. Developers see open land, they want to build houses on it. Builders want to build new homes; it's easier than fixing up old ones. And people, the pessimists say, will always want to own a new home far from the congestion of the old suburbs and cities — even if that means driving for an hour or more to get to work.

Others are more optimistic. I'm among them. A new generation, more wired than any before it, and primed to live more holistically, is being profoundly influenced by the realities of economic collapse and environmental disaster. We are entering an age when societal survival, and not mere consumerism, becomes the dominant influence, and public policy moves toward sustaining resources, not merely exploiting them.

I appreciate the optimism - we need lots of good people like this - but instead of being frustrated by the animal spirits of capitalism, we should channel them by valuing resiliency over growth ("resiliency" being a pseudo-financial word that should replace the pseudo-environmental word "sustainable"). Companies, cities and families can grow, sure, but unless they build resilience (sustainability), they will ultimately blow up. We change the language here just slightly here and this message broadens dramatically.

  • With the tax credit gone, home prices again are trying to readjust to their real value. Sales are down, foreclosures are steady and, interestingly but predictably, we are finding now that it is not just poor people who stretched too far during robust times. 

In Las Vegas, Ken Lowman, a longtime agent for luxury properties, said four of the 11 sales he brokered in June were distressed properties.

“I’ve never seen the wealthy hit like this before,” Mr. Lowman said. “They made their plans based on the best of all possible scenarios — that their incomes would continue to grow, that real estate would never drop. Not many had a plan B.”

The defaulting owners, he said, often remain as long as they can. “They’re in denial,” he said.

  • Home value decline is actually not as substantial to the overall economy as the more significant declines in commercial real estate. This is the near-term ticking time bomb. It was refreshing to see this article from a local reporter apparently willing to dig a little deeper than simply reprinting the press releases from the real estate brokers.
  • All of this contraction in property values is starting to trickle down to cities and towns. At the same time, as we've studied here, the other traditional sources of support for cities and towns are being withdrawn. It is a double-whammy that is revealing just how fragile the places we live are.

States also have become less generous about sharing their own funds over the past couple of years. Given the billion-dollar deficits plaguing many of them, aid to local government has taken tremendous hits. States sent $78 billion to cities in 2009 but may cut that figure by as much as $30 billion by 2012, according to the National League of Cities.

Many states also place limits on how much cities and counties can raise in taxes themselves. "Just as state government situations are improving a little bit, local governments are worsening," says Ronald Fisher, a public finance expert at Michigan State University.

  • Last July I wrote about the local park after attending an event there over the Fourth of July. In need of face-painting and cheese curds, the family wound up there again this year. The number of cars parked in the park outnumbered the artist exhibits, and I'm not talking about the retro and nostalgic cars there for display. Every art display has its own fleet, all parked there in the public space. And nobody seems to care, or even realize, that the lack of inviting character of this bizarre bazaar has anything to do with how the space is being utilized. I remarked to my wife that the event should be called "Cars in the Park" instead of "Arts in the Park", so I got a real laugh when this headline appeared in the local paper (although, to be clear, they were actually celebrating the presence of cars in the realm designed theoretically for people....the irony was all mine).
  • And finally, three of the four Village People lost their jobs this week when the YMCA announced, in a move that is guaranteed to offend men, Christians and associations, that they are rebranding themselves to be simply "the Y". Not sure how they plan to attract more people in an aging society by calling themselves simply "Young". Maybe that's the brilliance? I don't know. I'm just happy that the world is so jive.


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