There are huge swaths of 1950s and 1960s suburbia that need a bit of TLC—and expensive, top-down “sprawl repair” isn’t going to be up to the task. What’s required is a more patient, grassroots approach. Urban planner John Yung has some ideas.
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We have been working on a project in my hometown called A Better Brainerd for most of this year. I've occasionally shared updates when they were relevant to this broader audience and today is example of that.
Last night there was a city council meeting here in my home town and the budget was discussed extenively. I wasn't there so I'm reactig to the press reports, but you'll get a sense here how one small town (13,500) has allowed debt and the aspiration for quick and easy growth to put it in a real bind.
Today in the Brainerd Daily Dispatch there was report of a very interesting exchange at last night's council meeting. It started with a logical question about the city's debt, a topic we've written about here before.
Matthew Seymour of Brainerd wanted to know more details on the city’s debt and how the city planned to handle the increased debt.
“This is a huge part of the budget and I’m more worried about the debt (than the increase in 2014 taxes),” said Seymour.
Us too. Debt makes us very fragile and while the state seems flush with cash for the moment, that huge percentage of our budget that relies on St. Paul's ongoing generosity should make all Brainerd residents and business owners nervous.
Here was the response.
[Brainerd finance director Connie] Hillman said part of the reason why the debt is higher is because the city has not sold all of its industrial park properties. Once the properties start to sell the city will make money, she said.
City Administrator Theresa Goble said the city also hasn’t received all the money through its Beaver Dam Road and Riverside Drive improvement projects. Goble said once more people are hooked up to city services that the money will come in.
Let's first examine this notion that the city is going to ever "make money" once these properties sell. How does anyone know? Seriously, nobody has ever done the math to see if these properties will generate more revenue over the long term than they create in costs for the city. This math has never been done. There is no target number for sale price, land valuation or fee revenue that has been done. We have no clue if we will ever make money because nobody has ever figured out what that would take.
When the city finance director says "make money" that really means "cash flow," which is a far, far cry from being financially solvent over the long term. Is the tax base of these properties going to be sufficient to cover the cost of maintaining and servicing them over the long term? Nobody knows, but there is good reason to believe that, even if the lots sell, it won't even be close.
And that "if" is a BIG if. The city used borrowed money to gamble on new growth in the industrial park. There are currently 21 lots sitting empty with infrastructure in place just waiting. "Shovel ready," as they say in the business. City taxpayers are covering that gambling debt until there is some cash flow revenue from the sale of those lots.
Empty developments with full utilities off of Beaver Dam Road. Even if they build out, the tax base will never be there to maintain all of this.The same thing has happened with the Beaver Dam Road and Riverside Drive expansions. We have acres and acres of vacant property where the city, again with the use of public debt, is the gambling partner on speculative development. I think city officials would argue that these looked like sound investments until the housing market downturn but, unfortunately, even if these developments had built out as hoped, there was no wealth to be had for the city. We're not doing the math.
These are bad decisions we can't undo and so it does us little good to rehash them unless we can use the experience to draw some lessons. Here are two.
First, we shouldn't be considering another multi-million dollar expansion of the sewer and water systems out to the airport, even if the bulk of the cost for the initial installation is going to be covered by state debt, not local debt. We've shown that we are not very good at gambling on future growth (the reality is that no city is -- some are just luckier than others). If we've learned anything, it should be to shun these so-called "transformative" investments.
Second, there are other alternatives to the big gambling project and we should be pursuing those vigorously. In October, we released a report called Neighborhoods First that showed how we can implement the city council's stated priority of neighborhood investment by using an incremental approach. We outlined eight low risk, high return projects in the Northeast neighborhood that the city can do today. We also offered to train the staff and city officials (at no cost to the city) on how to incorporate this approach into their annual capital improvements and budgeting process.
We need to be honest with ourselves and acknowledge that our approach is not working, that we aren't ever going to "make money" in our current approach. We need a new mindset, one that plays to the city's strengths. We can improve the lives and fortunes of our residents and business owners and create real wealth and prosperity within this community, but only when we stop gambling and start investing incrementally in our core neighborhoods.
Sick of being the tail end of someone else’s big project process? Want to get something done right now? By focusing on small, incremental neighborhood projects, you can not only make positive progress right now but you can directly benefit the constituents that elected you.
My personal approach to public engagement has changed dramatically over the years. Despite always wanting to help people and do the best job that I could, looking back I realize that the standard approach of the professions I worked in did not do justice to my neighbors.
Back in my early days as an engineer, I used the public engagement techniques common to the profession when required to as part of developing a project. I actually didn’t hate it as much as most of my colleagues did and so I was tapped a disproportionate amount to attend public hearings for environmental reviews, assessments and projects that were getting federal or state funding. The approach was generally the same.
I’d present three options – a massively expensive, over-engineered option, the comparatively “reasonable” option that was the preferred course of action and the disastrous no-build option which nobody really wanted. I’d listen to all the comments, the clerk would document them precisely, I’d give non-answer answers to any tough questions that were asked and then we’d close the hearing and move on to a council decision. It was all very tidy.
When I went to graduate school for a planning degree, I was introduced to the art of public participation. I now soothed my professional conscience (which hadn’t ached before, truth be told) by endeavoring to ask people what they thought before we went ahead and decided what we were going to do. This presented an interesting quandary for me as I sought to develop my own personal approach.
One of my fellow graduate students had extensively worked in public engagement. She was somewhat adamant that the role of the facilitator (the planner writ small) was to be a glorified stenographer, engaging all ideas equally, refraining from any professional judgment that might unduly influence the process.
I ultimately rejected this approach. I hadn’t stayed up late studying so that my professional insights would be downgraded below that of the local developer and the omnipresent know-it-all (who had never actually traveled outside of the county). Yes, I’d be respectful to everyone and give everyone an equal chance to weigh in, but I wasn’t going to be beyond asking questions, and keeping the floor open, until things went in a direction that made sense to me.
This worked for me during my early days as a planner, but over time I became aware that things weren’t working out. A lot of people who wanted to be involved in the future of their city weren’t part of the process. They couldn’t make the meeting, had family and other commitments that were more urgent or were simple reserved and didn’t want to be put in a position where they would need to speak in front of crowds. I started looking for strategies to reach these people.
There were a lot of novel ones, especially as it related to technology. I did one of the earliest wiki comp plans, allowing residents to sign up and then make edits to the document in real time. Lots of people signed up. Few made any changes. I knew it wasn’t because they all loved my draft document.
I really like See Click Fix, a great little program that allows residents to use their smartphone to identify things they would like to see happen in their community. There are some apps with eDemocracy and Code for America that are also really, really good and put a lot of capacity into the hands of the resident activist. But that still is not exactly reaching the average person.
We started the A Better Brainerd project with a neighborhood meeting. We had great turnout….from city officials, affiliated organizations and the litany of local activists (busy bodies) that seem to show up at everything (CYA). We had made a really aggressive effort to invite everyone in the neighborhood, going door to door to hand deliver invitations and talk to as many people as we could. A small, small handful actually showed up and I went out of my way to talk to them.
I’ve got a leaky roof and my landlord won’t do anything about it. I can’t get anyone to show up from the city.
My water heater went out and the cost of the permit is more than a replacement water heater. I don’t have the money for either.
My kids have to walk to school, but it’s dangerous. I’m nervous every time I send them out the door. I tell them to walk through the alleys and stay off the streets.
This was not the feedback one gets in a public hearing. Or a visioning process. This was the real, gritty, day-to-day concerns of my neighbors, and I was tone deaf to them.
And for the most part, so are our local governments.
I think there is a place for formal public engagement, but for neighborhoods in distress, there has to be a different process. I’m not pretending I know exactly what that is, but I’m absolutely convinced it means getting off the desk chair, getting out of the office, changing out of the tie and dress shirt and actually trying to walk a mile – quite literally – in someone else’s shoes.
For our Neighborhood’s First report, we spent a lot of time just taking note of how people lived in the neighborhood. Where did they walk? When did they walk? Where would they drive and park? How did they bike? What were the little things they would do – the streets they avoided or the shortcuts they would take – and why?
I took every opportunity I could to talk to people, not as inquisitor or authority figure but as neighbor. One night we were out taping down a temporary crosswalk. A neighbor got home from work and came out to see what we were doing. Through the course of the conversation, I found out that the lack of a crosswalk was not a big deal to them (they drive the block to the grocery store, which was safe to do albeit kind of silly) but that the security lights on the back of the strip mall across the street shined in their windows at night and kept them awake. I bought a light detector and measured it for myself. Yep, it was beyond what the city’s code allowed (and what a good neighbor would do). We’re going to approach that strip mall and see if we can get that taken care of.
That same night a single mom was walking to the grocery store and used our crosswalk. We talked to her too and asked her why she went to the grocery store so late at night. She told us she had to work and also that it was safer to walk then, that she needed to save her gas to get to work.
There are a lot of people out there that do public engagement that are shaking their heads at my naiveté. Of course you need to go and out and talk to people where they are. Do you really think they’re going to come to you?
For every one of you, there are dozens of professionals out there following one of the standard processes I used for the past two decades. They are missing the most important part of our communities: the people who live there.
We have a lot to learn yet at Strong Towns, but I’m proud of the fact that the projects outline in the Neighborhoods First report come from a deep and purposeful engagement with the people that live in the neighborhood. Any city can do this, it just takes a different mindset and a little bit effort.
And it’s critically important if we want to build strong towns.
By watching how our neighbors use the city, by asking them where their daily struggles are, by getting out on the street and opening our hearts and minds to what is actually going on, we can discern what the pressing needs are. These are our high return investments.
Today we are releasing Neighborhoods First, a report from our A Better Brainerd initiative. This is a revolutionary document that we’re going to be highlighting here all week.
Why is it revolutionary? Because it challenges – in fact it completely turns on its head – the current project development paradigm. Instead of developing projects in a top/down plan, and instead of giving lip service to public engagement, Neighborhoods First is based on an intensive effort to respond to how people in one neighborhood interact – or don’t -- with their city.
Neighborhoods First contains eight low cost, high return projects that directly respond to identified needs within one neighborhood. This is an approach that any local government in the country can successfully utilize, whether in one neighborhood or across an entire city, to create growth and investment on a small budget while simultaneously improving people’s lives.
We have three goals with this report. First, we want to demonstrate that the highest returning projects in any city are the small, incremental ones. Second, we want to show that the people in the community are the real experts on what is needed in their neighborhoods (we just have to go out and talk to them and take note of what they do). And third, that an incremental approach with a portfolio of small projects is a viable low risk, low cost alternative to the mega-project.
This week on the blog we’re going to highlight our methods, note the impacts of this report and share some specific excerpts as we detail our findings for you. Check back often but, in the meantime, download a copy of Neighborhoods First for yourself.
The strong towns future is within reach of every community that wants to put neighborhoods first.