Change is hard, especially when it presents a direct challenge to sixty years of accumulated "wisdom". If planners want to be part of America's solution and not part of the problem, they need to acknowledge the failures of the Suburban Experiment, their role in perpetuating it and the need to transform the practice dramatically. There is a significant role for planners in the move to build Strong Towns, but it won't be in administering zoning codes or writing bloated plans for horizontal expansion. It will be in creating capturable value for the communities they work in.
For those of you attending the APA conference in California, we still have an opportunity available for mixing work and pleasure. On April 14, we are giving an informal planner's tour of Disneyland for up to six people (and take in a ride or two amid the transfer of knowledge). This is a fundraiser for Strong Towns and the cost is $200, which includes ticket, a meal with us and lots of fun. If you are there for APA or live near the park, please consider joining us for a fun and informative tour.
I wanted to share this bit of Curbside Chat feedback I received with everyone because it captures some of the difficultly in taking the insights we have here at Strong Towns and then actually applying them to the "real world". I'm keenly aware that this stuff is not easy to do. Don't forget that I am a convert myself, mentally a very painful journey from engineer building bad developments to planner zoning for bad developments to Strong Towns advocate today. One of my goals here is to help those that need to make the same journey have an easier and quicker time of it than I did.
This is the email nearly in its entirety, with the only stuff removed being things that could identify the writer (I've not sought permission and want to respect the notion that they may not care to be identified here.)
I wanted to thank you for coming to Omaha last night and sharing your views with the large group that attended. After having sometime to digest what you said, I wanted to make a couple of comments. While I agreed and learned a great deal from your presentation, I felt that some of your comments were simply not true or at least did not capture the full picture.
You kept referring to a slide of a turn of the century main street and stated that our ancestors planned and developed this way, why can't we. I think you are overlooking a massive component of why sprawl became the dominant form of growth throughout the 20th century. The automobile. Those pictures represented a time when people could only travel a very limited distance and all services had to be within those walkable areas.
Planning and architecture changed with the market demand of the people of the United States as cheap fuel was readily available.
...I can assure you that every mid size to large city's planning department in this country is actively pursing ways to densify and encourage infill development in an age of expensive fossil fuel. You have to look at who is benefiting from the current arrangement, the greenfield land developer and local politicians. Whenever we try to move forward with stronger design guidelines, maximum parking standards or incentives for infill growth there is always blow back from that particular development community. I did agree that accessory dwelling units are an extremely important component to equity and density in a city, but again this is not a simple regulation to do away with as single family home owners are often not supportive of allowing this in their neighborhoods.
Finally, you mentioned that planning codes and regulations could be much smaller, as in 10-20 pages, and at the same time referenced Denver and Miami as being cities who have rewritten their codes in a progressive manner.
The form based code that Denver adopted is actually more regulatory and larger than any normal euclidean zoning code of other cities. They have simply shifted the focus from land use to design but their design regulations are extremely in depth. I hope that more cities, including Omaha, move to this form based code but to say that it is less cumbersome or regulatory is a misstatement.
In conclusion, we have been at a turning point in land use and planning for about 7 years now across the United States. I would argue that planners are at the forefront of pushing this change and educating the public and not the ones impeding it. Again, I appreciate your lecture and learned a good deal about some of the economics but I would hope that moving forward you would think about changing a couple of the points you made last night in future lectures, especially in reference to planning departments.
This gives me a great opportunity to again share that picture of my hometown of Brainerd, MN, from 1894. Here that is:
I love it. It is a beautiful photo. Now I realize that there are no cars here, that people are living a very different life in a very different time. There is probably not even any water service here yet and I'm sure the only sanitation would be outhouses in back of the buildings. We're not going to go back to this under any scenario that I can envision, and I'm not advocating that we do.
Now look closely and you'll see that the layout of this town is pretty amazing. You can see how the buildings line up. You can see how they are multi-story with symmetry and interesting facades. They address the street well and frame the public space in a way that creates a tremendous sense-of-place. This is really good design.
There are two takeaways here. First, this really good design is not hard to do. These people -- my direct ancestors -- were poorly educated. They lived in relative isolation, literally a day of travel by train from a major city. They likely did not use architects for any of this design and they certainly didn't have the range of professions that we have available to us today. In short, if you know what you are doing, good design is simple. These people knew how to do it, as did every enduring society across the planet for thousands of years that preceeded them. This is knowledge we have lost during the Suburban Experiment, and nowhere is this loss more clear than within the ranks of the planning profession.
The second takeaway is that this place is financially resilient. The traditional development pattern is essentially an "evolved" way of building, something that rose out of literally thousands of years of experimentation. Its inherent design provides both the proper growth increment (the block) and the flexibility of design to allow communities to adapt and endure. This is unlike the too-big-to-fail modern American city that grows quickly out of scale to its resources through a myriad of subsidies and near-term incentives. The modern American city, as we show in the Curbside Chat presentation, is not financially viable over the long term.
Put these two ideas together -- there is a way to build fantastic places that are financially resilient -- and you have both a model to copy and a confirmation that it can be done.
Of course, I'm not naive and I'm certainly not overlooking the automobile. I realize that, post-WW II, the market demands changed and we began to build the suburbs and transform cities to be more auto-oriented. There are many things about this that are socially understandable. That doesn't make it economically viable.
Had we not gotten into the game of subsidizing this transformation -- had we made this social experiment exclusively a private-sector undertaking -- it would have ended decades ago. Except for the very wealthy, the auto-oriented development pattern lacks the productivity to endure much past the first life cycle. It was only the economic might of the United States (and the illusion of public sector wealth that suburban growth created) that allowed us to extend the experiment as far as we have. As I frequently point out, home building and the ability to borrow equity became so important to our economy in the last decade that we allowed the finance of these activities to become predatory. With normal economics, that is over. (Note that I'm not discounting the Fed's ability to inflate our way back to "growth" in the near term and essentially reset the debt equation for now.)
We may like our automobiles and our suburban lots and we may demand free flowing highway conditions for every trip and an empty parking spot at every destination, but those likes are going to come crashing into something called Reality. And Reality doesn't really compromise. Our financial ability to maintain what we have built is simply not there. My message is not that change is easy, but that it is inevitable. What can not continue will not continue, and so you essentially have the choice to intentionally change course or to have that change thrust upon you, either by a long, slow decline or an abrupt event that forces a new path.
I want to help those places bold enough and visionary enough to choose the intentional course. America needs those places to be successful and prosperous. I want to help them get there.
Yes, there is a long list of people that benefit from the status quo and the current horizontal expansion approach. Those developers and property owners are influential, true, but there are very few of them relative to the residents (voters) throughout the rest of the community. Those are voters that are going to see their taxes rise even more precipitously and/or their services decline even more dramatically in the coming years than they have already experienced.
I'm giving you the tools to explain to those voters how the suburban development pattern is a financial Ponzi scheme, how that form of development exchanges near term cash benefits for long term financial obligations and how, now that we are in the long term, we can no longer afford it. I'm helping you develop a coherent narrative to explain why more growth has not solved our problems and why doing more of the same will only make things worse.
I'm not discounting the public's resistance to change. I'm doing all of this because of it.
I do advocate for the revocation of most use-based zoning codes and their replacement with a form-based alternative. (See Part 1 of the From the Mayor's Office series for more explanation.) Today's use-based codes favor large developers on the periphery, who are generally the only people with enough resources and political connections to survive the bureaucracy. This approach is brutal to the individual that wants to do infill or, even more likely, wants to incrementally expand the value of their own property. We need a modern operating system for local land use that inverts this power structure. (And while Denver is an example I gave from a similar-sized city, it is not perfect but simply a step in the right direction.)
Unfortunately for the current planning profession, an operating system for local land use that is lighter, more permissive and less complex needs far less of a bureaucracy to administer it. A world where building is done incrementally in a traditional pattern is one where large comprehensive plans, transportation expansion plans, environmental assessments and mitigation plans, etc., etc., etc... are no longer relevant. This leaves the modern planner -- like the modern greenfield developer -- without much purpose.
It is really hard to get someone to understand something when their livelihood depends on them not understanding it. Our current crop of planners may see themselves at the forefront of change, but I don't. I see them generally making every excuse possible -- particularly blaming reticence of behalf of developers, politicians and the public -- to avoid substantive change. I'm sympathetic -- it is really painful to look at a body of work and acknowledge that it ultimately didn't impact the world in a positive way -- but getting rid of delusion is the first step towards enlightenment.
And it's not like we don't need great planners. We desperately need them. We just need them doing different things than they are doing today.
We need them to be leaders in building strong towns.
I'm headed to Albuquerque today for a series of Curbside Chats this week. If you are interested in a Curbside Chat in your community, let us know by signing up today. And if you would like to make a donation in support of our Curbside Chat program, we'd really appreciate the assistance in spreading this important message.