Strong Towns Helps Change the Planning Paradigm in Sacramento


Just ten short years ago, Strong Towns was a voice in the wilderness. I mean that both proverbially and literally—this organization originated as the blog of a disillusioned planner/civil engineer from Brainerd, Minnesota, a place known more for pine trees, loons, and log cabins than for cutting-edge thought about how to make America’s cities more financially sound.

Sacramento, CA. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

Now, not only do we have thousands of members and millions of readers each year, but we have also begun to change the conversation within City Halls both big and small. It’s not uncommon to hear the word “stroad” or the phrase “Growth Ponzi Scheme” uttered amid the cubicles of a planning department, including by many people who don’t know that we originated these terms. We’re fine with that—no need to be greedy about taking credit.

But I’ve got to admit, it does feel nice when we do get recognition, as we did last month from Steve Hansen, the vice mayor of Sacramento, California. Hansen gave our founder, Charles Marohn, a shout-out as the city announced its new Transit-Oriented Development (TOD) policy, which aims to foster more productive uses of the land surrounding the city’s light rail stations. Quoth Streetsblog (emphasis ours):

Hansen sees these changes as part of a larger effort to move away from the ’50s style suburban planning standards that have dominated the city’s planning for decades. “If we hadn’t embraced [new planning paradigms, like the ideas of] Donald Shoup, or Charles Marohn, we’d still be trying to make a failing model work,” he said. “There’s enough evidence to show that old model is not only a failure, but the likely cause of many of our problems. It has made it difficult to build housing, and redlined communities, and got rid of mixed-use buildings, all because of the bogeyman of traffic.”

A New Planning Paradigm

I’m so proud to hear Strong Towns’s ideas described as a “new planning paradigm,” because that’s exactly what we’re trying to offer. A Strong Towns paradigm recognizes, among other principles, the following:

  • Financial solvency is a prerequisite for long term prosperity. Cities need to be obsessive about “doing the math” and ensuring that they grow in a way that will generate sufficient wealth to maintain infrastructure and provide essential public services.

  • Land is the base resource from which community prosperity is built and sustained. The combination of expensive infrastructure serving low-value land uses is a recipe for fiscal disaster.

  • A transportation system is a means of creating prosperity in a community, not an end unto itself. The purpose of roads and transit should be to connect productive places to each other.

Sacramento Leaders Get It

Image Source: City of Sacramento. Click to view larger.

Sacramento’s staff and city council demonstrated that they understand that the city can’t afford to install and maintain expensive transit infrastructure and then fail to make productive use of that investment. Their new Transit-Oriented Development (TOD) ordinance does two main things:

  • Removes minimum parking requirements within a quarter-mile of light rail stops.

  • Prohibits some car-oriented uses, like drive-throughs and gas stations, within a quarter mile of light rail stops.

There’s more left to be done—for example, Sacramento still has parking minimums in much of the city. But these policies are a step in the right direction. They put the city on the path to greater financial resilience, by phasing out unproductive land uses in these transit corridors, as well as land uses—like gas stations and big parking lots—that deter people from actually using light rail by limiting who can walk to and from it.

These policies will help productive uses fill in those spaces, and ultimately allow more people to live, work, and shop near high-quality transit. They’ll put Sacramento on the path to reducing its dependence on cars. This ought to eventually have an impact outside of the TOD areas, by reducing the need for costly infrastructure that caters to cars and drivers—ample parking, wide streets—and making it possible for the city to evolve toward a walkable development pattern.

We’ve demonstrated time and again that traditional development is a huge money-saver—to the point that even a run-down, disinvested block built in a traditional walkable layout is worth more in tax value per acre (78% more in our classic “Taco John’s” case study) than a shiny and new car-oriented restaurant with parking and drive-through lanes.

Hansen demonstrates some real Strong Towns-style thinking when he says, as quoted by Streetsblog:

“I don’t know what you think came first, the chicken or the egg,” said Hansen, “but it’s hard to sustain BRT [Bus Rapid Transit] if you haven’t laid policy for housing infill. With our commercial corridors, we can get them to begin filling in, and then we can target them for BRT resources. It may not happen exactly simultaneously, but it would give us the opportunity to build [housing and transit] at the same time.”

Yes, yes, YES. Build a productive place first, and then you’ve got the resources for transit to follow. It all has to start with actually productive development, which generates the concentrated wealth to pay for itself over time. That’s the foundation of a strong town. And the more people in City Halls all over America saying things like this, the stronger we’ll be as a country.

(Cover photo: paulkimo9 via Flickr)