Last month the Minneapolis Star Tribune ran a profile of me and Strong Towns. Being the state paper of record, it was a pretty big deal around here. The comments on the site really built up, so I asked for a volunteer from the Strong Towns Network to help me identify the most important ones to respond to. Derek Hofmann stepped up to help out – thank you Derek.
Here are those comments and my response to them.
If you think zoning laws appeared out of thin air you are mistaken. They are a response to decades of complaints and pain points from local governments across the nation. Even in Houston, the land of no zoning, many neighborhoods are built with covenants written into the deeds, that are defacto zoning laws established by the developer. Every week in the Strib there are neighborhood groups complaining about a the operation of a business. Most involve noise, odors, lighting, hours of operation, parking, etc. Read any newspaper in the country and the same issues are always present. Thus, the zoning code is a reaction to these problems by separating types of uses (commercial vs residential) to prevent clashes and establishing rules for building and operation. This was not some evil plot, but an evolution of rules to prevent conflicts.
One of the interesting things about these comments is how I was attacked almost equally for being a right winger and a left winger. This comment is one of the former.
Of course zoning is not an evil plot. It evolved over the last century from early cases that separated noxious uses from residential areas. The intellectual origins of American-style zoning come from Europe, but we’ve Americanized it. I’ve never argued that the best approach is a world without zoning.
What I have pointed out is that some of the greatest things this country ever built were constructed without the benefit of zoning. Or comprehensive planning. Or tax increment financing, federal grants and planning administrators. A lot of our current beliefs – that zoning is a necessary tool for success or, even worse, that successful cities can be crafted through zoning – is not grounded in history.
Far too often today, use-based zoning codes are a tool of stasis. A NIMBY-enabling tool in existing neighborhoods and an enabler of rapid horizontal expansion on the edge of the community. Zoning is designed to standardize and rapidly perpetuate suburban development patterns. The specific street that was discussed in the Star Tribune story – Front Street – has been decimated by zoning regulations, among other things. Have a look around.
Zoning is also a tool of bureaucrats. It empowers process over results. It allows zoners to operate in a comfortable silo without having to actually contemplate, or take responsibility for, the outcomes of their rules. Just yesterday, the local city zoner here said it perfectly when discussing whether or not to force the removal of a 14-year-old fence that is recently discovered to not conform to the rules:
City planner Mark Ostgarden said regardless of what decision the council makes on this specific issue, there is a bigger issue to address.
"Every time we debate one of these issues and make a decision contrary to what ordinance allows, it puts staff in tough situation," he said.
He posed the question: "Are we going to enforce these ordinances or not?"
I personally favor codes that emphasize form and deemphasize use controls. I would simplify the regulatory process by splitting potential harms into two categories: (1) Things that are not fixable within a generation and (2) things we may not like but that can be easily fixed after the fact. For the former, I have hard, fast and simple rules (see my thoughts on height limitations from earlier this week) and for the latter I favor detailed guidelines that, ultimately, would be optional.
We need to modernize our approach to land use regulation to get it out of the 1950’s silo model and into something that can be both simpler and more nuanced.
Whenever I see a commentary from someone labeled as a “guru” or “scholar” or “urbanist”, a red flag pops up. I guess I’m supposed to believe the insights provided by this person are better or more relevant than those held by the populace as a whole. If Charles Marohn thinks “smart growth” and “walkable cities” are a recipe for prosperity while “car obsessed infrastructure” is ruining towns like Brainerd, he needs to explain why. I really don’t see anywhere in this article where that logic is given. In fact all of the “we need to walk more” and “we need to bike more” proponents have few examples of their ideas actually working in the real world and especially in a state like Minnesota where much of the year is below zero.
I applaud people who come up with new ideas but at some point you need to demonstrate they actually work. In the absence of that, this is nothing more than someone who feels order and organization is more important than freedom.
A little word on newspaper profiles: they are not personal manifestos. I was not given an opportunity to “explain why” Brainerd’s development approach is ruining the city. As referenced in the profile, I have this little blog I’ve been writing for six years and a podcast that has nearly 200 episodes. Might want to check there to see if there is any more information. Or not.
Another minor issue to address: I’m not a smart growth advocate. Never describe myself in that way. Never advocated for “smart growth” anything. I’m flattered that those that do often seem to appreciate my work, and I certainly find things about Smart Growth that add value, but we approach this entire issue with different motivations and, thus, our diagnosis and remedies tend to be very different.
So, the substance of this comment is that I am required to show why walkable cities work before I have credibility in advocating for them. I find that kind of funny on a number of levels. If we are going to require any critique of the current approach to be accompanied by a fully-developed and tested alternative, then forget it. The current system will crumble and we’ll just watch it go. That’s really dumb and I’m sure this commenter would not hold himself to that standard.
At the core of our thinking at Strong Towns, we advocate for incremental development. Small changes over time. Where the city attempts to induce growth, we advocate for small projects – little bets – to see what works. You’ll never find us saying that cities should exclude cars or tear out their streets and make them pedestrian-only greenspaces. We have identified problems and are looking for ways to rationally respond to them.
That being said, pedestrian improvements are low cost and we’ve seen a number of instances where the returns on those investments have been high. Further, auto-oriented infrastructure is really expensive to build and maintain and data suggests produces lower returns per foot (actually, mostly negative returns) than pedestrian-oriented building patterns.
Since we don’t pretend we know the solution to our many complex problems – in fact, I believe a comprehensive “solution” does not even exist – we recommend incremental rational responses based on data and ongoing measuring of results. Pretty pragmatic, actually.
And note that the experiment here is not walkable places. We built that way for thousands of years. The experiment is all of this auto-based infrastructure. No precedent there. Never forget that.
Sorry, Chuck, but this country is all about freedom. I enjoy the freedom to live where I want, work where I want, and travel how and when I want. I don't want to live in some small town far from everything I enjoy because it fits your utopia. Feel free to live there —or anywhere. Just don't expect the rest of us to live the way you want us to live. Oh.. and in your small town, where is the competition? Who gets to own the one bank or the one hardware store or diner? Face it: You just think you know how everyone else should live. I like cars. I like mobility. I like living in a suburb where police and fire response are good and snow removal is great. And if I want to get to the city (which is not often), I can easily get there on my own without relying on someone else's money.
We can debate whether or not this country is all about freedom (I’ve promised others never to talk about the NSA here, for example), but it’s a moot point anyway. I’ve never told people where they should live or what their preferences should be. I’ve certainly never advocated taking that choice away from anyone.
What I’ve done is tried to explain why our cities are going broke. It isn’t the simplistic lament of the right (lazy bureaucrats combined with tax-and-spend public officials) or the left (people not paying their share) but a much more complicated symptom of our development pattern.
You want to live in a suburb and drive your car everywhere? You think you have good snow removal and public safety? Good for you. Just pay for it. Pay for it yourself and don’t force others to subsidize that choice.
The ignorance contained in the statement, “I can easily get there [another city] on my own without relying on someone else’s money” is seductive, and dangerous, for people living in the twilight of this suburban Ponzi scheme.
I wish that the article talked about the real reason that Brainerd has been in decline. It all has to do with the economy. When Brainerd was built, There was a thriving timber and mining industry. Brainerd was a boom town because the economy was so good. Once the timber industry left after 1905 and the mining was exhausted, the economy of Brainerd relied on Tourism. The problem of course was that Brainerd was too big of a town to just rely on tourism considering that tourism is only big for about 4 or 5 months out of the year. The core of Brainerd was long in decline before 371 was rerouted to the west to Baxter. Filling the empty buildings on Front street has more to do with finding a new economy for Brainerd so that it can be vibrant all year round. It will take a lot more than adding a few bike paths and smarter tax incentives for urban core growth.
Anytime someone says, “it ALL has to do with….” I can hear my grandpa or even my dad in the back of my head lecturing me on how the world really works. Let me tell ya, kid… Come on. Cities are complex, adaptive systems. IT’S NOT THAT SIMPLE.
Everything about this comment over-simplifies. Yes, Brainerd was a thriving lumber town, but so was Barrows, which lies a few miles to the south but doesn’t even exist as a city today. The Brainerd lakes area has always relied on tourism, but Brainerd itself was a county seat without any strong tourism draw. The core of Brainerd was in decline long before the bypass – that is the point I made – and I never suggested bike paths (seriously???) or, even more nutty, tax incentives would fix these problems.
A certain degree of stress or decline is part of a natural cycle of a city just as recessions are a natural, and even healthy, part of a functioning economy. The key is not how one avoids decline but how well a city can weather the decline and adapt their local economy to a more productive approach.
The traditional development pattern has proven to be amazingly resilient. During good times, it allows cities to build a stable base of wealth. During more difficult times, that base of wealth is a source of strength and resiliency. A large part of Brainerd’s current struggles stem from that fact that, as its economy underwent transformation, it cannibalized the productive parts of the city while making low-returning investments on the periphery. This made it less resilient – more vulnerable – while the illusion of wealth from new growth (and state aid) short-circuited the feedback loop that would have prompted change. It is complex and nuanced, like the story of pretty much every city.
Mr. Marohn is correct that cities should be designed sustainably and to create value, but he willfully ignores several things -- here's just a couple:
- Changes that have occurred in local economies since WW2 (creating a far different economy for Brainerd, as others have mentioned)
- The network effects of creating adequate infrastructure (city boundaries were created arbitrarily -- it's not whether a road is "worth it" to a city, it's whether it's "worth it" to the state -- a road might be worth a lot to a company in a neighboring town, though paid for by property taxpayers in another city)
- That the "price of government" keeps going down, as measured by the state MMB. He talks as if we're going to go bankrupt, though the price of government reports clearly show otherwise.
I’m not sure as I “willfully ignore” anything, but I suspect that might simply be shorthand for disagreeing with chrishhh.
I wrote about the changing economy in the last response, but I really want to deal with the so-called “network effects”, or as I like to call it, the Quantum Theory of City Wealth. You can’t directly measure it, and when you do it seems like it isn’t there, but we know that it is because our theory tells us that it must be. Unlike quantum mechanics, unfortunately, we don’t do a lot of experiments to see if our theories hold. We just believe in the system.
I used to hold these beliefs myself and think that, like the internet, the more roads and streets and pipes could connect up, the more powerful our systems became. I would engineer what in retrospect were clearly bizarre projects holding to this belief. One of the things I did early on at Strong Towns was to measure as many things as I possibly could, removing as much of the background noise as possible. It was then that I started to realize that, if each part of the system runs a deficit, the system doesn’t magically become solvent just by connecting it. There is no quantum effect, whether theory says it should be there or not.
The specific example that chrishhh gives – a road not being worth it to a city but being worth it to the state or to a neighboring town – is a happy, communal idea. Where I live in Brainerd, I benefit from all of the neighborhoods that have been plowed through and the billions that have been spent on highways south of me because it is allowed me to get to the airport yesterday very quickly. If all those cities fought those improvements, where would I be? Where would Brainerd be?
Only, it doesn’t work that way. The state highways are paid by the state through a different revenue stream than city government. My critiques of the highway insolvency problem has always acknowledged that there are certain stretches that won’t pay for themselves but are important for the total economy. That doesn’t mean every farm road needs a two lane bridge or that we should have built four-lane divided highways all over the Iron Range just because Oberstar got the money for them.
My primary critique when it comes to the Quantum Theory of City Wealth, however, has to do with cities. There is no question that the state and federal governments induce cities to build all kinds of things that make no financial sense. The illusion of wealth effects with new growth creates inducements for even more. If these have statewide and regional benefits, then fine, pay for them with statewide or regional taxes, but you are going to have a really hard time convincing me that the state aid system – a series of local stroads that often run through the middle of residential neighborhoods and contain some of the least productive stretches of investment in the state – have any benefit that justifies their expenditure.
If there are great networking effects, where are they? Where do they show up on a municipality’s balance sheet? How will they pay their debt payments? Are there diminishing returns beyond a certain point of networking? There is no answer to these questions because the Quantum Theory of City Wealth is, at a certain point, ivory tower babble.
As for the price of government going down – like government is a commodity – I’ve never argued that cities are not cutting costs and improving service. My argument is that they are taking on enormous long term liabilities in the process. The “price” of government, whatever that means, can do whatever it likes in the short term. It is the municipal balance sheet that is drastically underwater. Nobody is measuring that.
Thanks again to Derek Hofmann for identifying this feedback. If there is something important I’ve missed, of if you’d like some additional clarification, let me know in the comments section and I’ll do my best.