This is obviously an important day for Christians, of which I am one. We don't talk religion here, although historical theology, specifically early Christianity, is one of my deep personal interests. Like many Catholics, I've been particularly fascinated with the new Pope Francis and his (I'm going to stay optimistic) emphasis on actually living the life Christians are called to live, one that emphasizes peace, tolerance and care for one's neighbor. I'm particularly inspired by his initial outreach to the leaders of other faiths. We have so much in common and so much to learn from each other. Let's hope this all continues.

Enjoy the week's news.

  • Earlier this year Justin and I spent a week in Pennsylvania meeting people and talking Strong Towns through our Curbside Chat program. The ramifications continue and I couldn't be more pleased. This week Lancaster Online shared an article about a follow-up meeting held to discuss what to do with this new information. It is a tough conversation, but three cheers to Lancaster for starting it. Let us know how we can help.

Marohn spoke here a couple of months ago at the invitation of James Cowhey, the county planning director. Cowhey believes Marohn's right and our community needs to figure out how to stop unproductive growth and manage the cost of what we've built.

So how do we go about it? Leading a follow-up discussion last week, Cowhey admitted he doesn't have the answers.

Marohn's advice is communities hit the brakes and stop extending infrastructure for outlying development unless the new growth generates taxes to pay for the infrastructure for ages to come.

  • Most. Important. Video. This. Year.

  • Dave Alden is a professional engineer with a nice little blog that is doing the hard work of exploring some weighty issues. It is worth your time.

Despite all these uncertainties, we know two facts to be true.  One, maintaining existing infrastructure has become increasingly beyond the financial capabilities of most cities and counties.  Potholes and unrepaired streetlights are two measures among many.  And those measures have been troublesome for a decade, so can’t be blamed on the recession.

Two, the increasing inability to maintain our stuff came during an era when we allowed our cities to spread horizontally, with infrastructure increasing more rapidly than population.

  • This week on the Strong Towns Network we were all introduced to Sioux Center and a group called Citizens for Responsible Growth. This is a coalition that has come together primarily to oppose the widening of a three lane STROAD into a 5-lane STROAD through the middle of their downtown. A cause worthy of opposition. They've done about the best job I've seen of organizing online. Fortunately the city council this week backed down, for the moment. If you want to see how community organization is done, check them out.
  • Lisa Nisenson from Sarasota wrote a dead-on piece this week about density titled "It' so much more than density" - getting the conversation right. In the piece she systematically takes the simplistic conversation of density (the one that planners and urbanists are all too eager to have) and breaks it down into the actual metrics of building a place. This is fantastic work and I'm honored that she would refer to Strong Towns as an inspiration. Keep going, Lisa.

In the past, density came in two flavors: waterfront condos and “other.” The other has always been couched in terms of neighborhood-killing qualities. Now density has entered discussions with new flavors: walkability, affordability and sustainable design.

Unfortunately, the shorthand has landed on stark numbers: 20, 50 or 100 units per acre? Units per acre, however, is the part of the conversation that should take place later. Sarasota has skipped over some incredibly important details that ultimately inform the numbers.

  • Another local group working to bring about positive, Strong Towns change in their community is REimagine Round Lake Beach. I particularly appreciate their blog post on the STROAD, particularly the Google photos of roads and streets. Brilliant. You can also follow them on Facebook.

Typical Google results for “ROAD”: Minimal interuption; takes you from place to placeTypical Google results for STREET: Multi-use centers of life and business in villages, towns, and cities

  • Kansas has run a pilot program for Economic Gardening. The early results are in. No subsidies, no Ponzi scheme, more jobs and greater growth. Oh...and it is pretty low cost as well.
  • It is fascinating to me to watch Wal-Mart work to adapt (and stay competitive) in the changing economy. The latest is essentially carpooling your crap; if people won't carpool to Wal-Mart, then they'll give an incentive for someone to bring your stuff to you.

Wal-Mart has millions of customers visiting its stores each week. Some of these shoppers could tell the retailer where they live and sign up to drop off packages for online customers who live on their route back home, Anderson explained.

Wal-Mart would offer a discount on the customers' shopping bill, effectively covering the cost of their gas in return for the delivery of packages, he added.

  • One of the great tragedies of the Suburban Experiment's unwinding -- especially if we continue to do everything we can to prop it up -- is that the poorest among us are going to be the ones left isolated in the suburbs and exurbs. Sometimes people are astonished by that observation because they can't imagine people moving from their suburban home, a move as dramatic and unbelievable as I'm sure urban dwellers would have imagined a century ago. We did it once, we'll do it again.

American suburbs are a particularly bad place to be poor. Though poverty poses dire and unjust challenges no matter where it exists, sprawling and auto-dependent land use patterns can exacerbate these difficulties. And this problem is gaining urgency, as more and more of America’s low-income individuals now live in suburbs (or are being pushed there), a phenomenon the Brookings Institute has called “the suburbanization of poverty”.

  • It has been rather comical for me to read how Minnesota is so progressive because we are considering a mileage tax. I've even seen it reported that we are "on the verge" of doing this. It is nonsense, of course, and this week that reality was reported. Apparently technological glitches are going to give political figures a mechanism for rejecting a proposal that was very unlikely to pass regardless.

The results, however, suggest that mileage fees face a long, bumpy road to becoming reality.

The smartphone technology installed in the volunteers’ cars failed in about a third of the trips. Weak GPS signals caused problems. Double-counted miles were a frequent problem — in one case a vehicle was recorded traveling 57 percent farther than its odometer showed it did.

Only one in five drivers were confident that their fees were accurately tallied.

The bill is waiting for possible inclusion in an omnibus transportation financing bill that could be unveiled next week, according to Margaret Donahoe, executive director of the Minnesota Transportation Alliance.

Donahoe said much of the $1.1 billion package announced Wednesday is going toward maintenance and preservation of the existing system, rather than projects that will expand the system.

Even with the new spending, the state is still $500 million to $600 million a year short on “what we really need to be doing” for the state highway system, she said.

  • Two of my favorite thinkers on one stage. 


  • Finally, a friend of mine shared this graphic on Facebook and I laughed for two evenings straight. My kind of humor -- hope you enjoy it. 

May the spirit of renewal that comes with this season give you great joy and optimism heading into spring. Thanks for being part of what we do here.



If you'd like more from Chuck Marohn, you should really get a copy of his recent 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.

You can also chat with Chuck, Nate Hood, Andrew Burleson, Justin Burslie and many others over at the Strong Towns Network. Join the conversation on how to make yours a strong town.