Chuck posted yesterday about the tragedy of pedestrians being killed by badly designed streets, and expressed passionately why the engineering community should be held accountable for these deaths. Chuck is an honest and open person, but in this instance I found the level of candor to be surprising. Normally, we here at Strong Towns try hard to be nice to the people “inside the system,” but it was refreshing to hear Chuck "take the kid gloves off” and spell out the situation.
Thusly inspired, I thought it would be nice to use that level of candor regarding what it means for cities to stop the suburban experiment and fix their development pattern. We often talk about cities needing to stop doing what they currently do, but we usually offer gentle suggestions intended to prod towns in the right direction a little at a time. What if we attacked this problem head-on instead?
For municipalities that want to become Strong Towns, here’s a ranked list of the highest impact actions that would help restore a productive development pattern. This is a generic list, not tailored to any specific community, but the actions on this list would apply to the majority of US towns.
10 Steps to a Strong(er) Town
1. Throw out your parking ordinances.
No parking ordinance is better than no parking ordinance. Allow on-street parking everywhere, and use parking meters as needed to limit on-street congestion in high-demand areas. Let the market figure out the off-street supply and demand balance.
2. Set a maximum block perimeter of 2000’ and ENFORCE it.
This is enough to allow blocks of 800x200’, 600x300’, or 500x400x. Those are enormous blocks. There’s no reason to allow anything bigger than that by right. Bonus points: actually create a master street plan for new development to follow.
3. Don’t permit greenfield development when existing infrastructure is highly underutilized.
Almost every city has a section of town with streets and sewers surrounded by vacant lots or abandoned buildings. As long as there are big chunks of your town like this, there’s no reason to issue building permits for new infrastructure.
4. Require buildings to front the street.
That means no parking lots in front of buildings. The ground floor has to be inhabitable, parking can be beside or behind the building, but there has to be a “front door” that lets pedestrians enter the building directly from the street / sidewalk.
5. Dramatically simplify your traffic hierarchy.
Instead of several different tiers of Arterials, Collectors, and Local streets, try just these three: Major Expressway -> Minor Highway -> Shared Space.
6. Dramatically simplify your zoning.
First, just throw out your entire zoning ordinance because it’s surely horrible. Then try replacing it with just four zones: Heavy Industrial, Mixed-Use, Restricted Residential, and Restricted Agricultural / Natural.
7. Don’t issue any new bonds until the city’s current debts are fully paid off.
There is such a thing as responsible debt, but we’ve drifted so far away from this culturally that we would be better off quitting cold turkey for a while and getting debt-free for once before carefully re-evaluating the role of debt in the operation of a city.
8. Don’t accept unfunded maintenance obligations.
This applies most to state and federal “economic development” projects and local developments. The expectation for new development should be that the first-wave breaks even and all subsequent intensification produces wealth. If a project won’t pay its full cost of services today, don’t do it.
9. Don’t subsidize businesses or development.
When the city underwrites private enterprise, the city is assuming much or all of the downside risk while the private sector reaps most or all of the potential rewards.
10. Fire anyone on staff who believes the above is unworkable.
In today’s municipal world the professionals are a big part of the problem. There are plenty of good people out there who could work well within the constraints above. If the people in your city staff don’t think that’s possible, then the city needs new staff.
Each one of these actions marks a dramatic departure from the norm for most places. In this blog post I’ve posted just the barest essence of each action, but there are volumes of work that explain these concepts in more detail, both from Strong Towns and around the world. In the coming weeks we’ll look at these more closely to elaborate on the more complex ideas, and to link to a lot of the existing work on these subjects. We’ll update this blog post with links to later posts on the subject as well, in case you want to bookmark this page.
For now, I invite you all to share your thoughts in the comments or on the Strong Towns Network.