This has been one of those weeks where I've just been caught reacting to everything. I would say "like a deer in the headlights" except for the fact that my car (driven by my wife) actually met that deer this week. And it happened the same day we sold her car. I have enjoyed having no car payments for the past few years and now may wind up with two. Ouch. That's what happens when I take the first half of the week off to go to New Orleans.
Thank you to those of you that heard Ben and I speak on Wednesday at the Mn/APA conference and those there that heard my talk yesterday. The latter -- a talk about the fragile financial situation of America's small towns -- is now available as a podcast. You can also get it on iTunes. And thank you to everyone who watched and shared the TEDx video. We're over 1,800 views in just four days. Not bad for a fifteen minute discussion on roads and streets.
Enjoy the week's news.
- One of the more sensational economic stories this week was a BBC interview with independent trader Alessio Rastani (twitter). In the interview, Rastini states that the bailouts ultimately won't matter, that there is going to be a huge market crash in the next twelve months and that Goldman Sachs "rules the world." This was so explosive in some circles that an entire narrative has developed that he is a phony, part of a group of pranksters called The Yes Men that have apparently duped the BBC in the past. Forbes interviewed him and printed a transcript and, while he seems a little unconventional, he doesn't sound like a fraud.
- Our good friend Kaid Benfield (Twitter) had a very thoughtful article this week on the need to build our human habitat in familiar forms. I own a book called Designing Disney's Theme Parks; The architecture of reassurance, which has some similar themes. People respond to surroundings that are comfortable (reassuring) and, to be comfortable they must be familiar. The art is how a company like Disney can build a theme park -- a most unnatural environment -- to be a deeply emotive experience. We need to recover this art for our cities, towns and neighborhoods.
I believe that, if sustainable communities are to become mainstream, as they must, they must provide potential residents, workers, and visitors with as much familiarity – in buildings, in design, in components, in comfort – as possible. The path to a more environmentally benign future lies not in convincing consumers that they must change, but in giving them the things they seek in a more sustainable form.
- Speaking of art, the highlight of my week was listening to Marcus Young, the resident artist from the city of St. Paul, MN, talk about the city's sidewalk poetry project. So simple, so low budget and yet so dramatically effective. This is exactly the kind of thing that brilliant minds can discover when there is a cross-pollination of ideas. This video gives a good overview, even though it was obviously government-produced (1980's infomercial-esque bad music, hokey narration and all).
- The often overlooked fact about the state of municipal budgets in the current recession is that they have really not been hit hard yet. Most cities rely on property taxes. A downward correction in the market takes a number of years to filter through the system. Taxes payable in 2012 are based on budgets set in 2011. Budgets set in 2011 are based on the tax base calculated in 2010. The tax base in 2010 is based on property evaluations done between 2007 and 2009. In other words, local governments are just starting to really feel the pain of this downturn reflected in their tax base numbers. That is a really scary thought once you understand that most are barely getting by as it is, but frustrating when it was so easy just three years ago to predict where our cities would be today (and with so much lead time, even clearer where we are going).
Two-thirds of city finance officers said they had delayed or canceled public-works projects this year. Two in five reported raising fees for city services. One in five had cut spending on public safety. Nearly one in three had laid off staffers.
"We hoped the worst would be over at this point, but given where the economic considerations are, that seems to be very unclear here in the fall of 2011," said Christopher Hoene, director of the league's research arm and one of the report's authors.
Cities typically suffer the full force of a recession later than states and the nation as a whole do. That's because many cities rely heavily on property tax revenue, which can take several years to fully reflect falling home prices.
- An article out of Georgia this week about finding "lost water" revived some funny memories about an experience I once had as a young engineer. After evaluating one city's water system, I reported that they were losing 30% of their water. I thought the maintenance guy was going to body slam me. "We aren't losing any water." None? "None." Okay, because here is how much your meters say you pump out of the ground and here is how much you bill your residents for. The difference is about 30%. Silence... In cities all across the country, denial is not a river in Africa but a buried pipe.
Many utilities have long considered it acceptable to lose an average of about 15 percent of treated water this way.
Most businesses would never let that much of their product dribble away without investigating. But water has historically been so cheap -- and plentiful -- that cities could afford not to pursue these losses.
However, with droughts becoming more frequent and Southeastern water wars intensifying, that luxury is gone.
- I'm really excited about a series being started on the Greater Greater Washington site about small transportation projects. While the engineering profession may collectively scoff at such a notion, the small project is another art we need to recapture. This is especially true since the large project is disappearing, although don't tell my hometown officials who still believe with all their heart that they will someday have two new bridges and a beltway. (Seriously, they do.)
Focusing on simple projects like making it easier to walk or bike to school in a given locality, adding housing close to jobs and in commercial shopping corridors, connecting local streets, or incentivizing development at an underutilized Metro station can have a ripple effect on transportation in our region.
This is not to say that there is never a time or place for major infrastructure projects. But we can sometimes can get much better dividends by instituting common sense, smart growth solutions that give people real choices on neighborhood scale and transportation options. And we can often use our existing infrastructure instead of an over-reliance on creating something new.
- For all of those in the chorus that believes that all we need to do is consolidate cities and that will solve our budget problems, take a look at what we have done to our school districts with this logic. Instead of small, inefficient districts we have large, inefficient districts. Instead of coming up short on a small scale, we now do it on a grand scale. And instead of the money we promised them when it all went down, reality now says otherwise. You want this to be the future of your (consolidated) city?
With years of lagging state support behind them and seeing little chance of a turnaround in the future, about a third of Minnesota school districts intend to go to their taxpayers for help this fall, the Minnesota School Boards Association reported Wednesday.
“When you’re in a school district and you look at how the state has been funding schools for the past 10 years, and you look forward to what to expect, it’s not too good,” said Greg Abbott, association spokesman.
- When I was recently in New York City I received a tour of Times Square from the awesome Ethan Kent (Twitter) of Project for Public Spaces. It was a lot different than the last time I had been there as most of the auto lanes had been removed and turned into pedestrian space. It was all very temporary (a little out of the Tactical Urbanism handbook), but quite effective. With this as my backdrop, I was really excited to see it announced this week that this experiment in placemaking was going to be made permanent. I don't know the entire backstory, but it seems like a huge success for the experimental approach advocated by PPS as well as people like Mike Lydon (Twitter) of The Street Plans Collaborative.
Under the proposals, yet to be finalized, the shabby blue-and- beige painted asphalt will be replaced with stone or concrete, and large benches and chairs will replace the wobbly red metal seats currently scattered around the area.
"We wanted to reduce the clutter ... and create a unified identity for the heart of Times Square," said Tim Tompkins, president of the Times Square Alliance, who has been working closely with the architects.
- Speaking of people that are imminently awesome, Karja Hansen (Twitter) is right at the top of the list. Not only is she a brilliant and passionate CNU NextGen'r and DPZ planner, but she is that Facebook friend that is always sharing just the right thing to make you smile. This week she had three good pictures that I wanted to pass along. (And note: even though we could debate the political nuance of all three, the best joke exposes just enough of the truth to make you think. A couple of these kind of attack my personal politics, so if I can laugh, all of you should relax and smile a little too.)
- Finally, somehow I got wrapped up in a small debate this week on Keynes and stimulus spending with someone who had only a knee jerk understanding of economics. (People need jobs. Spend money to hire people. People now have jobs.) I crave good intellectual discussions, but they have to be with someone that understands that all philosophies have flaws and drawbacks. It is rarely that easy. Anyway, since all life is nothing but a musical for which my brain provides the soundtrack, I had this song in my head for a day. I know I've shared this before, but enjoy the rerun.
Enjoy your weekend. Make sure and check in with us on Monday as we will be releasing a companion booklet for the Curbside Chat program titled Curbside Chat: A candid talk about the future of America's cities, towns and neighborhoods. A big day that will hopefully go a long ways towards helping everyone understand and, more importantly, communicate to others a Strong Towns message.
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