MEMBER NEWS DIGEST - THE LATEST AND GREATEST FROM OUR MEMBERS' BLOGS
Our members are an exceptionally smart and inquisitive bunch—but what really impresses me is that the conversations I hear among them are consistently focused on the bigger picture. Individual posts here might delve into the details of street engineering standards or the nuts and bolts of municipal finance. But our members and readers know that Strong Towns is really about building a movement that transcends mere policy wonkery. Our dream is a sea change in how we as a society think about building and preserving long-term value in our communities.
I'm glad I get to write the Monday News Digest every few weeks because I get to take a good look at what some of our brilliant, articulate supporters are talking about on their own blogs, and how they envision that change. Many are deeply passionate about their own communities, and more fundamentally about the idea of community.
Many Strong Towns members are in the thick of the effort to rebuild marginalized and neglected places as well as embrace thriving ones; they recognize what in their own cities and neighborhoods is "worth saving," and that it's not always what conventional wisdom or the mass media would tell you is so. Our members are working to strengthen grassroots activism and local institutions; to combat destructive misconceptions about cities and development; to shine a spotlight on the local consequences of destructive policies, and how a lack of appropriate feedback often reinforces those policies. And they're writing about it. Every one of this week's spotlighted posts, and blogs in general, is worth a read.
At Rational Urbanism, Steven Shultis of Springfield, MA observes what many of us intuitively suspect to be true: reporting on crime in the news media is high (perhaps at an all-time high) while actual crime in most cities is as low as it's been in decades. In his post "Analyze This", he speculates as to the reasons for this trend:
We all know that dwindling resources have destroyed print media. What needs to be studied is how those dwindling resources have altered what is covered. It is pretty clear that limits to resources have made the news which is cheapest and easiest to cover “the most important” in the same way education now only consists of that which can easily be measured by a standardized exam. Having a reporter sit by the police scanner waiting for a crime to occur in a city of 150,000 people is a pretty sure, and inexpensive, bet. Add to that a “shot spotter” system which identifies and locates gunfire which in the past would have never been reported and what you have is media coverage about cities which is more and more and more about crime at a time when crime has done almost nothing but go down for years and years and years.
This mismatch might be worthy of no more than an eyeroll if it weren't for the real damage it does to the many older, "worth saving" parts of our cities that mainstream political and financial institutions are all too eager to write off. How many parents of young children might love to live in an urban, walkable neighborhood but opt for a car-dependent suburb out of a misguided fear of crime? How many retiring baby boomers? How much investment is scared away from places that could sorely use it? And, crucially, from places with the "bones" of a Strong Town already there—high potential for productive use relative to public infrastructure, historic charm and character, and walkable streets already well-suited for placemaking without requiring an expensive redesign?
Last month I bought an old fixer-upper for $15,000 in Cincinnati…. I want to relate a conversation I had with a contractor this morning. He’s an older man who lives in the distant suburbs and has very definite opinions about the city. He spoke to me in a kindly grandfather voice. “Do you understand where this house is? Do you know what kind of people live there?” He used some colorful language which I won’t repeat. Let’s just say he’s a white guy of a particular generation from the South… He advised me to take the money I’m about to spend renovating the house and use it to buy a nice big new home on a good sized piece of land across the river in Kentucky instead.
If this were 1980, or 1990, or 2000 this man’s recommendation would have been entirely valid from an economic perspective. Inner city neighborhoods all over the country were hemorrhaging population, jobs, and revenue for decades. It would have been a disastrous investment. But times have changed. Not everyone has noticed.
We're cheerleaders for small-scale developers revitalizing underappreciated places. If you love a place and have the means to put your money where your mouth is, go for it. Crucially, Johnny understands the need to be part of the community's rebirth, not just an absentee owner/investor. That's why this story from Jason Deem at NextSTL is so troubling:
On May 22 of 2005 I was in final negotiations to purchase… a gorgeous 100,000+ sf building just north of downtown St. Louis. Built in the late 1800’s, the building was well preserved with original historic architectural detail both inside and out…. Finally the seller called and said, we’re sorry but we just received another offer for over twice as much and although we wanted to sell it to you, we can’t pass up the other offer.
The building sold, then sat vacant. A project that would have moved forward, sat motionless. Fifteen months later the building burned to the ground, turning the complex into another vacant lot.
I found out a few years later, thanks to the work of Michael Allen (Preservation Research Office), that the buyer with the higher offer was Paul McKee, who was assembling land for what would come to be known as NorthSide. As we now know, this was not an isolated incident. It’s one of many that make up a pattern of systematic destruction (AKA “Land Assemblage”).
Politicians and McKee proponents told us that the north side was a wasteland and that the only solution was to start over. I didn’t believe it then and I don’t believe it now. The north side was already beginning to see grassroots regeneration on it’s own before that momentum was halted by McKee. In addition to the damage done to properties he acquired, there’s been considerable collateral damage to quality of life and property values of adjacent properties…. It’s clear that McKee only ever valued the land. Not the buildings, people, history, or culture of the north side.
Aside from any specifics pertaining to this property or developer, one need only look at history to see the broader lesson here. What is the track record of mega-projects, funded by massive amounts of capital, in producing robust, sustainable growth? Nearly every U.S. city—and not the least of them St. Louis—is littered with the fallout of 1950s and 1960s urban renewal schemes. Meanwhile, what is the track record of small-scale entrepreneurs, embedded in the community themselves, looking to turn things around one building at a time? No one project may be spectacular, but the net effect is arguably much more promising—and much more resilient to disruptions.
It is this dynamic—mistrust of the fragility of large, debt-financed development imposed on a community from outside—that motivates many of us who support the Strong Towns movement to want to change how things are done. At the same time, many of us are urbanists and DO want to see growth, greater land-use intensities, more mixed-use and walkability in our communities, which puts us at odds with many of the traditional anti-development forces in our cities (often neighborhood associations with a penchant for opposing any and all change).
About the same time, I was chatting with a local citizens’ advocacy group. They had their teeth into an issue that was of interest to me. I didn’t expect that the group and I would have the same congruency of interests on every subject, but our overall goals were largely aligned and making common cause on this particular issue seemed reasonable.
But then I got wind that some in the group were hesitant to work with me because I was known to consort with developers.
So, within just a few days, I had a developer cast a dubious eye at me because I was too community-centric and a community group cast a similarly dubious eye at me because I was too developer-centric.
I too have the experience of living in a city (Sarasota, FL) in which local politics tend to pigeonhole you as "pro-development" or "anti-development" and there is little allowance for nuance—and little sophisticated discussion of what factors might make a particular development good or bad for the city. How do we change the framing of the conversation to get away from this false choice?
Another theme in member blogs this week was that of policy feedback mechanisms. A lot of destructive urban policy persists because of perverse incentives: the destructive consequences are not felt by the policy makers. What changes should we advocate that will put communities in control of their destiny and in a position to course-correct when they're on the wrong path?
In his blog Holy Mountain, Bruce Nesmith in Cedar Rapids, IA makes a case for regional governance:
Cedar Rapids can do a lot on its own, and its plans in Envision CR to move to complete streets and transect-based zoning will be hugely positive steps. But only a regional government could enact an urban growth boundary, no poaching, and revenue sharing such that Cedar Rapids's loss is not Hiawatha's gain. Until we get a handle on these issues as a metropolis, and stop playing games of beggar-thy-neighbor, critical issues will defy solution.
MyParkingSign describes Oregon's institution of a tax on VMT (vehicle miles traveled) in a (still very imperfect) effort to ensure the costs of transportation infrastructure are borne by the users of that infrastructure.
Ron Beitler in Lower Macungie, PA assails a taxation system that subsidizes, and incentivizes, the most low-returning forms of development:
So basically, a residential homeowner is paying 6X the tax liability per square ft vs. a warehouse. This is insane…. It is a totally broken and backwards system where the highest liability land uses pay the least amount in taxes apples to apples in relation to the impacts they create. Road wear and tear. Stormwater run-off. Public responsibility to maintain infrastructure. Muni services.
Dave Alden examines local taxation at the other end of Beitler's home state, in a Pittsburgh suburb, and compares it to the dysfunctional situation created in California by the infamous Proposition 13.
But it's important to remember that it's not all politics. Transition Tales offers us this week's concluding thoughts, on the importance of fostering community in our lives:
My spouse is naturally gregarious, always the one who will strike up a conversation with a seat mate at the theater or on public transportation while my head is buried in a program or book, or worse, checking my smart phone. But I’m determined to break these habits. So at last Sunday’s Farmers Market, while he was getting us coffee, I sat down at a picnic table next to a someone I didn’t know. Because we smiled at each other, I took the plunge and asked his opinion about the various breakfast vendors, and he was delighted to make some recommendations. That opening was enough to spark a conversation of about 30 minutes, as my spouse arrived with the coffee and the two men quickly bonded as fellow New Yorkers from different boroughs. By the time we had covered some family and work history — he was a subway driver for the #7 line — I realized that we were on the same page about some hot topics: the disappearance of the middle class and the sorry state of education, with some ideas on how to address both. When was the last time that happened to you? As we shook hands, exchanged names, and went our separate ways, I felt the afterglow of having made a human connection at what has become another shopping opportunity, albeit with better vegetables and sometimes decent live music. Much as I enjoy social media, it doesn’t do it for me. The art of conversation — let’s bring it back.
A strong town is a lot more than the streets and the buildings—it's about community. No matter whether you're a veteran of local political skirmishes or have never been to a city government meeting, there are many ways you can be a Strong Citizen—get out there and do something small. Start a conversation.