Friday News Digest, Live Version

For the past seven years I have had the good fortune to "work from home" on Fridays. What this initially meant is that I did a lot of changing of diapers and feeding of milk. It then changed to include a lot of book reading and crazy dancing. Then it grew into coloring, playing dolls and going to the park. Now I'm back to working Fridays and feel really sad about it. Yeah, hopefully I won't need to work until 2 AM quite as often, but I'd give up all the sleep I get for another seven years of Fridays home with my girls.

I'm a little behind this week with the News Digest so, if you are so inclined, I'm going to go live with it and you can follow along as it is put together. I'll also Tweet it as we go and we'll see, maybe that will be a winning combo.

Enjoy the news!

  1. Rethink regional mobility. In Northwest Arkansas, four employers—Walmart, Tyson Foods, J.B. Hunt Transport Services, and the University of Arkansas—account for roughly one in four jobs in the region. (With 30,000 jobs, Walmart employs nearly twice as many workers as the other three companies put together.)  Ozark Regional Transit,which the report says is underfunded and perceived as underperforming, should partner with these major employers to give employees the option to commute without getting behind the wheel.
  2. Align downtown investments into a regional vision. The region should provide incentives for major investments in the downtowns of Bentonville, Fayetteville, Rogers, and Springdale that will expand opportunities to live in compact, walkable communities.
  3. Increase demand for walkability. While many households understand housing costs, they are unaware of the total cost of transportation. Outreach to residents, developers, and lenders about the combined costs of housing and transportation will increase demand over the long term for housing that minimizes combined housing and transportation costs.
  • Emily Badger does a great job explaining the history of place and the transition that gave us the cul-de-sac. She gets deeply into the widely-held notion that this all came about because of the "free market" and points out that the tremendous government subsidies, along with the myriad of local regulations, made it nearly impossible to build anything but suburbia. This is the kind of article you want to forward to all of those people pining for a return to the housing boom of a decade ago.

The Federal Housing Authority embraced the cul-de-sac and published technical bulletins in the 1930s that painted the urban street grid as monotonous, unsafe, and characterless. Government pamphlets literally showed illustrations of the two neighborhood designs with the words “bad” and “good” printed alongside them.

The FHA had a hand in developing tens of millions of new properties and mortgages, and its idiosyncratic design preferences evolved into regulation. From the 1950s until the late 1980s, there were almost no new housing developments in the U.S. built on a simple grid.

Courtesy Norman Garrick

“You hear the idea that a lot of it was just the free market, that’s what people wanted at the time,” says Marshall, an assistant professor of civil engineering at the University of Colorado.

“At the same time, a lot of it was that we were starting to require these types of places along the way. It wasn’t just that people wanted to live in these types of communities. It was hard for a developer to come in and build anything different from what had been done.”

  • Along those same lines, David Thompson, the Sustainable Director for Sustainable Communities for Sustainable Prosperity (an amazingly sustainable organization) based in Ottawa, had an absolutely brilliant piece on the lack of financial sustainability (of course) of the Edmonton area. The article had such Strong Towns themes that it was emailed to me by at least five people. Thompson takes hard numbers from a report prepared by the city of Edmonton. I don't know of any U.S. city of this size that has had the courage to speak so frankly about this issue.

New neighbourhoods do not pay for themselves, and the financial gap is staggering. Over the next 30 years, just 17 of more than 40 developing and future neighbourhoods will cost the city more than $500 million more than they provide in taxes, user fees and other revenues.

This includes one neighbourhood with a relatively high concentration of commercialindustrial lands, which will provide net revenues over $400 million. If we ignore this one and only look at the planned residential neighbourhoods, the red ink is close to $1 billion.

It gets worse. After the first 30 years, the annual net cost goes up as aging infrastructure needs to be replaced. The net cost rises to over $100 million per year, every year. So the following 30 years will cost us over $3 billion. If you ignored the commercial neighbourhood, over those 30 years the bill would hit almost $4 billion.

  • This interview with Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood scared me. It should scare you too. With all the talk of the need to invest in infrastructure, to spend money to create jobs, of potentially some stimulus spending, an infrastructure bank and, as LaHood calls it, "building big in America", here is what the understanding of infrastructure investment is at the highest levels of government: corridors of growth. There is no understanding of how we got here and what really comes next.

LaHood: When you look at the interstate system, not only the state of the art system that connects America […] every one of those interstates is a corridor for economic development. The kind of corridors that will be created by high-speed rail will also create the same kind of opportunities.....

The spin-off is enormous in terms of the long-term economic benefits that are created. It goes to my point that I talk about all the time: If you build it, they will come. If you build a road, people will use it, and others will come and turn it into opportunities. Rail lines, transit lines, bus lines, highways create so many spinoff businesses they become a real economic engine.

  • Maybe instead of investing in infrastructure in growth corridors we should be focusing our energies on maximizing the return on our investments in the places we've already built infrastructure. After all, as reported by the Urban Land Institute, we are experiencing a migration of business and private-sector investment from the vast expanse of the Suburban Experiment to our places. Can government at least align its efforts?

[Note: ULI apparently wants me to pay $23.50 to excerpt/preview one paragraph from their article, so I won't. I'm recommending you read it anyway. Very eye-opening to consider the how and why of these business relocations.]

  • This past Tuesday I wrote about my experience at TEDx and the incubating of ideas. Over at the New Urban Network (which syndicates us once a week) one of the commentors shared a video on the same topic that was really good. The video promos a book, Where good ideas come from, which I've now acquired in audio format and will be listening to on the plane this weekend. More on incubating ideas and how this relates to Strong Towns to follow.

  • A really fascinating article out of Australia takes a deep insight -- the rise of a collective consiousness due to our interconnectiveness -- and takes it in a way I would not have thought of. In Gender and the city, Elizabeth Farley argues that this all this connectivity has asserted a more feminine ideal on society (if only because that ideal was not transcendent in traditional communication structures). It is an interesting idea, but I think more compelling are the implications of our collective thoughts and actions forming something akin to a natural ecosystem.

Perhaps the new connectivity flags the evolution of new interpersonal skills, a mass flowering of co-operation and collaboration. After the London riots, as after the global financial crisis (if ''after'' is the right word), we are seeing socialist theories being dusted off in various guises. But perhaps it's socialism with a difference. Perhaps we're witnessing the human manifestation of the phenomenon known as ''emergence'', whereby the collective is able to harness a group intelligence that is more - not less - than the sum of its parts and act, without centralised leadership, for the good of the whole.

History may show that the global financial crisis, climate change and associated social unrest are the last gasps of individualism. The pain of these events may prove to be the birthing of their remedy, the New Connectivity (just as the horrors of World War I pushed modern abstraction and suburbia into existence).

  • Thomas Friedman and David Brooks in many ways represent the face of compromise in today's political system. Friedman would likely be called center-left, Brooks center-right. I actually enjoy them both if only because they make an effort to truly understand the validity of the other side's argument. It is a sign of our national stalemate that both had columns this week with valid criticism of the other side for not being able to make the same leap (Friedman | Brooks). Leaders looking to build Strong Towns are going to need idealogical flexibility to make the necessary changes to the status quo. Just as there are no aethists in a foxhole (conditions forcing a change in worldview), I really don't see how there can be idealogical dogmatics running a community that wants to be a Strong Town. (Principled people from all perspectives, yes. Dogmatics. No way.)

Friedman: Real conservatives would understand that we cannot maintain our vital defense budget without an appropriate tax base. Real conservatives would understand that we can simplify the tax code, get rid of all the special-interest giveaways and raise revenues at the same time. Real conservatives would never cut taxes and add a new Medicare entitlement in the middle of two wars. And real conservatives would understand that the Tea Party has become the Tea Kettle Party. It is people in real distress about our predicament letting off steam by trying to indiscriminately cut everywhere. But steam without an engine — without a strategic plan for American greatness based on spending cuts, tax reform and investments in tomorrow — will take us nowhere. Countries that don’t invest in the future tend to not do well there. Real conservatives know that.

Brooks: I still believe that the president’s soul would like to do something about the country’s structural problems. I keep thinking he’s a few weeks away from proposing serious tax reform and entitlement reform. But each time he gets close, he rips the football away. He whispered about seriously reforming Medicare but then opted for changes that are worthy but small. He talks about fundamental tax reform, but I keep forgetting that he has promised never to raise taxes on people in the bottom 98 percent of the income scale. That means when he talks about raising revenue, which he is right to do, he can’t really talk about anything substantive. He can’t tax gasoline. He can’t tax consumption. He can’t do a comprehensive tax reform. He has to restrict his tax policy changes to the top 2 percent, and to get any real revenue he’s got to hit them in every which way. We’re not going to simplify the tax code, but by God Obama’s going to raise taxes on rich people who give to charity! We’ve got to do something to reduce the awful philanthropy surplus plaguing this country!

  • Finally, anytime I come across a new video by Nassim Taleb -- even if it is an old video -- I feel compelled to pass it on. This one is from a Charles Rose show in 2008 and for those of you that have struggled with Taleb (he admitedly can be hard to follow at times, especially if you run into his stuff randomly) you will appreciate the very solid edit on this one. Coherent and compelling, understanding Taleb is critical to understanding how to build a Strong Town.



Have a great weekend everyone. Big things coming here in the next two weeks. Can't wait.