Today is the First of November, which in the Marohn household means that we are now allowed to listen to Christmas music. Don't worry; we are not breaking out the classics today -- no Bing Crosby and nobody singing Silent Night -- but a fun mix of swing, jazz and big band. And since today the kids have an early out -- a half day of school, brilliant move the day after Halloween -- I suspect we'll experience a little of the old Friday dance party. Have to keep doing that while the kids are still young enough to think dad is mildly cool.

Enjoy the week's news:

  • Gracen Johnson. I am leading off the news digest this week with Gracen Johnson because I love her work. There are many times when I feel my voice is so inadequate. People like Steve Mouzon can talk about loveable places in a way that inspires me yet I, in my own way, struggle to find the voice to relay that sentiment. Gracen Johnson speaks to me in that same way, yet with a (no offense Steve) younger, fresher and ever more optimistic voice. Check her video blog out at another place for me. Here's one sample.

The Power of "Home Sweet Home" from Gracen Johnson on Vimeo

  • And speaking to a completely different part of my psyche -- the part I have no problem relating -- is this short video clip of Jim Kunstler that I ran across this week. Enjoy the ambiance of Riot in Cell Block D.

  • A ray of hope out of the Office of Policy Planning with the Florida Department of Transportation where they shared a link to our Neighborhoods First report as part of their weekly briefs. That's the third time in the past two weeks I've seen or heard of a state DOT using our material. Another reason to be optimistic.
  • And I really wanted to share this letter to the editor from Irondequoit, NY, which urges voters to consider the Strong Towns message this election. Many of you have asked us for materials that can be used for campaigning, questioning candidates or influencing elections. It has not been on my radar until the last couple of weeks and I've not had opportunity to do put that together (my apologies), but if that is something you think we need to do, please consider becoming a member of Strong Towns. That's the kind of input we engage our members on to prioritize what we're going to be working on in 2014 and beyond.

Who will lead the journey to create a Strong Town and what are their guiding principles? Are they capable of analyzing long-term costs of government actions? Before pondering the next tax giveaway or bad deal, will leaders ask and answer: “How will we pay for this over the next few decades?”

  • One of the more frustrating things for me in our national political dialog is how, for many Republicans, all levels of government are equally vilified. I've been at city council meetings where dogmatic, self-proclaimed "limited government" types give money to subsidize national corporate chains in the name of "growth", borrow money to build roads (because we have to have good roads) and then vote to gut the maintenance staff, police force or fire unit (we can't have all this government). Worse yet, I've seen states where the legislature piles on the mandates and micromanages their local governments all the while limited their flexibility (an act that is called oversight). This is all backwards. We do need some massive pruning at the federal and state levels -- an overall simplification of our approach to emphasize outcomes and not process -- but we need a lot of experimentation and, quite frankly, more active and empowered governments at the local level. This will be, as I've said in the past, a more chaotic and messy approach than what we have now, but it will be a lot more flexible, innovative and ultimately smarter. This is all a long way of saying that articles that both revere Reagan and despise local governments are attacking the solution, not the problem, and doing it from a distorted ideological framework.

“The big focus is on Washington D.C. and deficits and tax increases,” said Dan Cronin, chairman of the DuPage County board in the longtime Republican stronghold west of Chicago. “But people frequently overlook a significant chunk represented by under-the-radar government -- quiet, sleepy, unaccountable.”

Across the country, there are 38,266 special purpose districts, or government units distinct from cities, counties and schools, each with its own ability to raise money. Since President Ronald Reagan declared in his 1981 inaugural address that government “is not the solution to our problem -- government is the problem,” their numbers have jumped 32 percent.

“The whole move to what we call lighter, quicker, cheaper has been in response to a number of things,” says Susan Silberberg, a lecturer in urban design and planning in the Department of Urban Studies and Planning at MIT.

“It’s a response to top down, regulation heavy environments where it was difficult to make changes. And, it’s in response to constrained resources.”

  • Of course, few cities ever became wealthy by going to the municipal casino and placing it all on red, so to speak. Those large, orderly but dumb, transformative investments are simply that from a financial standpoint: gambling. Real wealth has always been created incrementally over time, with small, low risk investments being continuously made over a broad and diversified portfolio. Dan Zack describes this approach quite well this week in a piece on incremental urbanism.

When New Urbanism rose onto the scene, many of its early and iconic projects, such as Seaside and the Kentlands, were also large, master-planned developments. Unlike their sprawl counterparts they were walkable, compact, mixed-use, and awesome... but they were still large and master-planned. 

This feels normal to our generation, but historically this is an anomaly. Prior to World War II, and going back for millennia, most development was not of the large-scale, master-planned variety. Rather, most cities and neighborhoods were built lot-by-lot, by dozens or hundreds of land owners and  developers.

  • And when you are working at that micro level, embracing the fine-grained investments that create that incremental growth, you may just find that roads, sewers and subsidies are not the most critical need. In North Adams, Mass, they discovered that they could heal their city, which was ripped apart by highways and urban renewal experiments of the past generation, with art and education.

Tucked into the northwest corner of Massachusetts, the least populated city in the state still has economic worries. The unemployment rate of 8.1 percent in August topped the state rate of 6.8 percent. And its population has fallen by 29 percent, from 19,195, since 1970.

 Decades later, the loss of thousands of manufacturing jobs after the 1985 closing of Sprague Electric, the longtime engine of the local economy, is still recalled as a catastrophe.

“It was like a neutron bomb hit,” said Joseph Thompson, director of MASS MoCA. “We opened in 1999, and at that time North Adams was rather dramatically isolated from the rest of the Berkshires art and education milieu.”

No more. A growing cluster of ambitious artists, affordable living and studio spaces, and culture-friendly allies at the college and City Hall have made North Adams a miniature mecca for the creative.

The trend has been good for business, too, city officials said. summerlong event called DownStreet Art, a weekly smorgasbord of entertainment and open galleries, draws about 1,000 people every Thursday night. At other times, visitors can satisfy their artistic appetite by following a trail of yellow painted footprints that proclaim: “More art this way.”

  • Unfortunately, while Minneapolis is an amazing city for arts and education, they also are big enough to have the resources (and hubris) to swing for the fences (pun intended) on stadiums, convention centers and all of the other modern municipal boondoggles. Strong Towns' Nate Hood did the ridiculously easy math to show just how much commerce is necessary to make these investments pay.

The Target Center will need to induce $9.6 billion worth of additional expenditure in Minneapolis to cover the cost of debt, excluding interest and debt service payments. If Minneapolis does not induce additional growth from a newly renovated arena and instead opts to take the same payment path as currently exists, the renovations will be paid off in approximately 49 years. This comes in exchange for the team promising to stay in Minneapolis for 7 additional years.

  • At least one Florida city is starting to come to grips with the long term financial implications of the post-World War II Suburban Experiment. Unfortunately, their "solution" stops short of actually dealing with the underlying problem (lack of financial productivity in their development pattern) and instead takes the predictable, "pain free" route: debt. Of course, debt in this context is not an investment (that would denote some type of payback) but simply a way of financing today what current taxpayers are unwilling, and literally unable, to pay for.

While no final price tag has been put on the cost of comprehensive repairs, and Triolo hopes to offset some of the potential debt caused by a bond issue by finding grants, it could cost close to $100 million to get all the work done.

The commission hopes to present Lake Worth 2020 as a bond issue sometime in 2014.

Vice Mayor Scott Maxwell wants to see a thorough plan that will be persuasive to a skeptical electorate, many of whom feel they have been burned by past projects that issued from city hall, including most recently the renovated beach casino, which cost more than $6 million, not including a $1.6 legal settlement with a contractor.

“We have to get our numbers correct and our facts straight,” Maxell said. “We’re not going to get another opportunity if we screw this thing up. We have to earn the residents’ trust.”

  • I am not sure what to do with this information other than share it. Some organization called Luminosity published a list of the smartest cities in America. Sitting at number 37 is my hometown of Brainerd, MN. There is a lot of crowing around here by people apparently not smart enough to understand web marketing, SEO, statistics and randomness, but in a homer sense it is rather nice. For a long time, we have had a lot of students perform very well on national tests. It seems like every few years we have a perfect score pop up. Unfortunately, we don't get many -- if any -- of those prospects back after they leave for college, something we need to fix.
  • Finally, received some strange news this week when I was informed that the parents of our Executive Director, Jim Kumon, were searching for him in Europe because he was using too much data on his cell phone. Seriously, the photo in this commercial looks just like him -- I was rolling on the floor laughing. Enjoy.

Enjoy your own early November traditions. See you back here on Monday.


Welcome to all of you who are just discovering Strong Towns. In addition to the blog, podcast and TV channel here, join us on the Strong Towns Network for some additional discussion on this post and more.

And if you'd like more of my work, check out my book, Thoughts on Building Strong Towns (Volume 1). It is a primer on the Strong Towns movement and an essential read for those wanting to get up to speed quickly.