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January 27, 2021  

Parking’s “Free Ride” Is a Financial Disaster for Cities

We’ve written a lot at Strong Towns about the problems with big box stores: the acres of valuable land they (and their parking lots) consume, the way the buildings are designed to be obsolete, the way they siphon money out of town rather than build wealth from within. Yet it’s hard to put all the blame on the Walmarts and Home Depots and Costcos of the world; they have figured out how to succeed under the rules that we—the towns and cities—have established. If we consistently get outcomes we don’t like, we need to change the rules of the game.

The same is true of parking. American cities are massively overbuilt on parking. This has both real costs and opportunity costs. Some of the blame might be put on a parking developer who turns otherwise valuable land into a surface parking lot, holding onto it like a land speculator until it can be sold for a big profit. But don’t we the residents deserve some of the responsibility too? After all, parking developers are thriving within the system we made...or at least allow to continue.

In a recent article, Joe Cortright of City Observatory described aspects of that system: “We have too much parking for many reasons: because we’ve subsidized highway construction and suburban homes, because we’ve mandated parking for most new residential and commercial buildings, and because we’ve decimated transit systems. But a key contributor to overparking is the strong financial incentives built into tax systems.” Cortright then detailed a proposed ordinance in Hartford, Connecticut that would begin to correct this. Expanding fees on private commercial parking lots and structures, the ordinance would, he said, mimic the important features of a land value tax. “Call it LVT-lite,” he wrote.

In this week’s episode of Upzoned, host Abby Kinney, an urban planner in Kansas City, and Chuck Marohn, the president of Strong Towns, discuss Joe Cortright’s article and how cities essentially subsidize parking. They talk about the land value tax, the way current tax systems incentivize parking and disincentivize improvements, and why all that parking is an anchor on our prosperity.

Then in the Downzone, Chuck talks about a course he’s been taking on the Black Death. And Abby talks about new adventures in cooking and making music.

Additional Show Notes:

January 20, 2021  

Public Housing and the Housing Crisis

In a recent op-ed for The New York Times, journalist and novelist Ross Barkan wrote about public housing and the housing crisis. An eviction crisis is looming, Barkan wrote, staved off only by an eviction moratorium. But that moratorium will eventually expire. “When it does, a crushing housing emergency could descend on America—as many as 40 million Americans will be in danger of eviction.”

Barkan goes on to say the federal government must play an important role in addressing the short-term crisis as well the underlying problems in the housing market. One “major step,” according to Barkan, would be to repeal "an obscure 22-year-old addition to the Housing Act of 1937, the Faircloth Amendment. Passed in an era when the reputation of housing projects was at a low, the amendment prohibits any net increase in public-housing units.” The repeal of Faircloth is a regular feature in progressive proposals, including the Green New Deal and other efforts by Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez.

In this week’s episode of Upzoned, host Abby Kinney, an urban planner in Kansas City, is joined by regular co-host Chuck Marohn, the founder and president of Strong Towns, as well as by Strong Towns senior editor Daniel Herriges. The three of them discuss the Faircloth Amendment and the role of the federal government in addressing the housing crisis. They talk about where a federal response could align with a Strong Towns response, the problems with supersized solutions, and to what extent repealing Faircloth will address the underlying dysfunctions in the housing market.

Then in the Downzone, Daniel says he’s finally reading E.F. Schumacher, Chuck talks about a course he’s starting on the plague, and Abby discusses a show she’s been binge-watching, a terrifying psychological thriller.

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January 13, 2021  

The Problem with Creating “Slow Streets” Too Fast

In the first few months of the pandemic, many towns and cities moved quickly to create “slow streets,” streets that restricted vehicle access in order to make room for socially distanced walking, biking, play, etc. While the thinking behind those adaptations may have been justified, the speed with which they were implemented often came at the expense of meaningful public engagement and buy-in from residents.

As Laura Bliss writes in a recent article for Bloomberg CityLab, slow streets have drawn “controversy, community resistance and comparisons with racist urban planning practices of earlier decades.” Bliss quotes Corinne Kisner, the executive director of the National Association of City Transportation Officials, who said, “I think there’s a tension between planners wanting to act fast, because their work is so critical to reduce fatalities and greenhouse gas emissions — the reasons for this work are so compelling and historic. But the urgency to move fast is in conflict with the speed of trust, and the pace that actually allows for input from everyone who’s affected by these decisions.”

This article is the topic of this week's episode of Upzoned -- our first episode of 2021 and our 100th episode overall -- with host Abby Kinney, an urban planner from Kansas City, and regular co-host Chuck Marohn, the founder and president of Strong Towns. Abby and Chuck discuss why improving how streets and public spaces are utilized isn’t worth much if you get the process wrong. (“Robert Moses tactics can’t achieve Jane Jacobs goals.”) They also contrast the one-size-fits-all solutions that create resentment with the benefits of iiterative, truly collaborative approaches.

Then in the Downzone, Chuck talks about finishing The Queen’s Gambit on Netflix and recommends a blockbuster new religion podcast by a hometown host. And Abby talks about why climbing is the best sport for understanding incrementalism. Oh, and also about skydiving, which prompted Chuck to recommend this video.

Additional Show Notes

December 16, 2020  

“Will Cities Survive 2020?”

Every week on the Upzoned podcast, host Abby Kinney, an urban planner in Kansas City, and regular co-host Chuck Marohn, the founder and president of Strong Towns, take one big story in the news and they “upzone” it—they look at it through a Strong Towns lens.

At the close of a year in which towns and cities were tested in profound ways by a global pandemic and social unrest, it seems fitting that the final episode of the year should be about an article called “Will Cities Survive 2020?” Writing in Reason magazine, Christian Britschgi says that COVID-19 has reignited age-old debates about land-use and public health:

The history of America's cities is, in a very real sense, the history of zoning regulations, which have long shaped real estate development, labor, and living arrangements. So it's no surprise that COVID-19, the biggest public health crisis in a century, which has occasioned an equally massive public health response, has already begun reshaping how people live in cities and how they are governed—rekindling old debates over urban density vs. suburban sprawl while raising new questions about the value of many land-use regulations.

In the article, Britschgi describes the ways in which public health crises shaped cities in the past. But, says Britschgi, zoning codes initially justified as a way to protect health "have now gone far beyond nuisance laws...and control of infectious disease. They instead incorporated planners' desires to scientifically manage cities, protect property values, and combat the moral corruption that supposedly came with high-density housing." The coronavirus pandemic is similarly placing immense pressure on cities, but it remains to be seen whether communities will be allowed (because of that constrictive zoning) “to grow, evolve, and adapt to new challenges.”

In this episode of Upzoned, Abby and Chuck discuss the Reason article and what effect 2020 will have on towns and cities going forward. They talk about why most cities are likely to survive, but probably not in their current form. They discuss why cities were so fragile in the first place, why disruptive change has become exponentially more common, and the surprising cities that can teach us about how to adapt creatively to a crisis.

Then in the Downzone, Chuck continues his Christmas tradition of baking while listening to novels, most recently The Sentinel, by Lee Child. And Abby is doing some holiday crafting of her own...with a to-scale, gingerbread version of her own home.

Additional Show Notes:

December 9, 2020  

For Teens, No Room in the Pandemic City

When you were a teenager, where did you go to hang out with friends? For many of us, the first places we think of are school (and school activities), the mall, arcades and movie theaters, parks, rec centers, restaurants, and coffee shops.

There’s a good chance that whatever came to mind for you just now isn’t currently available to teenagers. Only 35% of K-12 students are daily attending school in-person. Education has moved online and school activities are canceled. Many malls, arcades, restaurants, theaters, and rec centers are closed altogether, have strict occupancy limits, or are open by appointment only. The parks may be open but many towns and cities conspire against groups of teenagers lingering too long in parks, paranoid they are up to no good. It’s been said that cities are built with an “anti-teen bias.” As a result, communities that offered few options for teenagers before the pandemic have even fewer options today.

This is more than mere inconvenience for teens and their families, as Amy Crawford describes in a recent article in CityLab. “Eight months into the pandemic,” Crawford writes, “life under coronavirus restrictions has proven especially hard on teens, who, despite being at lower risk from the virus itself, have fewer opportunities to be with their peers than perhaps any other demographic.“ Crawford quotes Tamar Mendelson, director of the Center for Adolescent Health at Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health:

Isolation is a big issue for young people right now...Adolescence is a time of incredible growth and development. A big piece of that is developing more of a social identity, and that’s getting disrupted a lot during Covid. Young people are resilient, and they’re adept at technology, but it’s a hard adjustment.

Crawford’s article is the inspiration for this week’s episode of Upzoned, with host Abby Kinney, an urban planner in Kansas City, and regular co-host Chuck Marohn, the founder and president of Strong Towns. Abby and Chuck discuss the challenges facing teens in cities largely not built with them in mind, the impacts of social isolation on adolescents, and why we, as a culture, must not overlook the deep effect the pandemic is having on teenagers. This isn’t merely an academic discussion, as Chuck describes the sacrifices his own teenage children have been asked to make during the pandemic.

Then in the Downzone, Chuck talks about his annual ritual of listening to novels while baking Christmas cookies. And Abby recommends a book that was recommended to her by Joe Minicozzi of Urban3: Misbehaving: The Making of Behavioral Economics, by Richard Thaler.


Additional Show Notes

December 2, 2020  

Will Wyoming Have to Start “Abandoning” Its Small Towns?

A key figure in the mythology of the American West is that of the rugged individualist, the impressively self-reliant person, rarely needing help from anyone, least of all the federal government. The self-reliant ethos is a powerful one, not just at the level of the individual but at the level of the city. Yet the reality is that most towns and cities in the American West are reliant to a remarkable degree on state and federal governments, as well as on a few large (often extractive) global industries: coal, oil, natural gas, etc.

What happens when demand for those resources drops? What happens when the state or federal government runs out of money? Wyoming is finding out.

In an op-ed last month in the Casper Star-Tribune, Nate Martin, the executive director of Better Wyoming, wrote: “Faced with COVID-19 and the collapse of Wyoming’s coal industry, Republican Gov. Mark Gordon said recently that the state might have to start abandoning small towns because there’s not enough money to maintain their sewers and streets.” Wyoming has no income tax and some of the lowest property and sales taxes in the country. Martin makes the case that, to help cover its projected two-year, $1.5 billion budget shortfall, the state should increase tax revenue — perhaps by instituting an income tax or raising its other taxes.

This week on Upzoned, host Abby Kinney, an urban planner in Kansas City, and regular cohost Chuck Marohn, founder and president of Strong Towns, discuss Martin’s op-ed and the situation in Wyoming...and, really, throughout the West. Abby and Chuck talk about why saying Wyoming has a revenue problem doesn’t go deep enough in diagnosing the underlying issues there. They talk about the ways in which the extractive economies of many Western states are mimicked in extractive development patterns. They also discuss how towns and cities in Wyoming can begin to build local economies strong enough to weather the hard times. (Hint: It starts not with minerals in the ground, but with the people.)

Then in the Downzone, Chuck recommends the book 1493, by Charles C. Mann, and talks about finally signing up for Netflix. And Abby recommends a show on Netflix that Chuck can now watch, The Queen’s Gambit.


Additional Show Notes

November 25, 2020  

COVID-19 and the Boom in Multigenerational Housing

Among the most heartbreaking stories of 2020 are those coming out of assisted-living and independent-care facilities: stories of the virus spreading like a brush fire among vulnerable elders; stories of isolated seniors unable to receive loved ones as visitors for months at a time; or the recent story about the Minnesota National Guard being called in to serve at nursing homes because so many of the staff were sick. The pandemic should cause us to take a cold, hard look in the mirror at the way we have segmented our society — reminiscent of Euclidean zoning — by age, socioeconomic class, and other criteria. As our friend Gracy Olmstead wrote back in June:

Yet we often like to see the various parts of our world as separate entities: churches, nuclear families, schools, grocery stores, office buildings, hospitals, assisted living centers and nursing homes, apartments and townhouses all subsist in detached zones...We approach our world like a machine: divorcing ourselves from every other part, pulling apart the various strands in the tapestry.

Earlier this month, The Wall Street Journal ran an article about how the pandemic is giving the “multigenerational home business” a boost. While occupancy rates in assisted-living and independent-care facilities have seen their biggest drop ever, homebuilders say interest in accessory dwelling units has exploded. “Reluctant to send their elderly parents to senior-living facilities,” says the article, “some homeowners are building properties equipped to house extended family.”

This article, and the rise of multigenerational housing, are the topics on this week’s episode of Upzoned. Host Abby Kinney, an urban planner in Kansas City, and regular cohost Strong Towns president Chuck Marohn talk about how nursing homes and other senior living facilities have been hit hard by the pandemic. They discuss why it’s critical that cities give homeowners and builders the freedom to be flexible with housing, including the flexibility to add or include accessory dwelling units. (In fact, the longterm survival of the suburbs may hinge on this flexibility.) They also discuss why it’s not helpful that the Journal article seemed to frame multigenerational housing as novel and upscale.

Then in the Downzone, Chuck describes a work trip he took recently to Disney World and recommends a book by Strong Towns content manager John Pattison. And Abby talks about decorating for the holidays, including building a to-scale gingerbread replica of her house that we can’t wait to see pictures of.


Additional Show Notes:

November 18, 2020  

Winds of Change in Kansas City

This year, thanks to a grant from the Enid & Crosby Kemper Foundation and members like you, Strong Towns has taken an in-depth look at the growth of Kansas City, Missouri and the financial ramifications of its development pattern. The series was based on a detailed survey of Kansas City’s fiscal geography—its sources of tax revenue and its major expenses, its street network and historical development patterns—conducted by geoanalytics firm Urban3. The series comprises ten articles in all, as well as several related podcasts. Several articles have now been compiled into a new ebook, which was released today.

What makes Kansas City such a powerful case study is not that it is an outlier among North American cities. Quite the opposite. Kansas City may no longer have the most freeway miles per capita (they were recently edged out by Nashville), but it is still a powerful object lesson in how the suburban experiment—the conventional approach to building towns and cities since the 1950s—drains wealth, squanders precious financial resources, and makes our communities fragile. And yet, as our senior editor, Daniel Herriges, wrote in the series conclusion, Kansas City also has everything it needs to turn this ill-conceived experiment around.

But will it?

In this special episode of Upzoned, we’re turning the tables: Daniel is interviewing regular host Abby Kinney, an urban planner in Kansas City, as well as special guest Kevin Klinkenberg, an urban designer and the executive director of Midtown KC Now. The three of them discuss how COVID-19 has illuminated and intensified Kansas City’s budget woes, the city’s biggest near-term challenges, and why Kansas City must now take care of four times the infrastructure it had 70 years ago...with relatively the same number of people.

But they also talk about the winds of change blowing in Kansas City—including reasons to hope that a city once known as the “Paris of the Plains” is rediscovering the joys and virtues of the “chaotic but smart” approach to city-building. Yes, Kansas City has been the poster child for the suburban experiment. Yet it could also be a model for how North American cities can change course and start building strong and more financially resilient places again.

Then in the Downzone, Daniel talks about the work he and his wife are doing to convert their carport into a front porch perfect for mild Sarasota winters. Kevin recommends—as Chuck Marohn and Abby did before him—The Myth of Capitalism, coauthored by Denise Hearn, a recent guest on the Strong Towns podcast. And Abby recommends a recent article by Kevin Klinkenberg in The American Conservative, “After COVID, a Bright Future for American Cities.”

Additional Show Notes

November 11, 2020  

Local and Diverse > Networked and Global

The global pandemic has revealed just how fragile our global supply chains are. This is something we’ve talked about a lot at Strong Towns—see here, here, here, here, and here—but of course the disruptions aren’t only being experienced in the United States.

Damien Cave starts his excellent New York Times article, “What if Local and Diverse is Better than Networked and Global?,” at a farmers’ market in New South Wales, Australia. “We’ve just been shown how fragile and not resilient it all is,” Andrew Cameron, a cattle rancher selling grass-fed meat at the market, said of the broken supply chains. “Our resilience now comes from local producers.”

Cave’s article is actually a profile of Helena Norberg-Hodge, the founder of Local Futures and an important advocate for localism since the 1970s. Norberg-Hodge has seen firsthand how globalization is decimating more traditional cultures, as in the Indian village of Ladakh. Cave writes: “The path to ‘development’ for Ladakhis meant ending centuries of self-reliance, where they found everything they needed around them, except salt, which they traded for. It also meant accepting policies that favored choices they would not have made on their own.”

Cave boils down Norberg-Hodge’s ideas to two simple but profound concepts:

  1. Shorter distances are healthier than longer distances for commerce and human interaction...

  2. Diversification...is healthier than monoculture, which is what globalization tends to create, whether it’s bananas or mobile phones.

Her work has earned the respect of everyone from the Dalai Lama and chef Alice Waters, to the British comedian Russell Brand. Activist and bestselling author Bill McKibben had this to say:

She got the opportunity to see a different world, and she was smart enough to understand that she wasn’t looking at a relic, she was looking at a vision of a working future. And she has kept that vision close over many decades, helping all of us see that the metrics we’re used to—G.D.P., say—are not the only possibilities.

Localism, and Cave’s article in particular, are the topics on this week’s episode of Upzoned. They are timely subjects too, as host Abby Kinney and regular cohost Chuck Marohn were speaking just a few days after the presidential election...but before the results were fully known. Abby and Chuck discuss why the conventional Left-Right understanding of politics is so inadequate, and why we need another axis, one that runs the spectrum from centralized, top-down power to decentralized, bottom-up energy. They discuss the problems that arise when systems get too big and complex. And they talk about the principle of subsidiarity, which states that problems not only should be addressed—but must be addressed—as locally as possibly.

Then in the Downzone, Chuck discusses the challenging but rewarding experience of reading How to Be an Anti-Racist in conversation with others. And Abby recommends a recent article by Strong Towns senior editor Daniel Herriges, “We Don’t Live In a World of Cartoon Villains.”

Additional Show Notes

November 4, 2020  

Has the West Made a “Cult” of Home Ownership?

Earlier this year, The Economist ran a piece making the case that the West’s “obsession” with home ownership “undermines growth, fairness and public faith in capitalism.” The roots for this go back to a shift in public policy in the 1950s to encourage home ownership over renting. The benefits of home ownership, writes the author, are overblown. What’s more, the “cult of owner-occupation has huge costs. Those who own homes often become NIMBYs who resist development in an effort to protect their investments.”

This article is the topic of discussion on today’s episode of Upzoned, with host Abby Kinney, an urban planner in Kansas City, and regular cohost Chuck Marohn, the founder and president of Strong Towns. Abby and Chuck discuss whether there really is an infatuation with home ownership in the United States, and what effect that infatuation may be having on the housing crisis and economic inequality. They talk about the role of home ownership in giving residents a stake in creating wealth and stability. And they discuss why it’s important to resist oversimplifying the phenomena of housing unaffordability.

Then in the Downzone, Chuck talks about finally finishing Union, by Colin Woodard, a great book he started before his accident. And Abby recommends The Myth of Capitalism, co-authored by Denise Hearn, who was also a guest on Monday’s episode of the Strong Towns podcast.

Additional Show Notes

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