The Third Choice

(This post, the fourth in a series, is part of our Brainerd/Baxter Strong Towns series. Click for Part 1, Part 2 and Part 3.)

My twin hometown of Baxter is one half of a live experiment in the suburban development pattern. Recently they paid some engineers to tell them that they are going to grow rapidly over the next two decades - more rapidly than they did during the recent boom years. Despite obvious signs that the engineer's spreadsheet doesn't correlate with the real world, nobody questions the prediction.

And they can't. The future prosperity of Baxter - and thousands of other towns so configured - is premised on more growth. The near-term excess cash flow inherent with rapid growth is necessary to cover the long-term financial liabilities of maintaining the existing infrastructure systems. It is a classic Ponzi scheme, where new entrants are ever more vital to supporting the earlier commitments.

The promise of rapid growth - the delusion of the Ponzi scheme extending out another generation - comes with a hard choice. In the suburban development model they operate in, Baxter can either:

  1. Make a huge financial bet and pay today to supersize the core infrastructure in anticipation of growth, or
  2. Risk being obligated to spend much, much more in the future if growth overwhelms the system.

Today we detail a third choice.

1. Throw out the suburban development pattern.

The first thing that Baxter - and communities that have matured or atrophied in this development model - need to do is throw out the suburban development pattern. No more road hierarchy of local, collector, arterial and major arterial. No more funnel. No more separation of uses through a Euclidean zoning model. No more large setbacks, excessive parking lots, standards for faux-landscaping (aesthetics for cars).

2. Identify neighborhoods as the key building block for a strong Baxter.

Next, Baxter needs to start looking at itself in an elemental way - as a collection of neighborhoods. This would be much easier for neighboring Brainerd, which has the historic neighborhood pattern as part of its DNA (albeit a recessive gene at this point). For Baxter, it is going to take tremendous effort, but it will be time well spent. These neighborhoods will form the building blocks of the local renaissance.

I spent five minutes and identified 17 neighborhoods (a more refined approach with a real mapping system could do better). Each has a 1/4 mile radius for easy walking to the center. I also put two town centers with a 1/2 mile radius. When you look at it this way you'll see....this is a TON of space. It is a small portion of Baxter - probably no more than 4,500 people. Without significant investments in additional infrastructure, these spaces could accommodate ten times that number of residents in space that could be really vibrant.

Baxter neighborhoods.jpg

3. Analyze each neighborhood. Identify opportunities.

There are fundamental differences between the neighborhood model and the auto-corridor model that will manifest immediately in how the landscape is analyzed. While the auto-corridor is obviously scaled around accommodating cars, with everything else being lower in the hierarchy, the neighborhood model is scaled around people. This means that in order to properly analyze the neighborhood, people have to actually walk through it.

What will be revealed are a myriad of opportunities that are not evident at 45, 55 and 65 mph. At the scale of a person, the vast amount of wasted space between structures will be evident. This is where future development needs to occur. Also obvious will be the need for connections (wide walks, alleys, shorter blocks), destinations (parks, shops and gathering places) and amenities (proper lighting, real landscaping, planned vistas).

Fortunately, all of these things can be built into each neighborhood incrementally over time. The genius of it is that the infrastructure already exists - very little will need to be invested in each of these places to make this happen. It is going to take time - after all, it took generations for our historic neighborhoods to atrophy into bad cartoons of suburbia - but a good neighborhood plan can bring about the change.

For a proper analysis, I would even close down the existing roads to traffic as this is taking place so that people can walk unmolested by cars.

(Note: Neighborhoods accommodate cars too, they just do it in a way that is not dominant over other modes of transportation).

4. Adopt a form-based development code that is customized to each neighborhood pattern.

The suburban development code is gone. What is needed next is new code based on creating a neighborhood pattern of development. Ideas that are foreign to the old code like real mixed-use development (something beyond RV's in the Wal-Mart parking lot), building a strong sense-of-place, enhancing the public realm, terminating vistas and providing gathering places will become important. After all, people will now inhabit these places, not just cars.

Start with a model like the Smartcode and then calibrate it for each neighborhood. There is a lot of difficult work to be done retrofitting the existing development pattern to something more resilient. Fortunately, the Smartcode and other pattern codes like it are easy to understand, simple to administer, predictable in outcome and are flexible. Property owners will have a wide range of options that they don't have now in our more common, more restrictive codes.

There are just a few simple constructs - such as a build-to line instead of a setback - to ensure the public realm exudes a strong sense-of-place.

Photo from the Sprawl Repair Kit at Redirect road and street funds to building neighborhoods.

Baxter is prepared to spend tens of millions of dollars on horizontal infrastructure to bet on future growth. This is not needed with the neighborhood pattern, so all of that capital is now freed up. While most of it can and should be saved (there is still a ton of existing horizontal infrastructure to maintain, after all), some of it needs to be spent on vertical infrastructure.

Neighborhood-enhancing vertical infrastructure.

For instance, human-scale lighting. It is amazing how dim, yet effective, it is. It is much more affordable to provide lighting for people than for cars.

There will also be a need to correct gaps and other make other enhancements in the developing streetscapes.

I would also recommend hiring architects for key locations where the public realm could be enhanced by terminating the street in a memorable way. This is the stuff that builds real value in neighborhoods.

6. Rezone areas outside of neighborhoods to direct development to neighborhoods. Areas outside of neighborhoods should be agricultural/forestry uses and reserved for future development.

It is one thing for the development code of a community to default to European-style estate living across the landscape. (In rural America, many of us live in a cartoon-version of the European country estate.) It is another thing to tax the entire population disproportionately to support this lifestyle.

Baxter's development code needs to be reworked to disallow the subdivision of lands outside of neighborhoods into lots too small for viable agriculture. If political leaders can't bring themselves to take that step, they at least need to end the subsidies that propagate this style of development. That would include dramatically reducing road maintenance. The city should supply and maintain a modest path for agricultural-related  traffic (which is what many of these roads were in Baxter when I was growing up there just three decades ago), but discontinue providing commuting-grade infrastructure to lots too small to farm but too big to service economically.

Very little of Baxter's development pattern generates sufficient revenue to cover the long-term maintenance cost associated with the development. These country estate lots have the worst ratio of all.

7. Downsize the existing road standards to a neighborhood standard. Spend money on long-term resiliency, not oversizing.

With mixed-use neighborhood streets now serving pedestrians as well as cars and with the country roads now anticipated to serve good, ol'-fashioned, American, country livin', most people won't have a need to drive back and forth, back and forth, for each daily want or need. Residents can still choose to drive to destinations, but most will choose the amenities and services available by walking in their own neighborhood (because the market, unrestricted by crazy zoning that over regulates and segregates every use into a pod of similar uses, will naturally provide those services where people want them). This means road and street standards can be properly scaled to not only save money but improve safety and enhance the quality of neighborhoods.

And as a side benefit, if gas should happen to rise again to $4 per gallon or higher, Baxter's economy won't be decimated. Using a neighborhood model, Baxter would grow to not be part of America's culture of oil dependency. This strategy allows the city to create resiliency in their system. While they won't be immune to energy price shocks, they will not be nearly as vulnerable to them as they are today.

When you have no control over something that a) you are dependent on and b) has proven to be unreliable, a Strong Towns approach is to build resiliency against volatility.

8. Develop an intensive maintenance program. 

The idea of robust, intense maintenance of existing systems is dramatically undervalued in many aspects of our society. A Strong Baxter will understand that making maintenance of existing systems the top infrastructure priority will pay dividends many times over.

With the new neighborhood structure, maintenance will also now include caring for public spaces. Fortunately, people will now be vested in these spaces, which means that instead of just paying taxes and then complaining to city hall they will be part of the solution, both functionally and financially.

Even maintaining law and order will now change. A cop on the beat walking the street does not need a quarter-million dollars worth of car and related equipment. The police may even get to know people in the neighborhood, and visa versa. The "eyes on the street" inherent with the traditional neighborhood design pattern will redefine "community policing" in Baxter for the better.

9. Start connecting neighborhoods.

As these neighborhoods mature, they can start to be connected. The node at the middle of each walkable neighborhood makes for an ideal future transit location. This will certainly be much more cost-efficient for everyone than the ridiculous dial-a-ride system currently being used. Maturing neighborhoods will create demand for more frequent and reliable transit service, which will build more demand for neighborhood life, which will build more transit demand, and on and on in a virtuous self-reinforcing loop.

Contrast that cycle of growth with the current funnel model. The neighborhood approach requires no oversizing. No large up-front bet. No stifling congestion if the system doesn't respond as predicted. The neighborhood matures gradually while at the same time the transportation system scales proportionately. Isn't that just a pragmatic, traditional-American way to do things?

10. Start an import-replacement economic development model to codify resiliency,

Finally, as the fragile commuting economy is replaced with a robust neighborhood economy, the economic development strategy of import-replacement takes center stage. No more building multi-million dollar industrial parks to gamble on attracting offices and churches. Instead of looking for one business with 50 jobs, Baxter can now find success adding one job to 50 businesses.

This is the true essence of a Strong Town. A local economy that is resilient in the face of outside shocks. A place that has built-in vibrancy, sense-of-place and community cohesion. A town that is designed to grow stronger, incrementally over time. And a people not dependent on what happens in St. Paul, Washington D.C. or Saudi Arabia but fully in control of their own destiny.

America needs Strong Towns.