I've really had two amazing weeks in a row here being in Omaha and then in Albuquerque for a series of Curbside Chats. It is great to see the audiences growing, the questions I'm being asked evolving to be even more insightful and the entire concept of building a Strong Towns being received so positively. Both places were incredibly generous to us and, from the feedback I've received, we're impacting the local debate dramatically. Thank you -- I can't wait for an opportunity to return.
Those of you reading our blog from the Strong Towns website will notice some construction going on around here. We're in the final stages of a website overhaul. Give us a little time to tweak it all to be just right and, in the meantime, please don't mind the mess.
Enjoy the news.
- As fallout from the Omaha Curbside Chat, Craig Moody of the Verdis Group Blog asks a really important question: Are we building a better Omaha? In this very thoughtful article he reacts to the Chat presentation and goes on to discuss some of the specific challenges they face there in Nebraska. The quality of the conversation here is top notch and the questions posed are right on.
I run in circles that can largely be considered “believers”. If asked whether or not we need to alter our current development patterns, they will largely say yes and may have some ideas on what sustainable development looks like. But they are in the minority. With that said, I don’t think this issue is partisan. No matter how you look at it, our current path is unsustainable fiscally and environmentally. I firmly believe it’s just a matter of educating the average citizen on the issue and asking them to advocate for smarter development. This leads us to our elected and appointed officials. If citizens get educated and then activate, I would like to think our officials will follow. Am I naive? Maybe a little, but I also think that pushing for smarter development is an easier decision than some of the other challenges these officials face.
- In a couple of weeks we start our Curbside Chat Tour through California. We start in Redding, which is in the northern part of the state, and end up in San Diego where, I've just found out, the Chat is going to be held at a place called the Bamboo Lounge. This sounds like the perfect way to cap off a week. If you would like to know precisely where we will be and when, for our trip to California or any future Chat, just sign up for our newsletter.
- Economist and housing expert Robert Shiller made an appearance on Yahoo! finance this week to say, among other things, that suburban housing may not recover in our lifetime. Of course he says this in a very understated way, which is his style (he's not given to hyperbole), but what an eye-opening statement from one of the foremost experts in the housing market. I'd recommend watching the entire clip (I have five times already -- lots to ponder there), but if you want to hear this quote, skip to 4:45 and listen through 5:30.
- One thing I have not yet had a chance to listen to (actually listened to six hours of Supreme Court testimony during my travels instead) is this interview with the Patron Saint of Strong Towns Thinking, Nassim Nicholas Taleb, but I am going to start as soon as I'm done with this. I already know some of what he is going to say because I watched this video of his first TV appearance in nearly two years (warning: we are strictly non-partisan here and he, amid other economic analyses that is interesting, endorses Ron Paul in the clip -- please don't infer anything from that in relation to us) and then went and pre-ordered his upcoming book, Antifragility: How to live in a world we don't understand. I hope he does more public speaking once the book release gets closer.
- I am amused by the people who argue with me that our financial analysis at Strong Towns is wrong because, if people simply paid more taxes, we will be able to afford all of this infrastructure we have committed to maintain. The other of my twin hometowns -- Baxter -- has long (illegally, IMO) assessed 100% of the cost of infrastructure maintenance. (If you are a member of the Strong Towns Network and want to see why I say illegal, click here.) This worked when property values were rising aggressively and the market for homes was liquid -- not many complaints and the few there were fell on deaf ears. Now that times have changed, a proposal to assess property owners $14,000 to fix their street is seen clearly by public officials as politically ludicrous. Want to know why we won't be able to just raise taxes to pay for all of this? The comment someone posted after the article explains it succinctly.
As a resident of Baxter (Wildflower Drive), I can say for a fact that because of the economy, our property values have dropped thru the floor! It is a huge struggle just to make the mortgage (upside down now, due to the economy) as it is, without adding an assessment! ANY assessment amount would put us over the edge, and we would be forced to sell (TRY to sell) our home...or worse, foreclosure. I'm sure we are not the only ones struggling to keep our home.
- Unfortunately for Baxter, they are a creature of the Suburban Experiment and have no historic buildings that they can sell of like the city of Baltimore is looking to do. Sell a long-term asset to close a short-term budget gap - makes perfect sense (if you are running a Ponzi scheme).
- Last week in Omaha I was asked about the impact of a Strong Towns approach on those that are impoverished. It was a sincere question to which I had a sincere answer: I really don't know. I suspect that, as local economies change and the demographics start to shift away from our suburbs and to financially viable cities and neighborhoods, we may see a reverse of the "white flight" of the 1950's and '60's. This would leave the current suburbs with very high rates of poverty combined with a living arrangement that does not lend itself well to community support. In other words, an even worse situation than we experienced two generations ago in our inner cities. Unfortunately, this is also the opinion expressed recently by Lisa McGirr in the New York Times.
At the most basic level, poor people living in suburbs face challenges gaining access to services they need, because the municipalities they live in are unaccustomed or even hostile to providing them, or are simply unable to do so. Suburbs, with their thin safety nets, are not well equipped to handle the rising demands for help. Local food pantries in suburbs across the nation are stretched beyond capacity to meet the needs of the new poor.
- There is so much that we need to do here at Strong Towns -- we're just getting started with this message redefining the terms of American prosperity. The Curbside Chat report is about the underlying fundamental assumptions of growth with the Suburban Experiment. We're working on a second report debunking the myths of auto mobility and its relationship to financial prosperity of our places. At some point after that, we have to deal with our sorry (an un-American) approach to economic development. Consider this article a primer.
As Clifton writes in his book The Coming Jobs War, "The government has never, will never, nor should it be expected to ignite badly needed sustainable economic booms. These economic booms originate in the souls of individuals and great cities. Washington exists for law and order, war and peace, infrastructure, social services, and a wide variety of national and international policies that help hold the country together. But don't look there for sustainable, quality, economic growth."
Government can't create jobs, says Clifton, because that's not government's job. Businesses create jobs, and that happens in cities, which means that the solution to the problem of job creation is local. For that reason, job creation efforts should focus on the complicated relationship between companies and cities. It's an organic relationship, but there's a way to cultivate it.
- While the headline of this article appeals to my basic social instincts, it is filled with a high degree of ignorance. If I had more time I would make responding to it an entire post, but let me just point out one thing. The article makes the point that cities rarely die and go away while also pointing out that their existence is an evolutionary process. I agree that, pre Suburban Experiment, the growth of cities was evolutionary, but many did die. This is not remembered because, like all evolutionary changes, the ones that weren't viable died early. They never got big enough to have their death be a catastrophe that would be remembered. Only cities that were resilient became as big as Athens, Jerusalem, Vienna, and the others cited. This is far different from what has gone on in the Suburban Experiment where cities have not failed, despite being financially unviable, because of our Mechanisms of Growth. We don't need competition in the way that Goldman Sachs competes with JP Morgan. We need innovation in local government, which is not as simple as starting a new Ponzi scheme to replace the existing one.
- Parking lots are the low hanging fruit for places that can be repurposed to add value to a community without increasing costs. In the downtowns of Omaha and Albuquerque, as in most American cities, there is a perception by many that there is not enough parking. This despite the endless number of empty spaces and total lack of any significant traffic outside of a small window in the morning and afternoon. Capturing the lost value in those spaces, as discussed in this opinion piece by Eran Ben-Joseph, is something that should be on the top of the agenda.
I believe that the modern surface parking lot is ripe for transformation. Few of us spend much time thinking about parking beyond availability and convenience. But parking lots are, in fact, much more than spots to temporarily store cars: they are public spaces that have major impacts on the design of our cities and suburbs, on the natural environment and on the rhythms of daily life. We need to redefine what we mean by “parking lot” to include something that not only allows a driver to park his car, but also offers a variety of other public uses, mitigates its effect on the environment and gives greater consideration to aesthetics and architectural context.
- Friend of Strong Towns, Kaid Benfield, posted this video of a panel he sat on recently about "defining resilience". I've been listening to it while I put the FND together and, as always, Kaid is insightful and enjoyable to listen to.
- Finally, my age cohort is one that grew up with Dana Carvey and Conan O'Brien. Whenever they get together, my insides ache from laughing so hard. Enjoy.
Have a great weekend. See you back here Monday morning.
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