This week I finally sprung for internet access from Delta Airlines and, in the course of my three flights back from Memphis, actually managed to clear my "new" email inbox (my endless apologies to those of you that emailed me weeks ago and are still waiting to hear back -- I'm working at it). I actually began assembling this Friday News Digest from 30,000 feet. Amazing, really.
After a fantastic week in Memphis where I was able to meet with dozens of public officials and people working to bring about a Strong Memphis, and where I spoke to a huge and enthusiastic audience this past Wednesday, I'm aware that we have a lot of new readers checking us out. By way of a brief orientation.... We publish here typically Monday, Wednesday and Friday. Monday is syndicated in a number of places and tends to be a more weighty article. Wednesday is sometimes shorter but often just as substantive. Friday I like to have a little fun with the news I read and, hopefully in the process, help our readers to digest current events through a Strong Towns prism. Welcome and we hope you enjoy our work enough to share it with others.
Now that we're all friends, enjoy the week's news.
- The local newspaper there in Memphis ran a story prior to my arrival previewing the events of the week. The usual cast of characters you see lurking around every news source (although not here - our readers are more intelligent than that) was there to spew their uninformed negativity. Well, I wanted to set a tone and so I engaged them in our Strong Towns way and, guess what, it went okay. A follow up article ran Thursday morning after our big public event and, unfortunately, I used up all of my "free" logins engaging on the prior article and am now locked out of the site. Since I am unable, if you all would be so kind, check out the comments and, where needed, shower them with logic mixed with kindness.
- My wife is going to laugh at me about this one; another television experience (not my favorite medium). The reporter was very nice and, while a number of people have pointed out to me that she didn't totally get it, she got enough of it to start a constructive dialog among people who did not attend the event. While we had a couple of hundred people there, many times more saw this little clip. Let's keep this conversation going, Memphis.
- We continue to hear from friends in California after a series of Curbside Chats we did across that state this month. The latest is a blog piece from our friend, Placemaker Howard Blackson, who not only gave us the high speed chase tour of San Diego but helped organize and host the event as well. Howard will be in West Palm Beach for CNU 20 and, while you can trust him with your rental car, you can trust him even more with designing your Strong Town.
It was refreshing to hear the sobering truth, but Chuck did not end his lecture with any silver bullets; no secret government programs; no books to buy; and, not one tax cut that would cure our disorder. Chuck simply stated that our explicitly suburban pattern of development is a well-documented financial blunder. Instead, he instructed us to stop what we had been doing and fix what is broken with a traditional, more urban pattern of development. We should be rebuilding at a more incremental scale in a way that (re)captures the value of our existing infrastructure and surrounding building stock.
- This is the most important article I read all week. I had three people send it to me and, when I started reading it I thought **sour grapes** but as I delved deeper I realized that there were some deep insights that parallel the realities we are uncovering about the American pattern of development. Read the entire thing. I'm not sure who Eric Garland is, but he paints an accurate picture of the challenges that people wanting change face today.
Hierarchical organizations have a very different logic than smaller firms. In less consolidated industries, success and failure are largely the result of the decisions you make, so intelligence about the reality of the marketplace is critical. Life is different in gigantic organizations, where success and failure are almost impossible to attribute to individual decisions. Though a given conglomerate might have hundreds or thousands of "executives," each is much more beholden to a complex culture of bosses. Even if people mean well, they're living and dying by a system where the incentives are to seek advancement by pushing responsibility downward and pulling credit upwards. In large, slow-moving bureaucracies, conventional thinking and risk avoidance become paramount, irrespective of how many times a day people at that organization use the word "strategy" or "innovation." It is far more preferable to fail conventionally than to make a daring but uncertain decision without the full backing of the entire organization. Because massive bureaucracies are so much more common than they were even a few years ago, decisions are simply not in vogue right now.
- The second most important article I read this week was by our good friend, Kaid Benfield. He has repeatedly been kind to us here beyond anything we deserved and, truth be told, has been a mentor of sorts for me personally. He commented last June when we released the Ponzi scheme series about how he had seen our ideas evolving and building up to that insight. Well, I don't want to insinuate that he is anything but brilliant, but I've also seen his thought process evolve over time. His latest, Smart Growth is a start, but it is not enough, contains deep truths for a cohort of people that too often seem all too comfortable with the narrow environmental metrics of success.
But, as I have opined before, the fact that we are increasing dwelling units per acre, reducing vehicle miles traveled per capita, and reducing tons of carbon emissions compared to sprawl does not mean that we are making great people habitat. We may be creating smart growth, while in some cases doing little for people or doing less for the natural environment than we could be. I believe that achieving the fact of smart growth, where we have it, is no longer enough, and may not warrant our enthusiasm as much as it did, say, a decade ago. It is time to focus more on the quality of what we are building.
- Bloomberg published this article with the provocative headline Why Does U.S. Build Roads if it Can't Pay to Fix Them? A great question, which they fail to answer in spectacular fashion. They suggest that cities can borrow to build new but not to maintain, although anyone who works with cities knows that is not the case. Bonds are issued for maintenance at every level of government as a routine course of business. They also insinuate that local control is somehow the problem and that more centralization would generate better outcomes. This is a dangerous idea as the exact opposite is true -- centralization is what is killing us. The simple answer to their question is both obvious (we need new growth to fuel the Ponzi scheme of local finance we have created) and complex (we have so much inertia to continue this approach embedded in our systems that changing course is extremely difficult). I did appreciate this story, however, which is far too common (and, of course, exacerbated by centralization of decision-making).
“See those lights,” a transit manager in a major American city told me during a tour of an open-air train station, pointing to some bulbs in rusting metal frames hanging over the platform. “It would only cost about $1,000 a year to maintain those well. We can’t get that. So instead, we will wait until they rust out and fail completely. Then we will replace them, at a cost of perhaps $100,000.”
- Grist shared this video that explains, among other things, the most simple and obvious concept that the average engineer is too intelligent to grasp: induced demand. If I ran an engineering firm, I would lay off half of the engineers and then fill every other cubical with people having a diverse group of degrees. Art, history, humanities, computer science, German, etc... People that are intelligent thinkers, but not engineers. I would then make every project a team project where the engineer had to work with a non-engineer. What would emerge from the initial collapse would have the potential to be amazingly innovative and dynamic.
- I enjoy the website Zero Hedge, which often applies a good understanding of economic principles to non-economic situations. In this recent article, they look at the impact of natural disasters and point out (while quoting us) that the Suburban Experiment has increased the financial impact of these events.
The Austrian school of economics teaches us that easy money leads to malinvestment. Suburban growth certainly seems to qualify. Our urban sprawl malinvestment has left us with the interwoven problems of unlivable cities, financial crisis, and increased death and destruction from natural disasters.
- I believe that a drive through prayer service is perhaps a new low and potentially a sign that the end is near. Although, come to think of it, as a Catholic there is something intriguing about doing confession through one of those speakers you order your fast food from. I'll take two Hail Marys, an Our Father and a side of fries, please. Sometimes we are an incredibly pathetic people.
- At our Curbside Chats, I'm often asked about sales tax revenue. "Okay, Chuck, I see how this suburban commercial property doesn't pay from a property tax standpoint, but it generates a lot of sales tax revenue." Well, check this out.
- Strong Towns apparently has reached Finland, where the blog From Rurban to Urban has posted an article on Depaving the Stroads to Hell. In my dreams I see Finland as a beautiful place full of beautiful people with beautiful streets and nice country roads. It is a little depressing to learn otherwise, but heartening to know that we have a friend there working to solve the problem. Pitää tehdä, mitä voit rakentaa vahvoja kaupunkeja.
Economics aside, stroads are also very unproductive culturally. The more “highway elements” a stroad has, the less it becomes compatible with a meaningful people habitat. An urban street (think of cities before suburbanization) is not only limited to act as a space for movement, but also for communication, social and commercial encounter and exchange. It is a public space, a place to do business, a political space, and a symbolic and ceremonial space in the city.
- I want to close with something a little more serious, which is not what we usually do on Friday, but I feel compelled to this week. I don't know how much the American news (which I generally avoid) has covered the happenings in Norway this week where a radical that murdered over 70 people -- mostly children, shooting them at point blank range -- is on trial. I've repeatedly been humbled and inspired by the gentle, courageous and strong way that Norwegians have reacted to this traumatic event. What more defiant, comforting and affirming approach could a society take than to stand arm in arm and say as one, "We won't allow you to turn us into what you have become; someone who is filled with hate." My grandmother was a Norwegian immigrant -- a kind and beautiful woman -- and this whole thing has helped me to remember her in an even deeper way. I'm amazed with these people and, in my own little space here, want to honor them for the example they are setting for all of humanity.
Have a great weekend, everyone. See you back here on Monday.
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