Upzoned

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September 20, 2019  

Our Cities’ Housing Crises are Getting Worse. Is it Time to Offer a Cash Prize to Anyone Who Can Solve Them?

For generations, think tanks and policy analysts and departments of housing and more have all been working hard to solve one seemingly intractable problem: how to get more affordable housing in places that don’t have enough of it. And while dogmatists think they have the answer—build more units! rent control! inclusionary zoning! social housing! increase wages!–some days, it seems like we haven’t cracked the code in even a single American city, much less found a silver bullet to fix them all.

That’s why one Utah homebuilder is taking a different approach: skipping the pros and asking the public for their best ideas to put more roofs over more heads. And the authors of the very best concepts don’t just get the warm glow you feel when you’ve solved a devastating national crisis: they also get a share of a $200,000 prize pool—whether they’re a housing non-profit or just an average Strong Citizen with a great concept.

Okay: $200,000 isn’t a lot of money relative to the staggering scale of our housing woes, and a contest likely funded by a company’s marketing department isn’t likely to change the trajectory of cities across North America. But for Upzoned hosts Kea and Chuck, this story raised a few questions that we think any city should be asking themselves.

If conventional approaches to fixing our housing problems aren’t working, should our cities be funding innovation contests of their own? How do cash prizes incentivize imagination for fresh civic solutions in ways that traditional salaries, peer review processes and benchmark reports can’t? Is the very concept of a contest to “fix housing” flawed, because addressing many of our cities’ most urgent housing needs might look more like meeting transportation needs, or employment needs, or other interconnected problems in our complex human ecosystems? And why aren’t cities willing to step outside the box to consider contests in general—besides the tired old fear of getting sued?

Then in the Downzone, Chuck and Kea have two very different reading recommendation’s: ever-sunny Chuck suggests a Brief History of Doom: Two Hundred Years of Financial Crises, and Kea, whose fictional tastes usually run to the dark and bizarre, recommends a wonderful (if slightly out-of-character) heartwarming summer pick: The Lager Queen of Minnesota.

September 13, 2019  

How America’s Highway Funding System is Like Extreme Makeover: Home Edition (and No, That’s Not A Good Thing)

Admit it: you’ve seen them. Those cheesy reality shows where the producers find a desperate family who can’t seem to catch a break, and over the course of 21 hyper-produced minutes, give them the gift of a lifetime: a fully renovated, free-and-clear mansion to live out their days in comfort and style. You might have even gotten a little misty as you watched these families open the front door and discover their blinged-out new living room. After all, who doesn’t like to see good people get something great once in a while? Who wouldn’t want a beautiful house designed just for them—and with a paid-off mortgage, to boot?

The only problem? Often, those families don’t stay in their dream houses for all that long. They get overwhelmed by the increased tax bill, and the maintenance costs, and all the extra utilities it takes to heat and cool their huge new castle. They simply can’t afford their big, free house—because even if there’s no loan to pay back, homeownership can still be a serious liability.

This month, the federal government announced that they were giving states a giant, shiny prize of their own: more than $4 billion dollars in re-allocated highway funding, doled out to Departments of Transportation via formula like some algorithmic Oprah taping luxury sweater capes underneath her audiences’ seats. The DOT’s, understandably, were thrilled, and most Americans probably would be too—after all, who wouldn’t want their state, and all the good people who live in it, to get some great new infrastructure for nothing?

The only problem, of course, is one Strong Towns advocates are all too familiar with: even the greatest gift in the world can become a curse if you don’t have a way to maintain it. And in many of our communities, the last generation’s bonanza of highway funding has already left them feeling like a reality show contestant with a big, gorgeous home that they can’t afford to fix, and no one wants to buy.

Today on Upzoned, host Kea Wilson and semi-regular guest-host John Reuter talk about what states should do differently if they want to avoid what happens after the cameras go home and the free-money party is over. Should we just say “no” to big buckets of federal cash? Is there a better way we should let our cities and states spend those dollars, rather than endless lane-widenings and new highway miles? And most importantly, how can more of our infrastructure become high-returning assets for our communities, rather than crushing future liabilities in disguise as present-day windfalls?

Then in the Downzone, John and Kea talk about how they’ve been spending the last days of summer: reading sci-fi novels about a near-future Berlin where generosity has been turned into a pharmaceutical product, and wandering dog parks with cute puppies, wondering about what they mean about our communities (including one much-publicized DC dog park dust-up).

Top photo via Creative Commons.

September 6, 2019  

Prototyping the City

We hear it all the time, maybe especially during election cycles: "Our cities should be run like businesses." But then we place expectations on our civic leaders that we would never expect from the companies we most trust. For example, the expectation that our cities should go "all-in" on major projects applied everywhere and without deference to neighborhood context.

The most innovative and successful companies iterate. They release beta versions. They run cheap experiments to see if something is working and resonating with customers. They prototype and measure feedback and take what they've learned to make better products and services.

But many community leaders are often fearful to take a similar approach using pilot projects. They are fearful because the pilot projects might fail, fearful because they might succeed, fearful because of the complaints they know they'll get from constituents about risking public funds or the inequality of running a pilot project in one place instead of everywhere.

Today on Upzoned, hosts Chuck Marohn and Kea Wilson look at the much-maligned "pilot project." Inspired by an article in Governing magazine, Chuck and Kea talk about why city staff are often afraid of the pilot project and the role of the public in contributing to those fears. They discuss how pilot projects can actually contribute to a more equitable society, and how they can even bring together people on both sides of the conservative-progressive spectrum. They also discuss how pilot projects resonate with the four steps of iteratively building a strong city.

Then on the Downzone, Chuck talks about a great book he recently re-read, and Kea recommends a theatre troupe that may be taking a “Strong Towns approach” to live performance.

August 30, 2019  

What the Left Gets Wrong About Public Transportation

If you live in an American city, chances are, you’ve got a bone or two to pick with your local public transportation network. Whether you’re sweating it out in a stalled subway car or waiting in the rain for a bus that never seems to come when it’s supposed to, it seems like there’s hardly a major metro out there that’s meeting all of its citizens’ community transit needs. And if you tend to view the world through a social justice lens, the picture looks even more grim: inconvenience aside, a broken public transportation system is a total disaster for the working poor, for whom a late light rail can mean the difference between making it to work on time and putting food on the table for your family.

So it’s probably not a surprise that for many segments of the American left, increasing transit funding is a top priority—and any opposition or skepticism must be quashed if we want our cities (and our neighbors) to thrive. In a recent episode of Hasan Minhaj’s Netflix-based news and politics show, The Patriot Act, the comedian took that threat seriously, delving into the dark money forces working to shape our transit debate (hint: rhymes with “Woke Mothers”) and the policy roadblocks that stop direly-needed transit funding from reaching our cities. With our most vulnerable neighbors’ health, wealth and social mobility on the line, Minhaj argues, it’s crucial that we cut through the noise of all the anti-transit arguments out there, stop calling everything a boondoggle, and just build more transit—and do it, like, yesterday.

Here’s the thing, though: replace the word "transit” with “auto infrastructure,” and replace “the Koch Brothers” with ”[insert ominous liberal dark money group du jour]”, and all of those arguments could be put in the mouths of the political right. Seriously: check out this ridiculous video from the conservative Prager U if you don’t believe us.

Today on Upzoned, hosts Chuck and Kea explore why the loudest voices on both the left and the right get it wrong when it comes to public transportation. And along the way, they tell you how to spot the real transit boondoggles (yes, they exist, even if they’re not as numerous as their road-project boondoggle counterparts), why making our cities easier for all our neighbors to get around might mean not funding that mega-project train (or that mega-highway project, ahem), and what it will really take to build a transportation network that makes our cities financially stronger, not weaker (hint: it has to do with our buildings, not our streets or our subway tunnels.)

Then in the Downzone, Chuck tells us what he read on vacation (no surprise, it’s geeky), and Kea talks about a book-to-film adaptation that she loved just as much as the original.

August 23, 2019  

How Do You Solve a Problem Like North St. Louis? Stop Erasing It, for One.

Ask the mayor of any financially-beleaguered midwestern city about the one thing their city could really use to get back on track, and they’ll likely tell you some version of the same thing: a big investment from a big job creator, right in their downtown core. And if they could have two things, they might add this: a little money to clear some of the derelict buildings that have been blighting those same downtown neighborhoods, and create a space for even more investment.

St. Louis, MO, just got both of those wishes granted—and by the same fairy godmother. Tech giant Square had committed to create a massive tax-incentive-funded expansion campus in the center of the Gateway City, and co-founder Jack Dorsey’s private partnership, the St. Louis Blight Authority, has committing to $500,000 demolishing 18 vacant structures in the immediate vicinity, in addition to 12 buildings slated for demolition by the city itself.

If you’re screaming “What?! Didn’t St. Louis already do this during the era of Pruitt Igoe?” at your screen right now, you’re not alone. And today, we’re bringing in a guest for a very special in-depth episode of Upzoned.

Architectural historian, preservationist and essayist Michael Allen recently wrote a viral article for CityLab that dives deep into the complex story behind the new square headquarters, and he continued the conversation with fellow St. Louisan and Upzoned host Kea. Why is St. Louis making the same big tax-incentive gambles in the name of growth that they’ve been doing for generations? How did the North side get so fragile in the first place? And how can the city use policy and creative thinking to turn vacant buildings into homes for St. Louisans who want to be able to buy, instead of knocking them down?

August 16, 2019  

Meet the Pro Sports Stadium That Won’t Make Your City Go Broke

If you’re a Strong Towns advocate who lives in a North American city with a professional sports team, chances are that team’s stadium isn’t exactly your favorite local development—even if you’re the loudest one cheering on game days. That’s because in too many of our places, stadiums have become synonymous with silver-bullet thinking in our city governments, and that means hefty tax incentives, dubious job creation claims, and humongous, urban-fabric-destroying parking lots. There’s increasing evidence that no recent stadium project has delivered the promised return on investment in a major North American city—and that’s before franchise owners pack up their teams for a whole new city and leave their expensive city-owned mega-arena to sit empty (cough cough *St. Louis Rams* cough).

But that might be about to change. And it’s all starting in an unexpected place: Halifax, Nova Scotia.

Today on Upzoned, we bring you the story of the Halifax Wanderers Football Club (that’s rest-of-the-world football, not US football), and what the franchise owners did when it was time to give their team a new home. Instead of cratering their downtown for an underground parking garage and pouring hundreds of millions of dollars into the ground in the form of flashy, quickly-outdated amenities, the Wanderers built their Grounds with a much more humble plan in mind. They started with simple shipping containers to delineate the border of the stadium, removable bleachers offering just 6,000 seats, and a city price tag of exactly $0. (Well, the city helps cut the grass—a privilege for which the team pays rent.) The result? Tickets are selling out every game, and with their proof of concept delivered, the team is thinking of adding more, and maybe making a few other elements of their quasi-temporary stadium permanent.

We heard about this project from a great article in the Toronto Star, and were delighted to learn that the author of the piece was… Strong Towns member Tristan Cleveland! So we asked him to join host Kea for an in-depth talk on how other cities can learn from the Halifax’s inspiring new stadium, as well as what Strong Towns means for Canadians, how Tristan’s day job at the incredible Happy City organization, and much more.

Then in the Downzone, we talk about our recent reads: The Honest Truth about Dishonesty by Dan Ariely, which delivers some surprising insights on how lying impacts our built environments, and Samuel Johnson’s Eternal Return by Martin Riker, which decidedly doesn’t, but is still a really great novel about what a father will do to be with his son, even after death.

Side note: we apologize that the audio on this podcast is a little less awesome than usual! We had to record on Skype, rather than our usual platform; we choose to blame the Canadian internet.

Additionally, we apologize to the Tampa Bay Rays, whom Kea mis-identified as the team ridiculous enough to put exotic fish aquariums in the backs of their bleacher seats. That would be the Marlins, and it was actually their home plate backstop. Anyway, go Rays.

August 9, 2019  

What Burning Man Can Teach You About Making Your City Financially Stronger (Yes, Really)

Depending on your age, your proclivity for aviation goggles and fur boots as casual fashion accessories, and how much you like techno, there’s a good chance you’ve at least heard of Burning Man. And whether your first reaction to those two words is “Wooooo! Burn the man!!!!” or “Isn’t that just a bunch of half-naked hippies setting fires somewhere in the desert?”, you should keep reading—especially if you care about your city’s financial health.

Though Burning Man is broadly known as a nine day festival of music/art/people-fire-dancing-in-weird-steampunk-costumes, many true Burners actually think of it as a grand experiment in community design. Every year, attendees participate in the imagining and creation of Black Rock City, the momentary metropolis in the Black Rock desert that is the backdrop to everything that happens at Burning Man—and to some extent, the creation of BRC is the event itself. Every aspect of the temporary town is subject to rigorous planning in the year leading up to the event, with architects working tirelessly to figure out how they can improve on previous years’ designs. And of course, placemaking doesn’t stop once the whimsical building-sculptures get nailed together; Burners spend the whole week-plus making their ephemeral community truly their own, no permits required.

But hold up: can a city that stands for just nine days really teach anything to actual towns where people live 365 days a year?

That’s the subject of a recent article from Governing, and that’s the subject of this week’s Upzoned. That’s right: certified millennials Kea and guest host Jacob Moses are diving into the wild world of Burning Man, and showing you why even the most buttoned-up towns might learn a thing or two from the kind of people who hang out in the Nevada sun and fashion tallbikes into giant moving dragon sculptures.

How can we inspire average citizens to not only engage in the creation of their own neighborhoods, but to approach it with the kind of joy and creativity that you usually only see on lost weekends at weirdo-happy desert festivals? How can temporary, tactical solutions add enduring value to your place? Are there risks to over-emphasizing the whimsical and the fleeting when your city really needs change that lasts—or do we need a dose of the magical more than we need big, expensive, asphalt-and-steel commitments? Find out, and then let us know in the comments if you’d consider bringing a little of Black Rock City to your place.

August 2, 2019  
July 26, 2019  

A Left-Wing Wrench and a Right-Wing Hammer

At Strong Towns, we’re proud to be building a movement that brings together people from across political divides to make their cities more financially resilient. But we also know that we’re kind of… well, we’re a weird bunch.

Look: we know that when you look beyond the computer screen (or when your Strong Towns local conversation meet up winds down for the night), most of us find ourselves in a world that very rarely allows people of different political beliefs to work together peaceably, even when our values are fundamentally the same. The harshest tones of our partisan political debates threaten to seep into everything, even when the conversation turns to the most seemingly politically neutral topics in city building.

Want to see your city make some serious street design changes to #SlowTheCars? Don’t mention it around your ultra-conservative aunt; she might start a fight about the “nanny state.” Want to see your town build a strong, feedback-responsive affordable housing market instead of plunking down another Pruitt Igoe-style public housing tower? Be careful about posting that on Facebook; your capital-L Liberal uncle will call you out for wanting to deprive the public assistance that your poorest neighbors need right now.

It’s all enough to make you want to pick a team, move somewhere where everyone agrees with you, and live out your life in unchallenged peace. But in a recent column for the New York Times, Thomas L. Friedman argues that we don’t just need to think outside the political boxes we put ourselves in. We need to recognize that those boxes are toolboxes—and if we’re smart, we’ll start borrowing tools from our neighbors a whole lot more.

On this episode of Upzoned, Kea Wilson and John Reuter dig into what it really means to work across partisan lines to build a Strong Town, from what it takes for a politically diverse council to bring rural broadband to an Idaho town to using liberal- and conservative-coded strategies to fix Seattle’s housing crisis. Then in the Downzone, they talk over the (very different) things they’re doing to beat the summer heat: eating artisan frozen desserts (John) and…reading depressing-yet-wonderful novels about Mennonite women (Kea).

July 19, 2019  

Is Strong Towns Anti-Smart City?

Hang around Strong Towns long enough, and you’ll start to notice something about the way we talk about Smart City technology:

We don’t… really do it much.

And for many of our readers, that can be a little confusing. Because everything Strong Towns advocates for could be accomplished so much more easily with a little automation, right? If we want to make our cities safer for pedestrians, wouldn’t autonomous vehicles and pedestrian-sensing crosswalks really help? Couldn’t we tackle our city’s infrastructure challenges more effectively if our internet-enabled roadway told us, like magic, when the asphalt needed re-paving? We say we want a city that’s planned from the bottom up, with the real needs of citizens at the center of every decision we make about our built environment—but don’t we know that there’s already an app for that? (Or, more accurately, dozens of apps for that?)

We’re not anti-technology here at Strong Towns. But we are students of history—and we’re definitely skeptical that our cities, which simply can’t fail, should bet the future of their built environment on the kind of fad tech that comes and goes faster than you can say “Tamagotchi.”

And we’re not alone. In a recent New York Times opinion piece, Toronto engineer Dr. Shoshanna Saxe makes the compelling case for “dumb” cities—and cautions against her profession’s growing obsession with flashy digital solutions. And this week on Upzoned, another engineer weighs in on the debate: our own Chuck Marohn.

When does embracing the latest trend in placemaking make your community stronger, and when does it make your city fragile? How can any new innovation take hold if we’re afraid to take a technological leap now and then? And is there a way to use Strong Towns’s incremental approach specifically to develop and implement new cutting-edge solutions in our places?

Then in the Downzone, Chuck and Kea talk about a movie they both saw and loved: the Beatles tribute/sci-fi-romantic-comedy, Yesterday.