Happy New Year!

It is really good to be back and once again focusing on building Strong Towns. I started writing this blog back in 2008 and realized right away that I could be a disciplined writer for eleven months out of the year, but not in December. There's just too much going on here, my mind really benefits from a break and, since all of you need to recharge too, it is a good time to take some time off. Thank you to everyone who is back with us now in 2012. If you are one of my Facebook connections, then you know what I've been up to. If not, here's a sampling.

Enjoy the week's news.

  • Thank you to the Discovering New Urbanism blog for recommending the Strong Towns Podcast as one of their top three favorites. One of my favorites -- The KunstlerCast -- was also on the list. A couple programming notes: we've revamped our recording space in an attempt to add sound quality and bring my colleague Justin Burslie more actively into the mix. Also, I've asked Duncan Crary, host of the Kunstlercast and author of the recent book by the same name, if he would come on a podcast and talk about his new book, working with Jim Kunstler, urbanism, etc... He's accepted, so expect that to happen soon. I'm excited.

  • I'm becoming an even bigger fan of Cap'n Transit, possibly because he continues to apply Strong Towns thoughts and ideas to his community in a way that is thoughtful and original. The latest example is a post he wrote on Rockland County and some of their (self induced) financial woes. We'd love to come to Rockland for a Curbside Chat -- and we agree Cap'n, it sounds like they need Strong Towns.
  • Last month I launched a Strong Towns-based social platform called the Strong Towns Network. It is a space we created for people that want to learn more about implementing Strong Towns thinking. Over 120 people have signed up so far (we are offering a six month free trial for people that sign up before the end of January) and we've had some great conversations so far. One thread on tax policy unveiled this nugget of an article on the land tax concept written by none other than Jim Kunstler. It is the best article I've read on the subject -- you will appreciate it whether you are Tea party, OWS or anything in between.

Our system of property taxes punishes anyone who puts up a decent building made of durable materials. It rewards those who let existing buildings go to hell. It favors speculators who sit on vacant or underutilized land in the hearts of our cities and towns. In doing so it creates an artificial scarcity of land on the free market, which drives up the price of land in general, and encourages ever more scattered development, i.e., suburban sprawl. In tandem with zoning, the taxing of buildings rather than land itself promotes such wasteful practices as putting up cheap one-story burger joints in huge parking lots on prime city land. It is one of the biggest impediments to the free market creation of affordable housing. As a consequence of all these things it is a drag on economic productivity and employment.

  • In Minnesota we are having a ridiculous debate over building a new football stadium on a suburban/exurban site requiring a couple hundred million in new highway spending. You'll have no trouble believing what I said when I was interviewed by the Star Tribune.

A stadium in suburban Arden Hills "depends on a development model that all signs indicate we're transitioning out of," said Charles Marohn, a Minnesota planner who writes for Strong Towns development blog. "Is it really smart to throw a billion dollars of leveraged funds into a development model that's clearly on the wane?"

  • I absolutely loved this article in the Winona Daily News by a guy named Gabriel Roth of the Independent Institute. Roth advocates for eliminating federal transportation spending and delegating that authority back to the states. Obviously politicians would be loath to give up a major source of patronage, but the idea has a lot of merit, especially at a time when we are essentially maintaining a fully built system. I find the concept intriguing.

This would have several benefits.

First, it would encourage the more efficient use of transportation dollars. Today, states typically regard federal money as “free” and often embark on projects, such as the proposed California High-Speed Rail system, they would never consider financing on their own. State financing, which has to pass muster with local voters, would likely eliminate low-benefit projects.

  • Devolving transportation funding and spending decisions to the states would also eliminate this fight....or at least diffuse it into fifty state discussions. Transit advocates have long argued (correctly) that we spend a bizarre amount on highways and only a tiny fraction of that on other modes of transportation. It is a "fair share" argument. I would argue instead that transit is a more cost-effective option. It would be my contention that state DOT's are capable of reaching that realization far more quickly and efficiently than the black hole of federal funding.

“Taxpayers cover costs that should be borne by road users,” asserts the State Smart Transportation Initiative at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. “Road subsidies push up tax rates, squeeze government services, and skew the market for transportation.”

SSTI, along with the smart growth group 1,000 Friends of Wisconsin, published a study in October showing that “between 41 and 55 percent of [Wisconsin’s] road money comes from non-users” [PDF].

  • We're in the front end of a paradigm change anyway. We're collectively starting to wake up and realize that we're essentially broke, or at the very least we don't have near the wealth we thought we had. (Spending projected future wealth today will do that to you, especially when your overly optimistic growth assumptions are being forced to mark-to-reality.) Salon had a great piece (and I just re-read it and realized they quoted me -- funny) about slow cities; places that build real streets that create value.

Slower cities have a lot to recommend them. “It’s not just a road safety issue,” says Rod King, the creator of “20′s Plenty for Us,” a movement to reduce London’s speed limit to 20 miles per hour. “There are a lot of peripheral advantages to slowing down traffic.” The advantages include increased biking because roads aren’t so scary, the need for less infrastructure like speed bumps, and better air quality (racing from one traffic light to the next burns more fuel). Add in the public-safety benefits of slower cars (which are hard to overstate — a few extra miles per hour can literally kill) and putting on the brakes starts to look like a no-brainer.

Here's the reference to Strong Towns in that article...I think it's a good one.

Maybe the bigger dilemma is that, too much of the time, our cities aren’t going fast or slow. Chuck Marohn, executive director of the nonprofit Strong Towns, has argued that we continue to make the mistake of building 45 mile-per-hour cities — places where we travel (usually by car) at a speed that’s somewhere in the murky middle. This happens because we forget the difference between a street, where vibrant, valuable, low-speed development should flourish, and a road, which should quickly take us from one place to another. Instead, Marohn says, we’ve ended up with a bunch of “stroads” — four-lane arteries, lined with mini malls and parking lots, that are too fast to encourage good development, and too slow to efficiently move us in and out.

  • This PSA about driving 30 mph is now running in New York. Although the premise is incorrect -- the 30 mph speed limit is not in deference to pedestrian safety, at least not here in Minnesota -- the spot is fun nonetheless. By the way, I would argue for 20 mph for pedestrian safety, biking safety and value capture. Do that and you can start eliminating traffic signals and actually get better traffic flow and lower travel times...or so one impromptu experiment in London suggests.

Over Supply: The US has 20 SF of retail per person. That’s massive in comparison to other countries; the next closest are Sweden at 3.3 and the UK at 2.5 SF of retail per person. So if you’re going to build more, it’s gotta be good.

  • If you would like to know more about the history of economic development approaches, check out this article written by Mario Polese, a Montreal-based professor. He has an interesting take that is not quite organic, but certainly skeptical of the standard array of charlatans that have foisted local economic development fads upon us for decades. I'm still looking for answers -- he doesn't specifically provide any, although he does stress a point that we do here quite often: each place is different.

For decades, city fathers and academics have studied economic development, searching diligently for ways to make urban economies prosper. Surely this quest is understandable—as understandable as the search for success that so many people undertake in the personal-finance section of the local bookstore. But just as personal finance has yet to unlock the secret of how to get rich, no surefire government-led strategy exists that can turn around a troubled economy like Buffalo’s or Gary’s. Cities, like people, are too diverse to allow anything but fairly commonsense prescriptions. A lot of grand theories have been advanced—targeted tax incentives! bike paths!—but they have proven of little practical use.

The history of local economic development is a story of academic fads.

  • One fad that is likely not going away anytime soon is the city slogan. I see these all over the place and, when they are truly organic (our local city of Nisswa has "Pretty Good Shopping", a slogan on a sign that nobody can remember who erected but captures the spirit of the town perfectly) they work well. When they are the product of PR firms and focus groups, they often don't. Like Seattle's former slogan -- "metronatural" (huh?) -- and Las Vegas' new one; "Every city has a soul" (come to Vegas and sell yours). If you want a cheap chuckle, here's a list published in the Atlantic Cities.
  • Oh Maryland, I love you. Your heart is in the right place, but I think this move ultimately backfires. I'm convinced that you can't regulate yourself at the state level into Smart Growth (or Strong Towns for that matter), getting yourself into a property rights dispute. But you can get to the same place by changing your systems of taxing and spending (i.e. the myriad of incentives that sustain the status quo) so that the true costs are reflected in each transaction. We'll talk soon.
  • The way cities do multi-million dollar financial transactions is bizarre. Rolling Stone's Matt Taibbi points out another way that cities are wasting their money. At this point, I'm going to give you city/town officials some plain-spoken advice: Any "professional" that comes to your community and offers to facilitate a project for you, while asking for no compensation up front but offering to instead collect their fee later if and when a project goes forward, is not your friend. Regardless of their integrity, their interests and your interests are not aligned. Find a different professional.

Imagine what NFL gambling would be like if the casinos didn’t publish the point spreads every week, and you’ll get a rough idea of how the swap market works. If you couldn’t look it up, how many points would you give the Dolphins against the Jets next week? Two? Five? Seven? The big casinos know, because they’re taking all that action, that the real number is one point.

In the same vein, exactly how accurately do you think some local county treasurer might be able to guess the cost of an interest rate swap for his local school system?  Answer: he’d probably do about as well as you or I would, guessing the odds on a Croatian soccer match.

The big banks know this, which is why there should never, ever be non-competitive bids for those sorts of financial services. In a sole-source contract for a swap deal, you’re trusting a (probably corrupt) Too-Big-To-Fail bank to give you a good deal for a product whose price is not publicly listed anywhere.

  • This article on the debt and bad fortunes of University Place, Washington, is something I could write two or three blog posts about. There are so many crazy and contradictory things being said and alluded to it is hard to know where to start. I'm going to pull out this one quote because it is a lesson learned that every city in the United States should take to heart as quickly as possible.

"We're realizing that we have to take small leaps instead of big leaps," says City Manager Steve Sugg. "We have to develop over time, slowly, the way towns used to develop before the era of big finance."

  • Finally, an especially for those of you that live in southern climates, I wanted to share a short video of what my family was doing on Christmas day. I can't say this is a tradition -- we would usually sled except there was no snow this year -- but it was a lot of fun nonetheless. Don't worry. I promise you it was completely safe.

Have a great weekend everyone. 


If you find this material interesting and would like to know more about how to apply this thinking to your community, join us at the Strong Towns Network, a social enterprise for those working to implement a Strong Towns approach.