Friday News Digest

Minnesota was slowly inching its way towards Spring when, for no apparent good or helpful reason, winter decided to return with a vengeance. We had been warned for a couple of days that this might happen, yet it was still startling when those first patches of brown grass were covered, within just a couple of hours, with six inches of snow. Justin and I ran into a semi tractor/trailor that had jackknifed, completely blocking the street and there were reports of many other accidents. I really love winter, but enough is enough.

Enjoy the week's news.

  • It was very flattering to be mentioned recently in posts by two leading New Urbanist thinkers, my friend Steve Mouzon of The Original Green and then by Placemaker (and also a good friend) Howard Blackson. Both of these guys, and many other brilliant minds, will be gathering soon in Salt Lake City for CNU 21. There are a lot of exciting things scheduled, but even more that I'm aware of that won't show up on any official agenda. You don't have to be a New Urbanist to attend, just be an inquisitive mind that is passionate about a place. I can't recommend it enough.
  • Fellow CNU NextGen member Atul Sharma recently wrote about the death and reincarnation of small American towns. These insights build on the work that he and others have done on identifying Investment Ready Places, a really important concept that is spreading. Despite recently being a new father, I'm fairly confident we'll see Atul in Salt Lake City next month as well.

The United States has a continuous history of development based on exploration and settlement of new frontiers. From the early settlers, the westward expansion and even post World War II suburban growth, settlements  have always been guided by the belief that somewhere out there exists a  new frontier where the fulfillment of the American Dream is within grasp. The pioneers that have settled these frontiers have been ordinary men, women and children who were moved by curiosity and the desire to improve their own lives and those of their progeny. This trait has not withered with time.

  • I love the intelligent approach used by this group in Seattle as well as their demeanor in going about it. Check out the before and after. It is really a tragedy that the engineer felt compelled to remove it.

The group—calling themselves the Reasonably Polite Seattleites—wanted to make a statement about how easy and affordable it would be for the city to use the method to make bike lanes safer all over the city. To stress how polite they are, they attached them using an adhesive pad for easy removal, according to an email sent to SDOT and Seattle Bike Blog.

The city has removed them, but responded with an equally polite email thanking them for making the statement, apologizing that they had to remove them and even offering to give the pylons back.

  • We have some avid readers in Canada and so I frequently receive news of events impacting our nice neighbor to the North. While the grass always looks greener, it has been a little depressing to peel away the veneer of competence and start to understand that Canada suffers from many of the same Suburban Experiment issues that we do here in the United States. For example, the realization that people will not tolerate increased taxes does not seem to correlate with any reevaluation of the level of investment that can be sustained. And this little video by the Economist detailing Canadian debt levels was downright depressing.

  • Continuing to look outside the U.S., while this article is a little harsh in its tone and then completely misses the salient point, the fact that we spend more money on infrastructure than the EU is important. The takeaway is not that our spending levels are high (they might be, depending on our goal, if we had one) but that we get so little while spending so much. I've been all over Europe and their infrastructure is amazing, particularly when it comes to transportation. Not only do you have awesome, high speed highways, you have really valuable streets, few STROADs and a very effective train network to complement what is frequently quality local transit. The amazing thing about the US is how superior we think our transportation approach is and how backward and inferior it actually is.

According to OECD statistics, the United States spends 3.3 percent of its GDP (2006-2011) on infrastructure investment versus the European Union’s 3.1 percent. With roughly equal GDPs, the United States actually outspends the Europe Union – our model of infrastructure perfection.

If we spend as much or more than the European Union on infrastructure, we should have better or equal results. In both the United States and Europe, public investment and procurement are political processes characterized by waste, politics and corruption. If we get less bang per buck from our infrastructure dollar than do our European colleagues, our problem would be not too few dollars but too much waste and corruption.

  • There is another gratuitously great quote from that last article that I just have to run.

Asking the civil engineers how much infrastructure spending we need is akin to asking defense contractors how much we should spend to keep America safe.

  • Failure to account for ongoing maintenance is not a phenomenon exclusive to transportation or underground infrastructure but fairly common across all public investments.

The city paid $470 million for a new facility, up from an initial estimate of $300 million, and spent nearly $1 million for landscaping. But it had no plan for maintaining the grounds, with the exception of lawnmowing by the parks department. And now another $400,000 is being plowed into the latest upgrade, which includes replacing plants that were healthy, but considered inappropriate by the city.

"Based on the financial situation the city was in, they simply didn't budget for maintenance," said Thom Brennan, head of LAPD's facilities management unit.

  • I once described the book I am writing as Moneyball for Cities to an agent I was looking to engage on my behalf. He thought that was silly and advised me never to use that reference again. Okay, I won't, but that doesn't mean that others will refrain (it is a good analogy after all).

Urban theorist Jane Jacobs identified import replacement as the key to local economic development. Every time a local economy imports a good, it sends dollars to another economy. Import replacement therefore entails replacing those imported goods with locally produced goods, keeping the dollars at home. This is admittedly more difficult in the modern global economy, but a dollar spent at a locally owned business mimics import replacement by slowing the dollar’s transit out of the local economy.

  • The Oil Drum recently provided a very readable look at the peak oil debate examining predictions made in 2005 and what has happened since. If you've been captivated by the narrative of national elites that energy independence is right around the corner, you should read this.

  • This week the location of the lost people of Kansas City -- you know, the people that would normally be walking along the streets but are generally nowhere to be found there -- was revealed. (I don't mean to make light of what is actually a very sad story -- two sad stories actually: the poor people living in these tunnels and the lack of street life in much of downtown Kansas City.)
  • I'm not sure if this website is disturbing or fascinating. I guess, is a car wreck disturbing or fascinating? Probably depends largely on whether or not someone is hurt, which in this case it seems as if nobody is, although part of the purpose seems to be drawing attention to the fact that someone could be. Back to where I started: disturbing or fascinating?

  • Finally, what are the chances we play baseball tonight? Might be better if we don't since we are not playing well, although anytime we can match up with the NY team (this time the Mets), I relish the opportunity to get a win.

Enjoy your weekend everyone. See you back here Monday when we continue our conversation on getting cities out of the dumb money business.


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.