Learning Governance from Design Humility


Ferguson uses its police to patch the budget
One of the biggest news stories of last week was the release of the Department of Justice report on the Ferguson Police Department, in the wake of the civil unrest following the death of Michael Brown at the hands of a Police Officer. At the time, Chuck took on the issue in ways both personal (from his service days) and professional--Ferguson is broke, a casualty of the suburban ponzi scheme, and plugging its fiscal holes with punitive fines and fees on its poorer citizens. Well, the DOJ report has thrust this often-over-looked point out into the spotlight (it was a theme of a couple different radio programs I heard last week). Right there on Page 2 of the report

The City budgets for sizeable increases in municipal fines and fees each year, exhorts police and court staff to deliver those revenue increases, and closely monitors whether those increases are achieved. City officials routinely urge Chief Jackson to generate more revenue through enforcement. In March 2010, for instance, the City Finance Director wrote to Chief Jackson that “unless ticket writing ramps up significantly before the end of the year, it will be hard to significantly raise collections next year. . . . Given that we are looking at a substantial sales tax shortfall, it’s not an insignificant issue.” Similarly, in March 2013, the Finance Director wrote to the City Manager: “Court fees are anticipated to rise about 7.5%. I did ask the Chief if he thought the PD could deliver 10% increase. He indicated they could try.” The importance of focusing on revenue generation is communicated to FPD officers. Ferguson police officers from all ranks told us that revenue generation is stressed heavily within the police department, and that the message comes from City leadership. The evidence we reviewed supports this perception.

Indeed, as you read deeper into the report, in 2010 Ferguson collected $1.38 million in fines and fees out of $11.07 in total revenue, or about 12.5%. And this number has increased rapidly over the last five years; in their 2015 Budget, the City of Ferguson expects to generate $3.09 million from fees and fines, out of $13.26 million in projected revenue, or over 23% of the total budget! Fees and fines extracted from the citizens have doubled over the past five years to patch over the collapsing budget. While there are many other troubling implications of Ferguson and other recent incidents around the country, I’ve found that this story can be an effective way of sharing the Strongtowns message with first-timers who haven’t yet considered why this town is so broke…

“Fix it first” making headlines in California DOT
Moving on to some more positive news, “fix it first” is gaining traction in California. (From the San Francisco Chronicle—it’s behind a pay wall, but Planetizen has a good summary)

"Ribbon-cutting ceremonies may be more exciting than routine maintenance, but it’s unwise to build something new without a commitment to maintain it," writes Kelly. "Fifteen years after building a new road, the pavement will have deteriorated 40 percent and begin to worsen exponentially in the next several years."

We must get smarter about where the money is spent. States, on average, spend about 55 percent of their transportation money on new construction... Building new infrastructure without funding for its upkeep is unsustainable.

This is an encouraging sign from DOT’s around the country. The next test will come when some DOT’s realize that they can’t even afford to maintain “the existing highway system.” Planned shrinkage, as in postindustrial cities, may be one of the toughest challenges on the road to building Strongtowns.


Public schools that look like refugee camps

Johnny, at Granola Shotgun, continues to ask provocative questions about our urban future. Last week, it was personal and systemic ways of looking at Gentrification in San Francisco that generated a lot of buzz when I shared them locally—resonating with the Boston quality/cost explosion. This week, he goes back to school and asks why so many schools are relying on portable classrooms that soon become quite permanent.

In a prosperous place where people obviously take great pride in their private homes and cars and clearly care enough to send their children to the best possible schools why is the public realm so miserable?..

It turns out that the portable classroom industry is now so well established that no other building type can compete on price or convenience. The glue boxes are the no-brainer choice.

Ultimately, the incentives we create, particularly about how we should invest in our physical capital, drive the wealth of our communities’ public places

When are Bakeries and Nuclear Power Plants treated the same?
In single residence zoning districts! Also at Planetizen, we’re treated to a book review of Zoned in the USA, a new book on land use regulation by a Bulgarian urban planner currently working in the US. Sonja Hirt takes advantage of her different background growing up with European land use regulations to highlight the hilarious miss-assumptions underlying the American way of zoning. A few grab quotes:

That's why, where single-family neighborhoods are concerned, bakeries are treated no differently from nuclear power plants.

The only people who truly benefit from segregation are homeowners and racists.

By contrast, German planners apply the "daily needs test," in which even residential zones are punctuated by "small-scale retail establishments and offices that meet the essential everyday needs of a local neighborhood (bakeries, cafes, doctors' offices)."

I’ve always thought that we have a lot more to learn from comparative approaches to urbanization, land use, and transportation. What gets in the way? Low rates of international travel? American exceptionalism? How can we expand the rate at which these ideas disseminate?

Design Humility
One of the major problems that I regularly encounter in my work as a planner and as a developer is people or groups looking to maximize for one variable. This is reinforced by our silo-ed professional class and the power of single issue politics to drive political coalitions. But at Where Do We Go From Here, Dave gives us some great personal stories on why seeking to maximize one good at a time (whether open space, or economic growth, or fire protection, or traffic flow, or youth sports) inevitably causes problems. When we are only looking at our little box--and giving it a value of essentially infinity—we don’t see the trade-offs that are being made elsewhere in the system to accommodate us. Sure this change will make the buildings 5% safer from fires, but twice as expensive (meaning less affordable housing). Is this a trade worth making? I don’t know… but it’s a rare day that we actually sit down and try to weigh the trade-offs.

…my concern is that too many of us, including me for awhile, failed to understand that a balance had been made and that it was a balance that had significant implications to the community.  Since I’ve had my moment of enlightenment, I’ve spoken with numerous people, including fellow commissioners, about the siting decision and the resulting traffic issues.   To a person, all have dismissed my comments, noting that youth sports trumps all. 

But we can’t think that way.  Because tomorrow, on some other issue, we’ll decide that traffic relief trumps all.  And maybe the next day, we’ll decide that affordable housing trumps all.  And eventually we work ourselves into a corner.  It’s a very suburban style of thinking, addressing each problem in a vacuum and ignoring the interrelationships that eventually govern the world.

Teaching Strongtowns
Lastly, I moonlight as a lecturer at a local architectural college teaching course on sustainable urbanism and development. I’ve been thinking a lot over the last year about how to incorporate Strongtowns thinking into my teaching. I’m now starting to imagine—what would a professional school of urbanism look like if it were structured around teaching a Strongtowns curriculum. In the comments thread below, please throw out your ideas for courses, workshops, models, seminars, studios, etc. that you would want to see in such a school.

Thanks and have a great week!

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