Various posts on Strong Towns members' blogs this week seemed to touch on a common set of questions: Where are our priorities? For whom, or in whose interest, are our cities built and managed? The urban form of a place, the way it grows (or doesn't), the way it accommodates pedestrians and other non-drivers (or doesn't): these things are not just the product of the smooth functioning of the market's invisible hand. They are influenced by political decisions and deeply ingrained assumptions about what cities should look like. And building a nation of Strong Towns will mean recognizing the destructive choices, often made with the best of intentions, that perpetuate a deeply dysfunctional status quo.


Dave Alden at North Bay Design Kit tackles a massive question: Is sprawl truly dying? Should we believe the hype that we're on the cusp of a radical transition in the way American cities develop? Even if so, it's certainly not going to be a smooth transition, nor will it happen at the same pace everywhere. Alden discusses a brand new, completely car-dependent subdivision outside Las Vegas, in light of a piece in The Atlantic that asks why many developers still seem solely interested in building this kind of sprawl. Is the answer simple short-sightedness and resistance to change? Alden thinks it's all about perverse economic incentives:

If chocolate ice cream and vanilla ice cream had the same price, there might be a fifty-fifty split between those who would choose one and those who would choose the other.  But if chocolate was suddenly three times more expensive, then the split would move sharply in favor of vanilla.  Heck, I’m frugal enough that I’d be one of those making the switch.

It’s the way markets work and they should be celebrated for the way they create wealth while balancing supply and demand.

But when we get to land use, we subvert the signals.  We don’t tax gasoline to account for the environmental or geopolitical costs, so effectively subsidize driving to remote subdivisions.  We charge a flat rate property tax instead of putting higher taxes on folks who need more roads for their daily life.

We then assume that that the split between suburban and urban sales reflects a true lifestyle preference, when all it’s really doing is bouncing back rational financial responses to distorted economic incentives.

Are your city's leaders gardeners or hunters? Our good friend Ron Beitler from Lower Macungie, Pennsylvania offers a concise encapsulation of what's wrong with the economic development strategy pursued by many (most?) American cities. The highly quotable distinction he makes between two approaches to economic development is key to the Strong Towns approach to building incremental, sustainable wealth:

Economic Gardening is the opposite of Economic Hunting. Economic gardening is an entrepreneurial based approach to economic development that seeks to grow the local economy from within. Its premise is that local entrepreneurs create the companies that bring new wealth and economic growth to a region in the form of jobs, increased revenues, and a vibrant local business sector.
Oftentimes politicians prefer the hunting approach. With the hunt/poach approach comes large projects, ribbon cuttings, inflated job forecasts, etc. Nice things you can put on campaign lit. But oftentimes these projects over the long term are contingent upon subsidies, abatement programs, special treatment, long term obligations and major government intervention akin to an escalating arms race.

The issue is the downsides to the hunt are substantial vs. the rewards. Economic gardening is a much more resilient approach where benefits play out over the long term. 

An economic gardening approach nurtures small local businesses from the ground up. When it bears fruit, it can look like this.

An economic gardening approach nurtures small local businesses from the ground up. When it bears fruit, it can look like this.

In Cedar Rapids, Iowa, Bruce Nesmith advocates for a 24-hour downtown for Cedar Rapids: a place to live, work, and play. Nesmith says the devastation from extensive 2008 flooding left a lot of need for rebuilding, and that this could be a window of opportunity for the city to proactively shape downtown's future, by seeking out and partnering with developers who share a new vision for what the city can become.

Secondly, can the city find developers willing to buy into the vision? A city's plans are at the mercy of the market forces of supply (by house developers and builders) and demand (by homebuyers), and for suppliers profit margins remain highest for large lot subdivisions on the edge of town. I'm sure there are developers salivating at the positive externalities they presume will come from the construction of the Highway 100 extension. Cities that want to promote sustainable, walkable urbanity often need to reach out to specific developers who share that inclination.


Granola Shotgun gave us two posts this week on gentrification and decline in California, two issues that are more inseparable from each other than we might like to think. First, there's exurban decline, as epitomized by the plight of Lancaster, California. Those displaced from the San Franciscos and Los Angeleses of the world have to go somewhere. Increasingly, the affordable places they're being displaced to are places like Lancaster: auto-centric exurbs that are struggling to accommodate their rapidly changing demographics, in no small part due to their sprawling physical form.  On the flip side of the coin, we get some stories that put a human face on the hyper-gentrification and displacement occurring in San Francisco. Solutions are maddeningly elusive here. But there's no question that the latest flood of new money into San Francisco has resulted in a city that many longtime residents feel is failing them, or no longer holds a place for them.

Elsewhere in our member blogroll, Urban3's Joshua McCarty examines growth patterns in Buffalo, noting that its surrounding suburban sprawl has continued to expand in area even while the region's population has been steady or declining. Patrick Kennedy in Dallas shares a traffic engineer's presentation about how conventional street grids may handle high volumes of traffic better than urban freeways.


Today in misplaced priorities: In Chicago, Ryan Richter makes the so-obvious-it's-somehow-profound argument that "if you plan cities for cars and traffic you will get cars and traffic. If you plan for people and places, you will get people and places." In Atlanta, Sally Flocks gives us yet another (all too typical) look at how metro Atlanta's infrastructure, by design, completely ignores the needs of pedestrians:

Finally, in Sarasota, Florida, Cathy Antunes takes a look at the incoherence of local economic development policy, and the too-frequent gap between a government's stated priorities and its actions. Sarasota County hosts sustainability conferences, and elected officials like to talk a good talk about supporting organic agriculture and local food. But then they turn around and offer incentives to developers to convert agricultural land to housing at the far suburban fringe of the city:

When the County Commission approved over 9,000 new houses east of Interstate-75 along Clark Road last year, they released the landowners from a requirement to purchase Transferred Development Rights for their rural lands. The 9,000-unit housing approval increased the number of potential dwellings by 5,500-6,300 units, at a time when potential housing supply exceeds 10 year demand by 600-800 percent. County staff did not support suspending the required developer TDR purchase. Simply put, there was no public need for the huge increase in potential housing. The Clark Road developers claimed the required TDR purchase was “too expensive.”

Yes, TDRs are expensive. And that’s the point. If a rural project isn’t able to absorb the cost of TDRs, the market is signaling that the project isn’t needed. Releasing the Clark Road developers from purchasing TDRs conferred value upon the landowners, failed to protect the value of existing homes and neighborhoods, and diminished other options like organic farming. Where is the concern among County Commissioners that taxpayer-funded infrastructure for surplus housing is “too expensive”?

Arguably the most troubling part of this TDR exemption is this little bit right here:

            … at a time when potential housing supply exceeds 10 year demand by 600-800 percent….

Yes, Sarasota County has vastly more than enough room for infill in already developed areas. And yet developers want to build on agricultural land, and the County seems more than happy to make it easier for them to do so.

As always, the priorities of our elected officials reveal themselves not in what they say, but in what they do.

You can check out the entire member blogroll on the Strong Towns member site. If you're a member with a blog and would like your work to show up there, please let us know about it.